This week brought news of a major publishing sale – and a reason for it that at first seemed odd to me.
Publishing giant News Corp. is buying Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s consumer books division for $349 million as demand for printed reading material skyrockets.
Houghton Mifflin’s HMH Books & Media book division — publisher of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Curious George series of children’s books — will be operated as part of News Corp.’s HarperCollins book publishing arm.
The deal comes amid a resurgence in book sales due to the pandemic … Last year marked the best year for print book sales since 2010 as the COVID-19 shutdowns turned Americans, especially young people, into readers again.
A resurgence in print book sales? Not e-books? I see far more people looking at the screens of their smartphones during the day than I see reading a physical book. Are they not reading e-books on those instruments?
The reason for the purchase became clearer later in the report.
The deal will give HarperCollins 7,000 backlisted titles from authors like George Orwell (“1984,” “Animal Farm”), J.R.R. Tolkien (“The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings”), Robert Penn Warren (“All the King’s Men”), Margret Rey and H.A. Rey (“Curious George”) and Virginia Woolf (“Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse”).
Ah, yes. With a best-selling backlist like that, the deal becomes a lot easier to understand. HarperCollins isn’t buying HMH for its new material, but for its breadth and depth of old material that still sells well. It’s investing in the past to make money in the future.
Nevertheless, the question remains: why are many of those older titles described as selling well in print, but not mentioned in e-book format? Most of them are now available as e-books. Is it that people’s memories of them are in print form, so they want to go on buying them in print form, something solid and heavy to hold in their hands, rather than more ephemeral-seeming electrons on a screen?
I’ve seen a large number of recommendations among the “prepping” community to build up a library of print books, against the day that the electricity supply is either intermittent or simply not there any more. Thus, one will still have something to read, and a reference source for important subjects. That’s all very well . . . but I recall moving from Tennessee to Texas a few years ago. With my wife’s
ruthless helpful assistance, I threw out something like two-thirds of my library (well over 3,000 books), including a couple of hundred I’d brought across the Atlantic when I immigrated to this country more than two decades ago. It was like pulling teeth, but it was necessary, purely because the bulk and weight of my library had got completely out of control – so much so that many of my books were in a storage unit due to lack of space in our home. As my irritatingly rational beloved spouse pointed out, if I couldn’t get to them anyway, why keep them?
The process of paring down wasn’t pleasant, but it had to be done. To me, one of the biggest advantages of e-books is that it avoids this necessity. Literally, you can carry a library of thousands of volumes in the palm of your hand. Yes, if the power supply goes the way of all flesh, you won’t be able to access them; but I suspect, if that happens, you’re going to be far too busy foraging for food, and dealing with life without any electric appliances or powered assistance, to worry about time to read! Not very long ago in historical terms, free time to sit down with a book and read was the preserve of the monied classes, who could afford to hire servants to do the donkey work. It simply wasn’t possible for the average Jane and Joe like us.
So, back to the sale of HMH to Harper Collins, with its reported emphasis on print sales. Over the past five or six years, since paring back my physical library so savagely, I’ve bought far more e-books than printed volumes. (When I’ve bought the latter, I’ve usually sought out good-condition used copies rather than new ones, because the prices of the latter are too often ridiculously high. In fact, with mainstream publishers deliberately pricing their e-books close to their print editions [completely unjustifiable in economic terms, as their production costs for the former are minuscule compared to the latter], I’ve often chosen a used paper book over an e-book [for a much lower price], and then discarded it when read.) Only for books that I know (or find out through reading them) are worth keeping will I spend the money to buy a new copy, and then it’s usually an e-book to avoid the build-up of physical volumes once more.
Even with that, about once a year I have to go through my physical library (still numbering well into four figures) and turf out excess books. I do so by refusing to buy more bookshelves, thus forcing myself to keep my books inside the shelving space of my existing units. That way, if I want to keep a paper book, it’s got to be important and useful enough to justify getting rid of another book to keep it. When weighed in that sort of balance, it’s easier to keep things under control.
However, my e-book library is under no such constraint, and has grown a lot bigger. That begs the question: when I die, what happens to all my e-books? I don’t have most of them downloaded – they’re in my Amazon Kindle library, somewhere in the cloud. I’ll have to make sure my heirs have my password, to download those they want before Amazon takes notice of my demise and locks it. Is that even legally valid? Can I leave my e-books, in my name on Amazon.com, to my heirs? I don’t know. Besides, I think Amazon somehow codes my downloads to the device to which they’re downloaded. If I (or my heirs) copy one of my downloaded files to another device, will it still work there? Can my Kindle reader software (without which the e-book file alone isn’t much use) be similarly transferred? I have no idea. (I guess it’s time to experiment!)
So, back to the conundrum. Are print sales increasing at the expense of e-books? If you’re a voracious reader with space constraints, as most of us are, that makes no sense. Is it that publishers would like readers to buy more paper books, so they can charge higher prices? They’re already pricing e-books far above their actual cost of production, so I’d have thought they’d want to sell more of them so as to make greater profits. As for publishers’ backlists, is one of the attractions that many of them don’t have e-book publication rights (because they weren’t specified in older publishing contracts), and therefore the print publication rights are more valuable?
What say you, readers?