June 3, 2011
“Value added” is one of the hardest things for me to accept in our consumerist culture. Unlike, apparently, everyone else on the planet, I don’t see a lot of stuff I didn’t ask for as added value. If I want a cup of tea, I just want a cup of tea. I don’t want a 24 oz tankard of tea, even if it costs the same amount. If I’ve just eaten a lovely dinner, I don’t want a huge slice of cake even if it’s the most delicious cake in the world. If I need to get my daughter around town, I don’t need a 45-lb monster stroller with a coffee holder, on-board books and toys and seventeen different kinds of covers for every conceivable combination of rain and wind. Call me old-fashioned. I even knead dough by hand.
The publishing industry is of course in no way exempt from this practice of pushing all kinds of extra stuff on you along with your book. The textbook publishers are the most aggressive with their packages: you can’t buy a thing now that isn’t shrink-wrapped along with a guide on how not to plagiarize, a code giving you access to online content, and a DVD.
We are assured, as textbook sellers, that this extra content costs us nothing extra, but students are extremely suspicious. The most common question we get about textbook packages is “Do I have to buy the whole package, or can I just get the textbook?” Assurances that the cost of the textbook alone would be the same do nothing to calm them. They see the extras as a “hidden cost”. I don’t totally disagree with them, but the cost that concerns me isn’t monetary, it’s environmental. I don’t use the extra material, so it invariably winds up in the garbage. What a waste! The extra packaging used for a class set of 200 copies of a textbook is enormous. But that’s just me.
Trade publications are getting on board with extra content too. Nearly every frontlist literary publication from a major publisher now comes with a reader’s guide, an author interview and “topics and questions” for bookclub discussions. I used to find this addition patronizing but I admit now I’ve become sort of blind to it. One regular customer recently asked me (tongue in cheek, I hope) if he were to tear out the extra material and leave it at cash, if he could have a discount? Even in jest the lurking suspicion that this stuff comes at a cost remains.
In both cases, the extra material provided by publishers is treated, at best, with resigned tolerance and at worst with suspicious anger. I have never, not once in 8 years of bookselling, had a customer pick up a book and say “Oh goodie! A free author interview! I love extra stuff!” So what is this all about? Why are these things being pushed on us?
Part of it, of course, is a publishing industry flailing for something to justify their prices to a public which doesn’t want to think much about real costs. I appreciate this. Maybe the $74.95 they ask for a writing guide will seem less painful if it’s gussied-up with all kinds of extra paper. The $106.95 film text can pretend the DVD that comes bundled with it adds $29.95 of “free” value. (In the latter case, by the way, the publisher is so determined to hide the real cost of the textbook that they refuse to sell the text without the DVD, even if both the course instructor and mediating bookstore refuse to buy the text with it. “But it’s free!” they insist. That the instructor doesn’t like the teaching style the DVD uses or prefers the students didn’t crib their exam answers from the “extra” content is no matter to them. Free is good, right? Who can deny that?) Prices are high and nobody likes that, but maybe if it looks like the customer is getting more, it will hurt less.
This model, though, is wrong-headed. It isn’t working and the simple reason is that the only thing most customers care about is cost. They don’t want the same high prices with more value thrown in, they want lower prices without a lot of bells and whistles. Is this unfeasible? I won’t pretend to understand academic and textbook pricing schemes. Pearson Canada puts the price of every textbook up every year by about $5 even if it’s the same printing of the same edition of the same book they’ve been selling for ten years. Does this reflect a real increase in their costs? I don’t think customers care. They’re furious. A new InfoTrak doesn’t make it better at all. If anything, the extra content looks like an extra cost and customers won’t hear anything to the contrary.
Some publishers seem to manage to keep their costs lost AND offer useful extra content for free. I’m just in love, these days, with Dover Publications. Yes, these are hideous cheap books often based on old, abridged, and out-of-date texts. But they serve for some purposes and for those purposes they seem to be a great deal. $3 for a real book beats the heck out of a free online document every time. Dover also offers some great online content for, again, free. All you have to do to get free samples is drop in your email address. You can get sheet music, colouring pages, puzzles, short stories, and reference sheets and none of it costs you anything – you don’t even need to make a purchase to go with it. I think this is brilliant marketing because frankly, now my daughter and I are addicted to Dover colouring books and we’ve placed orders for several of them, even though we could just keep downloading and printing out colouring sheets.
The difference is that nothing has been pushed on us. The free content isn’t a condition of a more expensive purchase. We’ve been given a choice rather than being upsold. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but for the customer the feeling of control and respect is a big one. People want to know what they are buying and why. “No no, trust me, you’ll love this.” just makes people angry and they feel manipulated. And you know what? If you can lower the price of the book by a couple dollars by leaving out the blasted guide to plagiarism, you’ll be saving everyone money, time and grief as well as the environment. Slap an url on the back page – they can read the plagiarism guide online for free. Even if they don’t buy the book.