Why Not Sell Books Like Socks or Tea?

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Why Not Sell Books Like Socks or Tea?

"Are you saying that books are like refrigerators - industrial products?" This was the response from most people working at publishing companies when I asked about discount book sales. I was investigating the controversy over the fixed price system for books, an issue triggered by the rapid growth of Internet bookstores which discount heavily. In the psychology of these publishers, I could see hints of a sense of cultural superiority - books, which nurture our souls, should not be treated as ordinary trade goods. It was, in fact, rather difficult to answer their question; perhaps the best way to answer is by retelling a story known by many publishers around the world.

In 1935, Allen Lane of Penguin Books visited Woolworth''s, a giant chain retailer in England, after the first 10 books of a Penguin series failed to sell well there. The publisher hoped to supply more Penguin Books to the chain, but the Woolworth''s purchasing department was, not surprisingly, unenthusiastic. If the visiting wife of a purchasing department employee had not spoken up, Penguin Books would have not lead a revolution in publishing called paperback books. "Why can''t books be sold like other necessities such as socks and tea?" she asked. The legendary success of Penguin Books started at that moment. Books began to penetrate the lives of the British people.

We hope to enhance our reading culture by respecting the fixed price system for books, but the technological and cultural environment of our society has changed too much to maintain it. E-commerce through the Internet is a tide that we can not reverse. A publishing company president who would be expected to support the fixed-price position of the Korea Publishers'' Association confessed that humanities and social science books were better sold over the Internet because he receives payment more quickly in online transactions. As we see in the Korean movie and pop song market, circulation, planning and management, not creative activities, long ago became the core of cultural industries.

Those worried about price competition in books also contend that such a system will focus on popular fiction and drive out more serious works. But smaller publishers in Sweden, where the fixed price system was discontinued in 1970, rushed to publish quality books in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They chose to publish scholastic humanities and social science books to avoid the massive discounting in the popular market.

In England, sales of classics have increased as prices fell after the fixed price system was discontinued in 1995. Mintel Marketing Intelligence, a consumer market research firm in England, recently forecast that book sales would increase by 17 percent next year.

I hope that the controversy in Korea will become a foundation to encourage a reading culture by harnessing the efforts and ideas of both publishers and online bookstores. Couldn''t we encourage our youth to exchange books as gifts, since they have eagerly adopted customs of gift-giving on many occasions such as Valentine''s Day?

Although the world holds book festivals on April 23 to celebrate Book Day, we neglect the day despite our emphasis on reading. In Spain, lovers exchange books as a tradition on Book Day. The Tokyo International Book Fair, formerly held in February, was moved to April last year to celebrate Book Day and encourage people to read more.

A housewife I met at a discount store framed the problem succinctly.

"I do not understand why selling books over the Internet or in discount stores is considered such a problem. At least housewives who can not visit bookstores easily should have the chance to browse for books," she commented. As we can see, enlarging the number of sales outlets for books will increase the market and benefit the publishing industry, not harm it.

by Jung Myung-jin

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