William T. Vollmann’s $55 Book

William T. Vollmann’s Imperial, which has been in the works for years, now has a publication date. It’s slated to be released by Viking on April 16, 2009. For those who have scratched their heads in disbelief over Vollmann’s svelte volumes in recent years, don’t worry. The book runs 1,296 pages. And this time, it’s a history of the Imperial County region, chronicling the labor camps, migrant workers, and contemporary day laborers. The book promises to take us into “the dark soul of American imperialism,” with the catalog further informing us:

Known for his penetrating meditations on poverty and violence, Vollmann has spent ten years doggedly investigating every facet of this binational locus, raiding archives, exploring polluted rivers, guarded factories, and Chinese tunnels, talking with everyone from farmers to border patrolmen in his search for the fading American dream and its Mexican equivalent.

Well, this all sounds dutifully proletarian. But the great irony here is that most of the workers who Vollmann talked with are probably not going to be able to afford this book. Imperial, listed in the Winter 2009 Viking catalog, is planning to retail for $55.

This is a surprising price, given that Penguin (under the Penguin Press imprint) also released the hardcover Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which ran a hefty 1,085 pages, for $35. (Consider also Roberto Bolano’s upcoming 2666, running close to 1,000 pages in a three-volume set by FSG. It’s available this November for $30.) And while Imperial also contains “28 photos; 20 pieces b&w line art; 5 maps,” I fail to see how any of this supplemental material justifies a dramatic increase in printing costs (in this case, a good $20 per unit).

The book can also be pre-ordered at Amazon at 40% off, with the book selling for $34.65. But I can’t help but wonder how this twenty dollar difference may affect independent bookstores featuring the title on the stacks. Will Vollmann readers abandon their trusted indie bookstores for Amazon because the price point here is too high? Is this a grand ruse designed to get Vollmann signing the least number of books possible at a signing?

Maybe the $55 book is just a simple capitalist experiment. But if it is, it reminds me more of the troubling science perfected by concert promoters in the late ’90’s. I have no idea if Vollmann’s head has grown heavy and his sight has grown dim (let us hope not), but The Eagles, rather famously, were the first band to charge $100 a ticket. And when the Eagles were able to get away with this, other big acts followed suit. So if Vollmann and Viking want to blindside consumers with such an outrageous price, I may be tempted, despite my frequent championing of hardcovers, to jump aboard Levi Asher’s dysfunctional pricing bandwagon.

In the meantime, I intend to perform a few inquiries to find out why Imperial is going for $55. If I learn anything, I will certainly report it here.


  1. I have read, over the past six years, about 600 ms. pages of this book, and it is brilliant. Vollmann has called it his Moby-Dick. It is a mixture of history a la Seven Dreams, perssonal essay a la Riding Toward Everywhere, reporting a la RURD, and interviewing a la Poor People. Of course, I also published “The New River,” from it in Expelled from Eden.

    Just before its release, my critical volume on WTV will come out from McFarland & Co., and I talk some about Imperial. In late 2009 or early 2010, my comprehensive bio-bibliography of WTV will come out from The Scarecrow Press.

    As for the price, book prices depend on more factors than the price of paper — it depends on the author’s advance, the publicity budget, how many copies will be printed, how many copies are anticipated to be sold…in the case of Pynchon, they know Pynchon will sell several hundred thousand copies more than WTV; in order to get into the black, alas, Penguin needs to up the price of a book that will have a limited niche audience. As much as many of us admire and love WTV’s work, we do not add in the numbers of Pynchon lovers.

  2. Thanks for the post on this, Ed. I just saw the amazon listing this afternoon after thinking it had been a long few months since the last Vollmann title was announced.

    “…if Vollmann and Viking want to blindside consumers with such an outrageous price…”

    Vollmann’s hardbacks have always been expensive. Argall was $40 in 2001. The abridged RURD was 30. The Royal Family was $40, as was Europe Central. Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon was 27.50 in hardcover, and you already mentioned Against the Day. So, WTV has always been priced above, say, Pynchon. Maybe it is a number’s game, as Michael says in his comment. But, do you really attribute this equally to both publisher and author, as you seem to suggest above? Do you picture Vollmann sitting in on meetings about the pricing of his books? Do you have any insight into his participation in this matter? I’d love to know about it. I ask this seriously (though my questions are bound to read as snide and sarcastic–this is the Internet).

    I do not know much about pricing. It certainly may be a dysfunctional “system.” I just have a difficult time picturing Vollmann fighting over price points, too high or too low. I suppose not fighting over such matters could be read as tacit endorsement in some circles.

    Look, I know that one of the reasons I cannot picture Vollmann discussing money is because I’ve simply been sucked into the myth of the man, and choose to believe that myth over the reality of the publishing industry. If this were another author, I’d probably kick him in the shin and cry, “Rip-off artist.” But, this is Vollmann, damn it. I’d like to give the man the benefit of the doubt before I agree he’s no different than the fucking Eagles (harsh, Ed, very harsh).

    Still, I’ll be very interested in what you turn up as you investigate.

  3. Kevin,

    Vollmann has no say on the pricing of his books, nor does he sit in on meetings about it. No writer does. Most publishers use a P&L program to determine a book’s cover price — they enter data such as how many copies of other books (and the last) sold, the advance, how many returns are likely, how much they will get for foreign and subsidiary rights, etc etc., and a suggested price is spit out. That is then looked over by sales and marketing who determine final cover price. (Factor in that Vollmann insists on his own specific book designer, who may still work at Penguin, but when outsourced to Ecco and McSweeney’s, probably charges $2-3K.) I have published 45 books and I have never once been consulted about cover price. Now, Vollmann and his agent may suggest, or object to a high price, but that will fall on deaf ears. Once Penguin has purchased and manufactured a book, their main objective is to recoup the investment, and then maybe make some profit. WTV is now a status writer — he may break even, he may go in the red, he may only make ten or twenty grand of profit, but he is an important American author and it looks good to have him on their list.

    WTV has also taken advance and royalty cuts to pay for the books’ printings — see the letter in EXPELLED FROM EDEN where he discusses this with his editor, Paul Slovak, about taking a pay cut in exchange for not chopping 300 pages out of THE ROYAL FAMILY. In the case of IMPERIAL, he may have taken a lower advance than normal, who knows — or demanded a higher advance, since Ecco paid him 125K for the abridged RURD. He has mentioned in interviews, and in general talk, that his advances tend to be low and he can make more on three magazine articles.

    He has an agent who haggles his money; I have dealt with her and she is a shark, which is good for him, hard on people who may want to publish him — such as his story in the recent issue of AGNI was funded by a special program from the NEH, because knowing his agent, she asked for $2-4K for the story when AGNI normally only pays maybe $100-200. He does in fact haggle high prices for his art, always saying, “It’ll go to good use — I’ll spend it on prostitutes.”

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  5. Thanks, Michael and Kevin, for the interesting thoughts. While it is certainly true that many authors do not have a say in the pricing (and possibly could care less about it), the question here is what degree an author can control the circumstances that dictate pricing. Vollmann is no dummy. He rather famously served as his own agent on YOU BRIGHT AND RISEN ANGELS. And I likewise think of Gregory McDonald, who famously insisted that the Fletch books be issued in paperback so that regular people could afford them. (The Fletch books turned out to be a big success for him.) Until we have hard information, I too would like to give Vollmann the benefit of the doubt here. As Michael points out, he does currently have a very hard-negotiating agent.

    But let us account for inflation here.

    But here are some more literary titles that I hope offer some comparative measure.

    The Recognitions, William Gaddis, 1995 hardcover reissue by Peter Smith, $34.25. In 2008 dollars, that’s $46. It was $7.50 when it came out in 1955. In 2008 dollars, that’s $57.

    Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon, 1973, $15. In 2008 dollars, that’s $69.28.

    Letters, John Barth, $16.95 (listed on my first edition hardcover) in 1979, 772 pages. In 2008 dollars, $48.

    Argall, which was mentioned above, would be $47 in 2008 dollars.

    Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, 1996, 1,079 pages, $29.95. That’s $39.28 in 2008 dollars.

    So the upshot here is that long books by literary types ONCE cost $55 (and in the case of GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, considerably more). The pricing then dramatically dropped in the 1980s to roughly around $45, and fell further in the 1990s, only to rise again in this decade. And now long literary books may, with this precedent, see a big jump in price, perhaps for some of the reasons that Michael has dictated.

    Nevertheless, I still maintain that an author DOES have some control over how the book is presented. The uncompromising letter contained in Michael’s volume certainly indicates this, as does Vollmann’s insistence on a particular cover designer. I contend that if Vollmann were truly interested in an equitable price point, he would have asked this of his agent. His agent would have then responded, “Okay, but you do realize this means a smaller advance? And you won’t be able to publish your photos. And you will have to cut your text down.” So perhaps this represents a scenario in which Vollmann, getting the book out there on his uncompromising terms, was the ultimate goal. Still, how does this explain McSweeney’s very handsome (and now sadly out of print) unabridged edition of RUaRD? Seven volumes priced at $150. Many photos, charts, et al. Certainly, Vollmann’s adventures and research in faraway lands costs money. And perhaps he sees this price point as the only way that he can maintain his work. But I don’t profess to speak on behalf of Vollmann.

  6. the only aspect Michael Hemmings did not elaborate on–and his post was good and true—
    is the size of the printing…..the larger the printing, the less each individual book costs to manufacture……..
    Pynchon’s Against the Day had a much larger printing than is planned for Vollman.

    I was part of pricing meetings for years.

  7. Mark,

    Right, the size of printing…the lay person may think the more copies printed, the more expensive the bill would be, but others know that bulk means a reduction in price (and let’s not get into available time stuff, which I suspect my own novel Wild Turkey was done on for Tor Books, and Ballantine Books used to have a whole imprint called Available Press done on available time).

    (Explanation: large print run projects may have an excess of paper and labor time left over from the initial quote to the publisher, which some publishers use to print other, smaller run books — thus, one person’s first novel may be completely funded on the available time left for a 2 million copy print of a Dean Koontz book.)

    Thought I did mention/factor in copies printed/expected returns.

    Mabuse — I actually got my RURD from McSweeney’s for $100, which was the advance pre-order special prize. A bargain! It now runs up to $3K to get it. Only 3500 copies were printed (so McSweeney’s says, they have been outed on fibbing on their press runs to get people to buy fast, such as the fiasco with Egger’s second book) and they never printed a second run, and they did so in China, finding a cheap deal — as beautiful as RURD is on the outside, the binding is substandard, glue instead of sewn…look at any library copy and you’ll see cracked spines and pages falling out, even mine are falling apart some…) Plus, McSweeney’s is a non-profit and was only interested in recouping what they spent, which they did, and had a special deal with WTV in lieu of an advance — I think he got something like 60% of the money, which, doing the math, was not a bad pay check. So, say McSweeney’s paid their Chinese printer $75 per boxed unit, and it may have been less, the $150 retail price was reasonable.

  8. The unabridged RURD was priced suicidally cheap. Nobody (not even mcswys) could do something for that kind of price now. They made back what they spent on printing it, but not much more than that. And let’s be honest, the photo quality was not great, the bindings fall apart, and it is chock full of embarrassing typos.

    Clearly this new book is being priced like an Art Book rather than a novel. As a thing to own and not just a thing to read. And if WTV wants it to absolutely be designed a certain way, insists on all the photos, wants a certain good quality paper stock, etc., I can understand the price.

    Most buyers are going to get it at some sort of discount anyway (amazon, chains stores, and such).
    Plus: printing in Asia has stopped being a bargain due to fuel costs. I think gas prices have a lot to do with this.That, and the print run is probably teeny tiny. His hardcore fans will buy up the initial run, and soon enough folks will be gnashing their teeth that they didn’t get a 1st edition when it was only 55 bucks.

  9. By the by, somewhat in relation to all this, there’s a hilarious essay from Vollmann in the otherwise lackluster STATE BY STATE collection, of which more anon, in which WTV constantly asks “Mr. Wilsey” for more expense money so that he can spend it on prostitutes and the like.

  10. Ed, I’m curious how you stay adrift of book release dates. I have the hardest time ever finding these–any advice on where to look?

  11. Sean: I think I can answer that–at least for myself. When one is a reviewer, one generally sends away for publisher catalogs, which lay out the whole season way ahead. That, and reading Publisher’s Weekly…

    Plus, having friendly relationships with lots of authors often allows one to be privy to early info.

  12. Sean: What Suzanne said. Although Amazon’s Advanced Search feature, which permits you to search by month, also helps. As do a few library databases available online. I’ve long suggested to people that someone should create the literary equivalent to the IMDB. This would make things considerably easier. (I believe Smokler and company had the right idea with Booktour. It’s too bad the navigability leaves something to be desired.)

  13. I think I paid $35 for the hardcover online a few weeks ago, and what I’ve read thus far more than justifies it. I bought the Rising Up and Rising Down hardcover septet for $120, and I think I got a deal. A month later it was on eBay for $1,800. I don’t buy enough books to know what I should pay, but I know Vollmann seldom disappoints. Maybe you read too much.
    I moved from New Hampshire to Southern California in 1981 and have traveled to Imperial and enviroins often. His insights are accurate at worst, and at best startling or saddening or beautiful. Find something worthwhile to talk about beside the price of the paper.

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