Skimming through the bestsellers and new releases at Amazon, you may have spotted the “limited edition” of Michael Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. “This special limited first edition is personally signed by the author and numbered. The jacketed hardcover is packaged in a handcrafted wooden slipcase which is shrinkwrapped. A must-have for collectors,” says the description. The book retails for $150, though Amazon has it for somewhat less.The phenomenon of “limited edition” books is ostensibly an odd one considering the prevailing belief that the publishing industry isn’t in great shape these days, but from an economic standpoint it makes sense as an extension of “price discrimination.” Price discrimination also explains why books (on this side of the ocean, anyway) come out in hardcover before they do in paperback. To borrow from an earlier post of mine, “The way the book publishers see it, there is a certain percentage of the population out there for whom getting a book as soon as it comes out is worth the premium of ten bucks or so. These people are willing to buy the book at this higher price, so the publishers take advantage of it. Once the demand for the higher priced edition has dried up, they put out a lower priced edition and then they can sell the same book to a second group of people for whom owning the book is worth less.”But since the limited edition typically comes out at the same time as the hardcover, there must be more to it than just paying to get the book early. With limited editions, buyers are paying for the exclusivity of the edition, for the ability to own something that very few other people have and that has a distinct look to it, setting it apart from, for example, the copies of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that everyone else is walking around with. And while limited editions are often signed by the author and will often include some extra content – perhaps an exclusive afterward by the author or some special illustrations – these books are mostly bought as objects, as signifiers of fandom that can be bought by the uberfan. Either that or they are meant to be bought as extravagant gifts – again, paying for the uniqueness.It should come as no surprise then that limited editions are exceedingly rare in the world of books as compared to music and movies, where fans are much more willing to go to great lengths to express their devotion. As such, limited editions are most commonly put out for books by authors with cult followings, whose fans are willing to pony up the dough for the exclusivity of these special books. For example, Chuck Palahniuk’s new book Rant is available in a limited edition and the original, 3,352-page version of Rising Up, Rising Down by William T. Vollmann can be viewed as a limited edition.There are also the authors whose fan bases are so huge that publishers assume that the with all the demand for their books, the limited editions will get bought as well. John Grisham’s last effort, The Innocent Man came in a limited edition retailing for $250 and, of course, the “limited” editions of the Harry Potter books have been bestsellers in their own rights. The Deluxe Edition of the new Harry Potter book, retailing for $65, is currently the 21st most popular book at Amazon. $65 is apparently a small price to pay for “an exclusive insert featuring near-scale reproductions of Mary GrandPre’s interior art, as well as never-before-seen full-color frontispiece art on special paper.” And don’t forget that the edition’s “custom-designed slipcase is foil-stamped and contains a full-cloth case book that has been blind-stamped on front and back cover with foil stamping on the spine.”There are also limited editions that seem to exist because they would make easy, yet extravagant gifts. I can imagine that the limited edition of Bill Clinton’s memoir was a hot gift in certain powerful circles a few years back.As for me, I tend to be more interested in the words inside the books rather than the nifty packaging, though I’ll admit to having been seduced a time or two by snazzy slipcovers and exclusive illustrations, though never quite enough to shell out the extra dough.(Thanks to Brent for the idea for this post.)
With the announcement of a title and street date (July 21st) for the seventh and final Harry Potter book, the final chapter of a publishing industry fairy tale has begun.I witnessed the phenomenon of the boy wizard firsthand when I worked at a bookstore in Los Angeles. Even on the decidedly not family friendly Sunset Strip (we were a few doors down from the Hustler flagship store), we sold more copies of book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, than all of our other books combined in the first few days it was out, and our book buyer had to make emergency runs to Costco (where he could get the book wholesale) to keep it in stock. (You can see my thoughts at the time in this post.)Book six, of course, was even bigger, and judging by the numbers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the biggest of all. According to an Amazon press release, in just the first seven hours of availability, the online bookseller sold “over 200% more books than it did the entire first day of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the sixth book in the series. In fact, sales on Amazon.com in the first seven hours today have eclipsed total sales for the entire first two days of the sixth book.” Once all the first-day numbers were tallied, Amazon put out another release saying that orders for Deathly Hallows “were 547% higher than first-day pre-orders for Half-Blood Prince” and that the seventh and final book sold more copies on the first day than in the first two weeks of the pre-order period for book six.Amazon isn’t alone of course, Barnes & Noble reported selling Half-Blood Prince at a rate of 105 copies a second when that book came out, and I’m guessing the numbers will be even more astonishing for book seven. The books are such outliers that overall sales for the chain spike in years when Harry Potter books come out, creating lumpy year over year sales comparisons that the company’s management must explain to Wall Street.Of course, nowhere else is the series a bigger deal than Scholastic, the publisher behind the books, and the company can only hope that dozens of other projects in the pipeline will make up for the revenue lost once Harry Potter is history. At the same time, I’d imagine that the series will be repackaged again and again to entice die-hard fans and newcomers to shell out cash for the books years after book seven comes out. Already there are multiple editions of the Harry Potter books, and the “deluxe” version of book seven – retailing for $65 – is #2 at Amazon right now.While it’s unclear if the book industry will ever experience a phenomenon quite like Harry Potter again – the first six books have sold more than 325 million copies in 64 languages, dwarfing even The Da Vinci Code’s 60+ million copies in print – we can be sure that the press will spill many gallons of ink on the end of the series over the next six months or so. And to be honest, it’s probably deserved. There’s never been anything else quite like it.