The Book is a Product, and other Christmastime Cheer

POSTED ON Dec 26, 2009

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Writing > The Book is a Product, and other Christmastime Cheer

Insect book

Click to enlarge (iPhone)

On the day before Christmas I headed over to the nearest bookstore for a couple of gifts. The nearest bookstore happens to be a Border’s, although it wasn’t always so. When we moved to San Rafael there were at least 4 bookstores downtown, maybe 9 altogether, which always seemed like a lot of bookstores for a city of 50,000.

But that was before, when bookstores were just another small business populating America’s Main Streets. Now it was off to joust in the narrow lanes of the mammoth parking lot ringing the bookstore, one end of a massive building that also houses a Toys R Us.

Of all the chain stores I patronize—too many—bookstores have the best workers. I’ve met many informed, experienced and knowledgeable people in Borders, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere, when I’ve come to expect the exact opposite from most chain stores and big box retailers.

A Random Bookstore Test

My errand was to find a book about spiders, good sized pictures, not overdone. The helpful salesperson showed me the location in the reference section. I asked about kids’ books, and we headed over there.

Soon I was spread out on the floor with 5 books about spiders or insects. I felt like a judge on a reality show called “Pick the Book,” carefully weighing my choices. I thought the sheer size of Borders with its huge inventory of books had really paid off for me. I made my selection, headed back to put the losers on the shelf. In the process I saw the Smithsonian Handbooks Insects on the shelf, with the subtitle “Spiders and other Terrestrial Arthropods.”

A quick glance told me this book was better than all the others. It had superb illustrations, just the right amount of text, beautiful pages with tasteful typography and non-intrusive colors. Ouch. $20.00 was the most expensive of all the books I’d looked at, but by this time I was gone, seduced by the sheer quality of the book.

Mother of all Bookstore Lines?

Happy with my two purchases I headed for the register line stretching away from the six registers. Through the magazine section, past Cookbooks, through Reference, and snaking halfway through Literature. Camaraderie soon developed with other waiters, as we wondered if Borders tracked sales increases for the items lining the waiting path.

On a sale rack I noticed by chance another insect book. I didn’t actually have to step out of the line to reach it, so I took a look. It was the Smithsonian Handbooks Insects. I looked at the book in my other hand. Same title. Same author. The original had a Dorling Kindersly logo on it, this one did not, and was a plain paperback. The earlier DK edition had an oversized, stiffened cover.

One other difference: the one on the sale rack was $5.99, and a quick examination showed they had identical interiors, just different covers. Now I had the book I wanted at $5.99, and the publisher had haphazardly lost a full-retail sale.

A Couple of Lessons Emerge

  1. I realized the large investment the publisher had in developing the content, the illustrations, the layouts and other artwork, made it worthwhile to keep “refreshing” the book, and probably the whole line of Smithsonian Handbooks. The information is timeless, the presentation superb. Even self-publishers can “refresh” their titles, adding a new cover or updated resource material. The book is a product and the longer the product’s lifespan, the more likely it is to pay off your investment.
  2. One of the great things about “traditional” publishers is their ability to pump out books like this, with outstanding content, lavish production values, and heavy-duty marketing partners. Clearly, these types of books are outside the range of self-publishers, or even micropublishers.
  3. You can overcome a buyer’s resistance to a high price by producing simply the best book on your topic, and make it clearly superior to the competition.
  4. If you go to the biggest bookstore within 20 miles on the day before Christmas, nobody will listen to you whine about how long you had to wait in line.
  5. The helpful people at the counter can indeed scan your 30% discount code right off your iPhone.

I hope you’re enjoying the holidays, and that you received everything that really matters to you on Christmas. Thanks for reading

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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