June 8, 2010
A Tale of Two Editions
For a year or so we have been importing an edition of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah from the US. It’s a new Anchor edition, lovely design and reasonable price. It looks like this:
After converting to the Canadian dollar (a year ago), and accounting for the cost to import, it cost $16.95 CDN.
In March of this year we finally received the Anchor Canada edition of Anthills. It looks like this:
Don’t be entirely fooled, the back covers are different. For starters, the Canadian edition has a Canadian price printed on the back: $19.95 CDN.
The title and copyright pages are different (they appear to constitute preliminaries) but the text block is identical. The paper stock is similar, if not the same. The cover of the American edition is printed on a nice textured stock, compared to a smoother, glossier stock used for the Canadian cover (more prone, evidently, to bulking from humidity). The back covers, as I say, contain differences: The lead review on the American edition is from the Washington Post Book World, while the Canadian edition features a quote by M.G. Vassanji (the Washington Post quote can be found in smaller type after the blurb). The ISBNs and imprints (Anchor vs Anchor Canada) are different. The Canadian edition specifies that it has been “Printed and bound in the USA” while, mysteriously, the American edition does not. And, of course, there’s the higher Canadian price.
A few years ago when the Canadian dollar hit par there was a positive rebellion in the bookselling world as Canadian consumers seized on book prices in particular as evidence that they were being ripped off. Though our customers here weren’t as violent and rude as they appeared to be in some of the bigger bookstores, we certainly had our share of customers smugly asking if they paid in US dollars if they could pay the US price. I tried, a few times, to explain why the US price meant nothing to a Canadian retailer but generally speaking nobody was listening. The publishers panicked, and in a bizarre attempt to recoup some PR, abruptly dropped their prices to par and issued booksellers seemingly arbitrary credits to make up for the price discrepancy. It only lasted as long as the public furor did: a few months later prices started creeping back up to the real cost.
These days the dollar is more or less at par again but Canadian frontlist trade books continue to cost about 15% more than they do in the ‘States. Don’t take that number as gospel either, some books still come in 30%+ more expensive than the American list price. There’s no real consistency within a publisher or distributor either. Take Oxford University Press as an example. Their Very Short Introduction series comes in at par every time ($11.95 here or in the ‘States). Meanwhile Oxford World’s Classics often come in about 25% higher than the American ($14.95 compared to $11.95). I hope I don’t need to tell my readers that the price of a book isn’t, generally, set by the bookseller. These are the prices charged, less discount, by the publishers.
The great mystery is why this happens. We have been told by economic and business Powers That Be that the cost of doing business in Canada is higher than in the ‘States. These higher costs need to be recouped with higher prices. I find this a little hard to follow: given that logic, wouldn’t goods be supremely cheap in countries where the “minimum wage”, should there be one, is measured in cents rather than dollars? Couldn’t we just import Penguin India editions for a fraction of the North American price?
There are other mysteries, too. Most of the work on this Achebe edition was done already for the American edition by the time it got to Canada. New covers needed to be printed (though not, to a huge extent, designed). So to did new preliminaries. The book block is probably the same one as the American edition. The design, editing, promotion and strategising was already done. There will be some local warehousing costs, local shipping costs, and local advertising costs. Do these costs constitute 18% of the cost of the book? (Actually, it’s more like 30% when you consider the US price on the book is actually only $14.00 US.)
I was sympathetic to the publishers’ non-par pricing when the poop hit the fan three years ago. Books take longer to produce than markets take to zigzag, and costs would have been accrued long before the market hit par. Further, many books were published back when the dollar was not par, and slicing the price on backlist titles can be painful. It wasn’t reasonable to expect them to take that loss.
But that was three years ago, and this is now. The current status of the Canadian dollar is not a surprise to anyone. Barring major strange shifts in world events or international relations, the Canadian dollar is probably going to stay more or less where it is for the foreseeable future. So why are Canadian books still coming in so much more expensive than American ones?
I don’t have an answer, but I can’t help but think it’s a matter of habit. Canadians are used to paying $19.95 for a trade paperback, and so the cost of a trade paperback will remain $19.95. But come on people, we know how to use the internet here. To the best of my knowledge, I can still import (as an individual) an American edition, even if a Canadian is available. How can they expect to sell these Canadian editions when you can so easily get an identical American one for less?