Mid-list Readers

Link of the day: How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought you Think (or see the luvly interview)

I was feeling sorry for the mid-list authors in my last entry, but since then I’ve realized that I never buy their books anyway. My primary source of reading material is the Boston Public Library at Copley Square. I find them more than adequate for non-fiction, though their sci-fi collection leaves something to be desired.

To supplement my sci-fi diet, I buy used books at local independent bookstores. My third source is Buck-a-Book, a local chain that sells remaindered books. Sometimes I’ll experiment with an unfamiliar mid-list type there, but authors don’t get royalties on either used or remaindered books so I’m not helping them any.

Only in unusual cases will I buy a book new, because even the paperbacks are insanely expensive compared to free books from the library or cut-rate ones from my other sources. When I do shell out the big bucks, it’s either to give away a book I think is amazing or to read something I feel is a significant lacuna in my sf knowledge. In both cases, the author is likely to be someone famous and Nebula-winning, not mid-list.

When I say “insanely expensive,” I mean it. There’s no excuse for the price of books today. The technology hasn’t changed in decades, if not centuries, so why has the price of paperbacks increased 333% in the last 20 years? Consider, for example, A Princess of Mars, first published in All-Story in 1912 and now out of copyright and freely available from Project Gutenberg. The tan Ballantine paperback edition cost $1.25 in 1973. A later printing with the Michael Whelan cover cost me $1.95 new circa 1982. That same book now lists for $6.50 at Amazon.

There are eleven books in the Mars series alone. When I was a kid with, obviously, no income, I begged or bought the Mars books, the Venus series (5 books ranging in price from $1.95 to $2.50, depending on the size and the year obtained) and assorted other ERB books, mostly new though even at that tender age I kept an eye out for used copies. So, say, 25 books averaging $2 a pop, for a total of $50. Today the 11 Mars books alone would cost me about $75, and the others are available only in “commemorative” editions averaging $15 a pop. The total is now pushing $300.

The industry will have to pardon me if I believe that $300 is too much to pay for pulps in the public domain. And no matter how promising your mid-list novel is, you’re probably not worth $25 hardcover or $8 paperback to me, either. The library is free. Project Gutenberg is free. Fanfic is free. Even television is free.

Most readers probably aren’t as cheap as I am, but I figure that if you have a heavy reading habit like I do then you have to find cheaper sources, and you’re likely to use those non-royalty sources for mid-list books. If, on the other hand, you’re not a heavy reader then you can spring for the occasional $10, $15 or $25 book. But what sort of book is that likely to be - something obscure in the mid-list, or a bestseller being heavily marketed by the publisher?

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