A New Order, Hardcover Prices, and the Analog Experience in a Digital Age

I was originally just going to do a quick post on a book acquisition, but as I was thinking about the experience, the post began to evolve into something more, and then it morphed again. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll take this one subject at a time and hopefully it will be fairly coherent.

Recently I decided to pick up the last book I needed in the Malazan the Fallen series by Steven Erikson, The Crippled God. I now have the complete series in hardcover, including the Ian C. Esslemont companion books, though I do not have the prequels or other ancillary novels. I thought The Crippled God would be the easiest book for me to find from the main series, since it was the most recently published, in 2011. I remember the buzz back in 2011 among those who were waiting for this book release to wrap up the series. But in my search for this book, what I had expected to find, and what I actually found, were two completely different things.

Throughout my experiences in acquiring the Malazan books, both from Erikson and Esslemont, I found it incredibly difficult to obtain a hardcover book for a reasonable price that was not a library copy, marked up, or missing the dust jacket, while buying from a trusted seller. I used to be able to go to Powell’s Books in Portland to find used hardcovers, but they now mostly stock new releases in hardcover, and seem to rarely have the older hardcovers I’m looking for. Most of the other used bookstores in my area are gone, and those that remain primarily stock paperbacks. So I had turned to Amazon and eBay to try to acquire the books. I discovered that in most cases, books could be found, but it was likely to cost me dearly.

For example, look at this list of hardcovers available for The Crippled God on Amazon:

the crippled god

As you can see, a new hardcover of this book starts at $123, so it was imperative that I find an affordable, used copy. When following the link to the used copies, of which there are 10, the following information is presented:

crippled god list

There’s a few things to note here. Ideally I look for “Used – Very Good” condition. Why is that? Check out Amazon’s definition of “Used – Good”:

All pages and cover are intact (including the dust cover, if applicable). Spine may show signs of wear. Pages may include limited notes and highlighting. May include “From the library of” labels. Shrink wrap, dust covers, or boxed set case may be missing. Item may be missing bundled media.

I put emphasis on parts of this description because they are pretty important to me. Has the book been written on or had text highlighted? Does it have labels, a library stamp, or even a library checkout sleeve inside the front cover? Does it have the dust cover? In their descriptions, some sellers describe wear, markings and highlighting; others say that wear and markings/highlighting “may” exist (that’s not very helpful), and some sellers do not provide a good description at all. None state that the dust jacket is included, so it is impossible to know if you will receive one or not. Price is also a factor, with the two cheapest copies selling for around $30. A “used – very  good” condition starts at $50 (when including shipping and tax) to over $120 (the two most expensive copies wouldn’t fit in the screen capture). That’s a tough cost to swallow considering that the original list price was $29, and as established above for “used – good”, the quality of what you get is going to be a crapshoot. The final important factor is the rating of each seller. The first seller has the best rating at 93%, but that’s not great. Most sellers here fall between 91% and 88%. I generally don’t trust any sellers with a rating below 97%.

In the end I took a chance on a copy from eBay for a total of $17 and received a beautiful book, with very little wear, no markings, and the dust cover intact. eBay can be just as nebulous as Amazon, with lackluster descriptions, and in some cases the seller doesn’t even list whether the book is a paperback or hardcover! In this case I got lucky, as the next cheapest hardcover copy on eBay is $26 from a high volume seller with lots of negative feedback. After that the prices go much higher.

Here’s a couple other examples of costly Malazan hardcover acquisitions featuring Esslemont titles. Return of the Crimson Guard had a list price of $28 on release. Now if you want a new hardcover, prepare to pay over $162 plus tax. Last year there was one listed for almost $4000 (it has since been removed).

rotcg

For a “Used – Very Good” copy, the price begins at $60 and goes up from there.

rotcg list

One final example comes from Esslemont’s Blood and Bone. Again, the list price was $29, but in an unusual twist, there are no hardcover editions to be found on Amazon except for a signed slipcase version with some bland cover art for $78+. eBay often parallels Amazon, and I only found one hardcover, in “Used – Good” condition for $66 there. It’s nice to know that my hardcovers have some value to them, while my paperbacks are virtually worthless monetarily (but still have entertainment value to me). I was fortunate to win my hardcover copy of Blood and Bone in a contest at Fantasy Literature.

blood and bone
no hardcover available…

I’ve talked before a little bit about why I like hardcover books…how the larger print makes them easier to read, and there’s something about the tangible feel of holding a real book in my hands that just feels good. I call this an “Analog Experience in a Digital Age”. The more our experiences are converted to digital, the more nostalgia there is for physical , or analog, experiences, even among those experiencing it for the first time. One example of this is in my other hobby, pinball. Pinball nearly died in 2000 when competition from digital video games forced the biggest pinball company, Bally/Williams, to turn to slot machines, which were far more profitable. However, pinball has made a big resurgence thanks to its analog experience, with much of it coming from younger players who are largely unaware of its near death 20 years ago. A physical ball careens chaotically around a playfield and provides a feeling that just can’t be captured by digital games. And speaking of slot machines, that’s another example of nostalgia for analog…many people who play slots confess that they miss the spinning reels and the sound of coins paying out into the coin holder, because now slot machines are essentially a video game that doesn’t use coins, plays a jingle upon winning, and prints winnings on a piece of paper.

As far back as 2014 (and even early by some accounts), articles were being written about the demise of the paper book, with e-readers being touted as the future of publishing. In this article by the Economist (registration required), it explains that hardcover editions have traditionally been published first due to their ability to generate more profits than paperbacks. The author contends that the premium quality of a hardback is not challenged by e-readers; if anything, it is the paperback format that is threatened by its digital counterpart.

In this article from 2016 by the BBC titled “Are paper books really disappearing?”, it talked about the emergence of the e-reader, the bankruptcy of Borders, and predicts that reading books will be an unusual activity by 2026, although it hopes that we will be a “bi-literate” society – one that values both the digital and printed word. However, in direct contrast to the BBC articles stands this one from Inc. that was published over a year later, titled “7 Reasons Why Ebook Sales Are Falling–and Print Book Sales Are Rising Again”. It cites declining e-book sales and rising print sales as the basis for the article, although it cautions whether these numbers are a one-time phenomenon or actually will be the start of a trend. The author talks about what he likes about hardcover books, including how a physical book makes a more meaningful gift and how they are not “device-dependent”.

One of my favorite articles on this topic is by David Farrer of The Quad, who (satirically, mostly) lists the top 50 reasons why printed books are vastly superior to Ebooks. Here are some of my favorite reasons:

1. Zombie Apocalypse Test
When the zombie apocalypse knocks out the electricity in town and the internet is down, your books will still work just fine. You might even be able to fight off a zombie or two by swinging a sizable Oxford Dictionary.

4. Feel Your Progress
You can physically feel your progress through a book as the upcoming pages get fewer and fewer. Not so with ebooks.

11. Decoration
Books aren’t just for reading, they also decorate your walls and nightstands (and stairs, and floors, and counters, and rafters, and chimneys, etc.). Even as decoration, books breathe an air of intelligence into the room — unless it’s the Twilight series.

14. Haptic/Tactile Pleasure
Books have a feel to them, with texture, thickness, and weight. There’s more interactivity with the physicality of the book than there is with an E-Reader. Many people find the “feel” of books more satisfying and nostalgic than with ebooks (see, Baron, Words On Screen, pg. 142–7). Compared to the substantial tactile experience of books, a thin little E-Reader feels like a toy.

47. Artifacts
Books are artifacts, tangible human creations. Books are the stuff of archeology, history, and anthropology. They are part of our physical culture. Ebooks carry information, and they are fine for what they are, but they aren’t suited for museum displays. They aren’t precious expensive artifacts of bygone civilizations. They aren’t mementos of important times in our life, or childhood memories. Compared to books, ebooks are ephemeral wind.

I hope I’ve captured here why I prefer hardcover books and also why I have avoided e-readers to date. Most of all, I’m glad my Malazan collection is complete…

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