"He sold his first story to Wonder Stories in 1931 when magazines cost a dime and you could get 12 ounces of Pepsi for a nickel" Harry Harrison writing of Clifford Simak in the introduction to the 1977 edition of Ring Around the Sun.
I read this and got a dose of perspective. So... back when pulps had their heyday - in the Depression, they cost two bottles of soft drink. They ALSO had circulations that most 'bestsellers' now couldn't dream of. A name built on a pulp readership could make your novels successful right out of the gate. Now those 'pulp' descendants have moved upmarket in price and sometimes in quality... and are outsold by an average midlister, and have a sadly tepid marketing value.
Things have changed since then. For example: We've increased the number of books being published enormously... and we've also changed the distribution mechanism and structure. The distribution curve for sales has become ridiculously attenuated, with 97% of books selling less than 10K and 2.8% selling between 10-100K and 0.2% selling into the tens of millions... as opposed those days when there were far less books published, but perhaps 30% of books sold less than 10K, and 69.8% 10-500K... and 0.19 getting to million, and 0.01% did better.
Lets face it, 2011 has a fair amount of frightening commonalities with 1931. The one trend that isn't running in tandem is entertainment. In the Great Depression books and movies did well. They provided cheap escape from a grim reality. They also provided uplift and hope for depressed people in hard times. I can't say that a lot of 2011 books are cheap enterainment, or good escapism or uplifting. And the industry has been hurting, badly. I can't really believe that no-one in the publishing establishement can see this, but I suspect it's a case of vested interests who would rather aim straight for the icebergs than change from their course. The content an I suspect especially skewed distribution model plainly has LOST readers/buyers. So I think has price, particularly with e-books, where electrons are cheaper than cheap pulp paper ever was. However: Where the behemoths lumber on their preselected paths, it does look as if independents with e-books are challenging this (I note some very cheerful - humor too - books which publishing ignored are doing very well thank you.) I also note that Pulp pricing is BAAAAAAACK... 99 cent books. Many of them probably at the same level as much of the material in those pulps, and I suspect the escapist and uplifting ones will do well. I'm unsure if they're going to return to the distribution curve of sales - simply because the entry is easier. But I have a feeling a solid 'midlist' will develop driven by reader demand not the marketing department -- a LOT healthier for a diverse reading audience and actually growing a reading market. Oh and as another aside, I see Apple's challenge seems to have been a fashion statement rather than having any real impact on e-book sales. Curiouser and curiouser.
So what do you think? Is it worth doing a 99 cent book? Is there a sea-change underway, to fit our society to a more austere but more hopeful model?