image Eons ago Crown Books—the retailer, not the publishing group and imprint—made a splash with its slogan, “Books costs too much.” Crown is out of business now. A warning for discounters, among stores or publishers? Not necessarily.

First, Crown may well have survived if it hadn’t been for a family feud between a Harvard MBA son and his crazy father, some nasty fallout from the latter’s divorce. Second, I happen to think that price is a major source of resistance for buyers, who have so many alternatives to new books, including used p-books, which pay writers $0 in royalties.

image The best price, of course, is free—one reason I favor a well-stocked national digital library system, with proper compensation for writers and publishers. Not that this should be the only biz model. I want the private sector to thrive, and I was pleased to see Why we need $4 books, a wise essay in the Huffington Post from none other than Mark Coker (photo), founder of Smashwords and a TeleRead contribuor:

I’ll reproduce an excerpt from Mark, then quote a different perspective from another of our valued contributors, Michael Cairns, the former president of Bowker:

The day has come for publishers to offer a $4.00 book.

Most books are too expensive. Compared to lower cost alternative media sources, books are becoming niche consumables like caviar.

The high cost of books jeopardizes not only the future of books, but the future of the book publishing industry.

Unless authors, publishers and booksellers cooperate to bring down the cost of books, book publishing faces a painful decline, much as we’re now witnessing with newspaper and magazine publishing.

Here in the U.S., most consumers already think twice before shelling out $7.50, $15.00 or $30.00 for a good read. If a book at the current prices represents a big purchase for citizens of the world’s most affluent economy, imagine the cost burden for the vast majority of the world’s literate people.

I’m not saying $4 should be the price of every book; for example, how about highly specialized works whose readers would buy them at just about any price? But Mark’s big point, that e-books cost too much, resonates with me. And now—Michael’s viewpoint:

For some reason books seem hold a special spot when it comes to pricing theory – you don’t seem to hear too many people telling Mercedes they should lower their car prices to a $1,000. It is very easy to suggest that books cost too much but there’s little evidence that demand is elastic. I’m all for lower prices but there are only so many readers – to expand the readership requires publishing content they want not lowering the prices on the same stuff that is churned out by today’s publishing companies. If we want to increase demand it is the product that should be addressed not simply the pricing. If a $4.00 book is still as crappy as a $35 book the reader is still not coming back; building reader loyalty through the delivery of products they embrace and aren’t disappointed by is what will support growth. Pricing is an element but it is not at all the panacea.

But Michael, what if people don’t want the frills, just the basic text?

Image: CC-licensed photo from none other than Rochelle Hartman, the librarian of Tinfoil and Raccoon fame, who has contributed to TeleRead.