Readers respond to "Why Do Books Cost So Much?" and "The Decline and Fall of the American Empire."

By Salon Staff
Published December 6, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

[Read "Why Do Books Cost So Much?"]

It seems a good point that getting more people to read is the best way to increase book sales, since those who already read have a finite amount of time in which to do so. But the bottom line for me is, books don't cost so much. Think what we pay for movies. $10 in New York, at least $7.50 anywhere else, for two hours or less of entertainment that you can't take home with you or pass on to someone else. $75 for a Broadway show, $50 for a concert or sporting event. A book, if it's good, can give 10 times that much enjoyment time, and when we're done we can keep it to reread later, or give it to a friend, or sell it at a used-book store and recoup some of our money. $25 seems quite reasonable, if you think about the cost of entertainment and culture across the board.

-- Max Ludington

"... in the end, there's always the library"? How about a little bit more ringing of an endorsement? America's libraries are working harder than ever to attract patrons, and efforts to that end include purchasing or leasing more and more copies of new fiction and bestsellers. In my days as a public librarian I was more than happy to special- and speed-order books for my patrons if they only asked. Unfortunately, most of the liberal, artsy faction of my Philadelphia neighborhood never visited their local branch despite my pleas. They went to Borders instead.

Here's an idea -- instead of complaining about the high price of books for recreational reading, get a public library card and use it. Ask the librarian to order specific titles for you, or help you to get them through interlibrary loan. Join the Friends group and help guide the direction of your local library. And once a year, why not donate the sum you would have shelled out for one or two of those overblown cover stickers?

-- Rachel Fleming May

Reading today's article about the rising cost of books, and comparing the price of books to the price of other forms of entertainment and education, drew my attention to the low monetary value our society places on literary achievement. Nothing in our world is free, as the column points out, but there seems to be a social perception that books ought to be.

Consider a $15, 250-page trade paperback. This book provides about five hours of entertainment or education or both. An evening movie costs at least $7.50 in most cities, and provides 2 hours of entertainment. College classes at a community college tend to run about $100 per credit, which works out to about $7 per hour of lecturing. Financially speaking, the book is a better deal -- especially considering that it can be kept indefinitely, reread and shared with others at no additional charge.

So why are people happy to shell out $7.50 to see a movie, or $40,000 to put their kids through college, yet complain about the price of books? Sure, there are articles about the rising cost of college tuition, but most don't suggest that the offending industry is in danger of losing its market as this article intimates. Do we value books so little that we think -- despite the hard work we know goes into writing and publishing them -- they should be cheaper than other diversions? Do we consider the work of writers and editors without value? Or are we incapable of seeing what benefits an unassuming novel might have over a flashy, much-hyped new-release movie?

-- Erica Saltzman

Christopher Dreher's rant, "Why Do Books Cost So Much?" made absolutely no sense at all. Who, besides Mr. Dreher, is actually complaining about book prices? As an avid reader I find today's book world to be in great shape with much more availability and convenience than ever before. When I read or hear about an interesting book (something that I also find to be easier and better now), all I have to do is sit down at a computer at home or work and spend a couple of minutes to locate and buy it. As the saying goes, time is money, and today's readers spend less of it when looking for a good book than ever before. That, combined with the selection and availability of product being offered today, more than offsets the ravages of inflation, which even Mr. Dreher admits is the real reason for book prices being higher now than in the past. Comparing 1960s book prices to today's? Get real.

With sales competition at its highest, nobody pays that list price anyway, and used books have never been easier to find or cheaper. Oh yes, there is also this place called a library, and they're improved, too. The reader's world has never been better.

-- Susan Gula

Why buy books at all? Why not just go to the library? I get to read every new book I want to, just for being a taxpayer. How many people reread books they own anyway, and if they do reread books, then what percentage of them? I would bet it's low. I don't know why one would buy books that aren't known favorites or gifts.

Yes, I know the library has to pay the higher prices, too, so I do donate about the price of a new hardcover to them each year.

I just don't understand the need to buy every book one reads. I think it has more to do with identity -- being seen carrying the book around -- than with the need to read. Hence the surge in trade paperbacks -- they look better tucked under the arm than their mass-market counterparts. And certainly better than a plastic covered book with "Metropolis Public Library" stamped on it.

Makes no sense to me, I just like to read.

-- Sarah Wagner

I just have a couple of comments regarding Mr. Dreher's otherwise excellent article.

It's certainly my experience that many people feel book prices have gotten too high. But this isn't just a judgement of high price but also value; many of the books just don't seem "worth it." Most of the books on the shelf just seem dull and lifeless, the fiction and nonfiction both. Few look like anything you'd want to have on your shelf and look at ever again. Many books are published with very little thought in the process, and the result shows.

The rapid rise of paperback prices has been a problem for some time now. In the '50s, you could buy 10 paperbacks for the price of one hardcover. Today that number is more like three or four. In the early '90s, the distribution system for mass-market books collapsed -- the small local distributors were forced to consolidate to serve national outlets like Safeway and Wal-Mart. Drugstores and supermarkets reduced the number of titles carried, eliminating non-bestsellers. Slots and print runs were drastically reduced. This led directly to the rise of the trade paperback, which were preferred by regular bookstores.

Trade book publishers have also been slow to adopt modern production methods that could save them a lot of money. For example, I'd guess they could cut typesetting costs in half by bringing that function in-house. Then they could adopt an all-electronic workflow for the manuscript (as many nontrade publishers have already done), which would increase efficiency.

-- Bryan Cholfin

I don't mind books costing money. Despite the fact that my younger brother works at the local library, I still buy most of my books. I can even cope with hardcovers costing an arm and a leg. Most of the ones I have were well worth it.

The problem, in my mind, is the paperbacks. $7 seems to be the average price I've seen lately, and what do you get for that? The bindings are almost always shoddy, the paper goes yellow very quickly, and in general the thing is often worthless a few readings later.

The publishing industry can claim that the prices are necessary, but the least they can do is provide some quality. And I agree with the article -- the practice of returns needs to go.

-- Susan Tussing

I am appalled that the public library merits only a brief mention, practically an afterthought, in your article on the skyrocketing cost of books. In today's dismal economic climate, the public library offers an absolutely unbeatable deal for wallets stretched thin. Free books! What a concept! I know the book-hoarding crowd will protest that they absolutely must own a copy of every single book they read, but let's be honest -- how many of those $30 books do we ever open again, after we've read them? A familiar saying among friends of public libraries reminds us that "Libraries will get you through times with no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries." Support your local library, and save yourself the $30.

-- Katie Bell Moore

I for one must say that I approve of the high prices of books, as they keep the peasants from learning too much. Perhaps, given enough time, they will abandon this inexplicable desire to become literate altogether. It's not as if they need to read in order to do their jobs at the glue factory anyway. "Cut hoof, boil hoof. Cut hoof, boil hoof." How difficult is that?

That reminds me. Boy! My feet require washing! Fetch the Armagnac and get to it postehaste else you find yourself with even more unsightly lumps on that brainless noggin of yours! Are you even listening to me? What am I enslaving you for?

Lazy peasants.

-- Aaron Batty

[Read "The Decline and Fall of the American Empire."]

I read Suzy Hansen's interview of Charles A. Kupchan with interest. However, Kupchan's premise that Europe is overshadowing America seems overwrought and underthought. Hansen should have asked more hardball questions.

The U.S. may be in decline, but if this is true it has little to do with Europe. We are doing a fair job of "empire dismantling" on our own (electing intellectually challenged, visionless leaders; presiding over a rotting educational system; refusing to break our addiction to fossil fuels; doing nothing to halt a nauseating obsession with violence, etc., etc.).

As for Europe, I don't think Kupchan did his homework. Most of the E.U.'s linchpin countries are shrinking in population and influence; it's to the point where some experts are questioning if there will be any Italians or French at all at some point in the future. Only Germany's educational system seems to be in a more precipitous decline than our own. Western Europe's flaccid economies and spoiled workforces are legendary (here's where one doesn't dare downplay China). And the gray flannel machinery of Brussels built on the French bureaucratic model makes Washington look like a crisply run company. Even if E.U. countries were politically and culturally cohesive, they're far from rising stars.

As for the euro, one need look no further than Denmark, Britain and Sweden to see beyond the facade of economic union. The Union is likely to survive and gain poorer members, but not necessarily flourish. If anyone ends up like Argentina it's more likely to be the E.U. with a vaguely familiar stew of nationalities that the continent supplied to create the artificial and deeply dysfunctional countries of South America.

There is no United States of Europe in the geopolitical sense, nor is it likely that there ever will be. All one has to do to is get from behind the intellectual's desk and talk to real people living in E.U. countries to get a truer take on the cultural and political disunion still in evidence. A New York Times Magazine reporter did a good job of that recently. He asked several men and women on the street if they thought of themselves as "Europeans." Several respondents practically laughed in his face. One Italian man said the people of his town don't even like nor care about the people in the next village let alone the next country. The other point not to be missed here is that most of the people he interviewed probably relayed their stories in English.

-- Douglas Branstetter

This is in reference to the interview with the author of "The Decline and Fall of the American Empire." To put simply, we have seen this argument before, that the American empire is doomed. Yale history professor Paul Kennedy declared us dead in a speech I heard (in relation to his book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers") and that Japan would soon be taking over from us. Well, I am glad to say that he was quite wrong as Japan is facing the worse economic meltdown in 60 years.

A better question than can the United States stand up to the E.U. is can the E.U. keep itself together?

As for economic powerhouses, John Chancellor of NBC once pointed out that NAFTA, no matter what one thinks of it politically, dwarfs the EU.

Europe will always be a competitor. Why does the author think that is something new? They have been ever since the 1770s. It's called capitalism. The Europeans themselves still compete with each other.

Put simply, the author is using history incorrectly and really needs to do his homework.

-- Gordon Calhoun

A fascinating dialogue but I'd like to take exception on one point. While understanding the meaning of what Mr. Kupchan explained as Europe "growing up," becoming more independent, his context, even viewpoint, completely fails to notice that America still hasn't grown up. Europe has experienced over 1,000 years of recorded history. At some basic level one has to appreciate the lessons this history can teach. Americans, on the other hand, have only 226 years of history, give or take a few prior to the official tag given to 1776. I'd say that America is the one growing up -- from the (rambunctious) adolescent to young adult. As teenagers we all thought we had/have all the answers. As young adults we begin bouts of self-reflection. That's exactly where America stands. Europe it seems has been the patient adult all along.

-- M. Plaisant

With its aging, shrinking population, Europe hardly has the demographic makings of a future contender. Their political consolidation is proceeding apace but the surrender of national power to the trans-European government in Brussels may be reaching its high-water mark. The initiatives promoted by Brussels seem to an American like myself to be largely self-serving and aimed at undercutting American dominance rather than supporting planetary goals of environmental preservation and international stability. For example, Kyoto serves a noble and necessary goal, but its tactical governance provisions make it unacceptable and unworkable.

As Bush has so rightly pointed out, for the Europeans to block American initiatives in international arenas (like the U.N.) only weakens those institutions. Is it really realistic for France to use its Security Council vote to be able to veto the American policing of Iraq? International institutions come and they go. Lack of American participation was one of several reasons why the League of Nations no longer exists. The same could happen to the U.N. if it no longer reflects the power relationships of the real world.

-- Joseph Somsel

Ms. Hansen's article on Europe's future dominance of the United States due to its integration mistakenly takes for granted the guaranteed economic success of the E.U. and the euro. Already Brussels has forced numerous costly and prohibitive regulations upon its supplicant member nations and their businesses, along with a large helping of agricultural subsidies for the select few. The growth of the power of the E.U. could very well lead to a giant and inefficient bureaucracy who answers to no one. Germany, the largest economy, has performed poorly over the last decade and is beginning to draw comparisons to Japan. Berlin has spent well over $100 billion rebuilding the East, and still it lags far behind the West and drags down the economy. In the near future the E.U. will be admitting a number of countries in far worse shape than East Germany, and, for political reasons, will most likely have to let them into their monetary union long before they are fiscally ready. And let's not forget the headache Turkey may cause them in a decade or so as well. The United States may well triumph far into the future if the E.U. winds up as a poorly structured and wasteful imitation of it.

-- Daniel Gagliardi

Perhaps I am misreading Suzy Hansen's interview with Charles Kupchan, but there seems an implication that the decline of the American empire is a "bad" thing. Hardly. The relative decline of the U.S. is both good and desirable, in many ways. Yes, it will lead to a more uncertain world, but it will also create new possibilities. It will lead to new centers of power that the U.S. will have to learn to accommodate. The events of the past few years -- but particularly since Sept. 11 -- have demonstrated that the U.S. is an irresponsible and dangerously unsophisticated hegemonic power. It needs to be balanced and constrained and its influence -- particularly in the Middle East -- needs to be offset by other actors. In the most optimistic scenario, the decline of the U.S. may create a greater impetus for the world to create and maintain effective institutions. But the current situation -- as demonstrated by American sabotage of Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, the Middle East peace process, and many other examples -- is untenable.

-- Shaun Narine

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