You think your first edition of Alice Munro is worth something? Tell me this: Is it printed with the true blood of the author? If not, you are not even in the same league as the current crop of luxury book collectors, whose passions for rare paper are growing ghoulish. Kraken Opus, a publisher already known for producing impossibly priced picture books about sports and sports icons, is about to start selling a book about Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar that will include one page that is manufactured from a mix of paper pulp and Tendulkar's own blood. He donated a pint of it for the process, putting to shame any author who has hitherto complained about a book being the product of sweat and tears.
This particular instance is just one part of a trend that has seen book publishers creating evermore insanely expensive collector's items - usually very large coffee-table picture books about celebrities or the kinds of luxury items only the very rich can feel devoted to - printed in small batches. There will be only 10 copies of the book containing Tendulkar's blood; weighing 37 kg, they will sell for $75,000 each. Or rather, they will be released in February, but they have already been sold.
Taschen, a German publisher known for its risqué art and photography books, has already become known for such exotic offerings. Last year Taschen published a book of photographs about the first lunar landing in a special edition that included actual pieces of moon rock. One of those sold for $112,500. And Taschen also offer a nearly 800-page book about Mohammad Ali for $7,500 a copy. Kraken Opus, meanwhile, is preparing a book about Ferrari automobiles that will go on sale for $40,000 per copy.
The publishers have no problem selling these things. Indeed, they are almost all sold by subscription to collectors before they've been printed and bound.
That fact is rather perplexing for those who have been following the fortunes of the book publishing industry lately. All around is doom and gloom: low advances to authors, few foreign sales and pervasive uncertainty about the transition to digital formats. A crazy story hit the wires last week: best-selling author Janet Evanovich, who writes the Stephanie Plum series of romantic mysteries about a female bounty hunter, reportedly quit her long-time publisher St. Martin's Press because it wouldn't advance her $50-million (U.S.) for her next four books. I say crazy because it sounds, at first read, insanely greedy: Who would fire a publisher because they wouldn't take less than $12.5-million a book in times such as these? How much printer ink does this writer really need to buy?
Publishing insiders agree that Evanovich's ask was a little high, but the fact that St. Martin's would let such a popular author - their biggest fiction author - go over a discrepancy of a couple of million is indeed evidence that the market is poor. That's hard for Canadian authors to understand, but we are merely in the wings of this grander stage. To compare, two years ago Ken Follett signed a three-book deal for $50-million. Now, there isn't another publisher who is immediately willing to step up and take Evanovich from St. Martin's. In fact, there is speculation that Evanovich's huff is just a bluff. (By the way, Evanovich has said that the initial report on the breakup was "inaccurate," but she hasn't said how.)
So if books are not selling as well as they used to, how can anyone explain the market for extremely expensive books? The answer is that they're not really books - that is, they're not meant for reading. A Wall Street Journal article about the phenomenon describes the sort of collector who wants to have such objects at any cost, and - no surprise - they're not exactly literary people. They are hedge-fund managers, film producers, art collectors. They display them like trophies, the way you would display a guitar once played by Buddy Holly. The value is not in the words the books contain, but in the rarity of the object or image bound up in them. In some ways they are indeed like celebrity ephemera, like one of Michael Jackson's gloves or Jimi Hendrix's roach clips. Like fragments of the True Cross, they are expensive because they are thought to have a spiritual association with something magic.
Meanwhile, publishers of regular books are doing their best to bring prices down, not up. Some of them are moving away from hard covers toward more elegant paperbacks, and of course e-books will beeven less expensive (though no one has yet decided how much less).
These are two separate worlds. People who love literature love words, and words are abstract things: They create ideas and objects out of an arrangement of lines - out of nothing, really. So lovers of literature tend to care less about how it is packaged. They tend to think, too, of books not as luxury items but rather as everyday objects, necessities like clothing and furniture. And perhaps if the prices of books were extremely low, more people would feel the same.