On skinflint readers and irate authors
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, March 6, 1999)

There was a multi-millionaire I knew slightly, a great figure in his industry but a spectacular cheapskate when it came to buying books. For many years he relied on a friend, who edited a book page, to give him review copies. He would write down titles that caught his eye and have his list ready when he phoned. This fellow donated considerable sums to charity and gave famous parties. No one called him a miser. But he believed, all his life, that he shouldn't pay for books. Dead now, he symbolizes for me the perverse belief of many that hardcover books cost too much and only fools buy them.

Please note that I am not criticizing readers on low incomes. I refer only to the affluent, whom we can define in culturally specific terms: an affluent Canadian is a Globe and Mail reader who has never once gasped over the price at the end of a Joanne Kates restaurant review.

Publishing is a troubled business, and everyone thinks stodgy, old-fashioned publishers are the cause. No one hesitates to slander them. A recent article in New York magazine said: "In terms of imagining new ways for money to be made...book publishers rank up there with the government, even the Russian government." That's a calumny: publishers have to be inventive and shrewd just to survive, and brilliant as well if they're to make a profit. The real trouble with publishing is the skinflint reader who doesn't know the value of books and won't pay for them.

Robertson Davies once described an infuriating scene that occurred often in his life. At a public event, an exquisitely dressed woman would smugly declare herself one of his great admirers and announce, "I've put my name down for your new book at the library." Davies was supposed to be flattered. Instead, he seethed. He knew he was looking at one more reader who could easily afford books but declined to buy them. Rich Cohen, the author of Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams, recently wrote in the New York Times about promoting his book in Miami, where "the libraries are full of those who laugh at sticker prices." One man noted the $24.50 price tag on Cohen's book and said, "You I like, but not that much."

Yet books are cheap. Jack Rabinovitch, who created the Giller Award for Canadian fiction, likes to say, "Most books cost less than dinner at a good restaurant. Eat in and buy some good literature." Excellent advice, but too seldom accepted.

At this point a sceptical reader may suggest that I, a chronic book reviewer, am in no position to preach. I admit to receiving free books, but I buy at least as many. Usually I buy for permanence, but not always. Sometimes, before a plane trip, I splurge on a hardcover thriller, say a Robert B. Parker. My family and friends include four or five Parker fans, who will read it in turn, making it in the end cheaper than a movie.

In 1948, when I was 16, my uncle and aunt in New York bought me The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden, published by Random House. They paid top dollar, $3.75. It still sits on my shelf, now one among 20 or so Auden books. I've looked into it at least once in each of the last 50 years, and usually several times. How do you amortize that expenditure? Assuming my aunt and uncle wanted to enhance their family's possessions, was there anything in the world on which they could have better spent their money?

An aversion to buying hardcover books is based on the belief that they are expensive luxury items, and the reasons for that belief are largely subconscious. Our early lives teach us that books are free, like city parks. We get free books in public school, and the nearly free use of books in public libraries (which, it should go without saying, are among the necessities of civilization). When something is free that often, it somehow seems outlandish to pay $35 for it.

Perhaps someday an advertising genius will change the well-to-do public's mind on this point. That would open up a world of fresh possibilities for publishers and authors. At the moment, it remains unlikely. An author friend of mine plays tennis with several affluent people, who enjoy her books--and always read public-library copies. They like to encourage her. "At the library there's a long waiting list for your book," one of them told her recently. My friend smiled sweetly.

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