Armchair BEA: The Value of a Book

At the real life BEA, publishing CEOs took part in a panel on "the Value of a Book."

From the Publisher's Weekly overview of the panel: "Getting back to the panel’s official subject—what the value of a book is in today’s market—Newberg [an
ICM executive] mentioned a new Steve Martin novel that Grand Central is publishing this fall, An Object of Beauty. With its vellum pages and high-quality jacket, Newberg said the book must have cost Hachette a fortune to produce. Yet she was confident that “if you make a beautiful product, they will come.” Prichard [Ingram CEO] disagreed. “People around books care [about that sort of thing], but the vast majority of readers don’t.”

Um, Mr. Prichard, aren't the vast majority of readers "people around books" too? I dunno exactly who the "vast majority of readers" are, but I do know that, when I buy books for children and grown-ups for presents, I buy beautiful ones (unless I have specific instructions). Like the -ology books, for instance. They look like presents.

I have bought myself new books just because they are beautiful. Not very often, but sometimes. Last fall, for instance, I bought us a copy of Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman, in large part because it was such a nice book qua book.

And I'm all in favour of the shinny bits and the embossed bits and the pretty bits on the covers of so many fantasy books for kids, and the nice thick paper being used--what better way to send the message that books are important and special?

Anyone else bought any books recently because they beautiful?

(for more Armchair BEA participant posts, visit A. BEA Central here!)


  1. I have to admit, I didn't buy it (got it from the library), but The NIght Fairy, the newest book by Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrated by Angela Barrett, is exactly the type of book you are describing. It's like a little jewel--in fact it's an unusually small format and the exquisitely detailed illustrations reminded me of the medieval Book of Hours that wealthy ladies used to use for prayer (OK, I was an art history major!). I would definitely pick out a book like that for a gift.

    I think with all the fuss about e-books that book design, especially with children's books, is going to become increasingly prominent. In fact I just finished Kathi Appelt's new book Keeper which also is a smaller-than -normal size, with especially beautiful illustrations. I was struck by the design on her book as well.

  2. Yes, The Night Fairy is just exactly the type of book I was thinking of!

  3. Definitely! I would have bought it regardless because I love her writing, but Lips Touch by Laini Taylor is gorgeous and it really does feel like you're getting more for your money when a great story comes in a beautiful package.

    I was also tempted to buy an illustrated version of Life of Pi, just because it was so beautiful. Haven't made the purchase, but I still think about that book from time to time and quite possibly will add it to my collection someday. (And I saw that edition of the book over a year ago and I still think about it--I think that says something right there)

    I'm also collecting all of the Zilpha Keatly Snyder titles that have been rejacketed with art by David Frankland because I love her books and his art.

    I think book design can go a long way to enhance a reading experience by underscoring themes or setting up a reader's expectation before reading the story, which the story can then build on. I'm thinking specifically of The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, which is designed in such a way that it just exudes quiet. Smaller than normal trim size, subdued colors, only the title on the cover and in an almost ghostly relief. You pick up this book and it gives a certain impression, which the actual story and images continue to build on, creating an all around wonderful reading experience.

    This can also backfire of course, like when a book's cover gives a certain impression of what a story will be like but the story is the exact opposite--like a book that looks like it will be a sweet romance but is actually about zombie wars. (hypothetical example)

    I agree with Mr. Prichard in that not all readers are interested in the book as a beautiful product, and I don't think every story warrants or would benefit from beautiful packaging. But I don't think it has to be an either/or type of thing.

  4. I certainly pay attention to the quality of picture books especially. I like fancy endpages, sewn bindings, beautiful covers and heavy pages. I actually feel cheated when reading paperback books because I know there originally was much more to see.

    One recent favorite I can think of is Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow. Beautiful.

  5. For me personally, it really depends: sometimes I like a cheaper version of books if it's simply about reading it, finding out what the fuzz is all about. I mostly care about the look and quality of a book if they're personal favourites: I'd look into buying a new edition of Austen or Gaskell for example. Or if it's part of a series that I'm collecting in hardcover. But then again, it's mostly the quality of the story that will convince me to go back and buy a more "beautiful" version. Somehow this happens more often with children's books.

    However, there have been times that covers have really been what convinced me to buy the book. But it's not often I'd buy a book on visual appeal only: they'd have to be cheap to achieve that. If they're not, I'd like to know more about the quality of the story first.

  6. There is nothing more enjoyable for me than a beautifully illustrated children's book. I have bought those for looks.

    An attractive/appealing cover may draw me to pick up a book but the story synopsis or opening paragraph is what will make me walk away with it or put it back on the shelf.

  7. I too love (and my kids) love the -ology books. We check for a new one every time we go to Costco. They are so intricate with the little pockets and pullouts - perfect when you are trying to encourage kids to become lovers of books. I love to give beautiful books as gifts as well. If feels like you are handing over a treasure when you give a book with a beautiful cover and nice thick pages.

    On the other hand, when it comes to books for me, I will take anything. I do a lot of swapping on Paperbackswap and you get all kinds - from hardbacks in pristine condition to beat-up mass market paperbacks. If I order a book from there, I know it's a good book and I just want to read it.

  8. I think people here are talking about a couple of different things. An Object of Beauty appears to have exceptional materials—“vellum pages and high-quality jacket.” Those represent unusual costs for the publisher, as agent Esther Newberg noted. But the economics make sense because the author is a popular celebrity who’s also proven himself as a writer.

    The other beautiful details people are talking about usually fall within normal printing budgets. Spot varnish on a cover costs more than not having spot varnish, but it’s just another run through the press. Good illustrations don’t cost any more to print than poor illustrations.

    I think what Skip Prichard was saying is that most book customers don’t see value in vellum pages. At least, not value that they want to spend significantly more for. Is he correct? Well, he does head the dominant book wholesaler in the country, and thus has access to the best data on what people actually buy. I’m sure Prichard recognizes the value of an attractive jacket, a classy design, or an eye-catching package. But those are highly visible features, and paper stock isn’t.

  9. I still feel that Prichard is unnecessarily dismissive of "the vast majority of readers." True, the vast majority of books these readers want to buy aren't the ultra high end, but I think most avid readers have a few books that they'd be willing to shell out the extra money for, and that they would delight in the vellum pages...

    I know, for instance, that when I was young, and a super deluxe edition of the Lord of the Rings came out (leather binding and shiny runes), I wanted it so so terribly badly...If I'd had the sixty bucks, I'd have bought it in a sec. I wonder how well it sold?

  10. I love books that look all fancy and special.


  11. As long as it has pages and you can dance to it, er, I mean read it, I am sold.

    While beautifully packaged books are wonderful, a recent downsizing move has taught me that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. (And if you haven't held it or read it for a while, it is really heavy to move!)

  12. While I don't usually judge books based on how they look like, I think it still matters. I love having beautiful books. Sometimes when I fall in love with a book and the edition that I have isn't that nice, I'm willing to buy another copy just to have one that is lovely. And I agree with you that when you're giving a book as a gift, the book design is always a factor. It's the first thing they'll notice.

  13. I've bought a lot of picture books for their beauty, but fewer MG books are quite so appealing. Of course I thought of The Night Fairy, but The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan is also beautiful, especially thanks to the interior illustrations and a particularly gorgeous book jacket by Peter Sis. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is another lovely book, but the most beautiful book in my collection at present is probably The Arrival by Shaun Tan, which is in a class by itself. (Oh, and the maps on the endpapers of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan are awfully pretty!)

    Of course, the nicest packaging in the world can't make up for poor storytelling. But if a book is physically attractive on top of being well written, that's a great bonus!

  14. Yes, sometimes for the cover. I loved the cover for The Shifter, by Janice Hardy and knew I had to read it.

  15. I do tend to go for beautiful covers, when I have the liberty to select whatever book I want, but most times, I already have a list in my head, so I rarely get to do that. That said, I think the cover is very important. It is not fair for a reader to fall for the most beautiful book on the block, but I can't deny that I like a good book cover.

  16. I bought the Taschen edition of Peter Beard's journal pages last year - for $100.00 It's oversized, came boxed, the pages are to die for, it was totally worth it. It is the way to see his work if you are a fan and I would do it again in a minute.

    I also am a big fan of Subterranean Press and their expensive illustrated limited editions. (I own a few - usually buy one a year.) While the pages aren't vellum, the illustrations & limited nature often push the price upwards of $50 for a hardcover. They sellout all the time so they must be on to something.

  17. Subterranean Press is an excellent example of gourmet book selling!

    One only occassionally splurges on the really expensive chocolate, but there's still a market for it. So too with books.

  18. P.S. I just got another pretty book, Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes. The appealing cover art is by Ana Juan and is mostly done in yellows and oranges, with touches of blue. Then the book sans jacket is a rich gold with a smooth, soft shine (not clothy), plus it has an embossed sun on the cover, while the title and a few stripes on the spine are blue. The endpapers are blue with a stylized sun design. The whole effect is muy bonito!

  19. I'm definitely more likely to buy a book for myself if it's well-made and nice to look at. Case in point: bought Pam Munoz-Ryan's The Dreamer not too long ago. Just too pretty to pass up!

  20. I have absolutely bought a book because of it's beauty! Have you seen the Sabuda pop-up books? I love, love, love them!! And, in fact, they go on my shelf and must be read by my oldest only be supervision!! These are not the sole books either! Books are treasures, and sometimes they actually look it to the amateur eye too!!


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