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Eye on Industry



The Cardamom



I need cardamom. I’ve needed it for a couple of months now. This hasn’t put a stress on our household.

My kids haven’t lost trust in me because I’ve shown a willingness to deplete our pantry. My wife hasn’t suggested that some of the spice is missing from our marriage. Still, I like using cardamom. Homemade donuts dipped in cardamom sugar? That’s something everyone should have at least a few times a year. I’ve been told that my cardamom ginger ice cream is worth traveling miles for (or at least the distance from the family room to the kitchen). In an ideal world, I would always have cardamom in my culinary toolkit because you never know when it might be exactly what a dish needs.

Why, then, have I gone so long without it? It’s available in any grocery store. I could pick it up this afternoon when I get a couple of other things I need, if I wanted. I wouldn’t do that, though. I don’t buy my spices in supermarkets. The supply and the quality just isn’t what I want. Instead, I buy my spices from a site called MySpiceSage. Excellent selection, good value, extremely high quality. And on top of everything else, they always offer a bonus. A free quarter pound of applewood smoked sea salt with a minimum purchase. A free four-ounce jar of vanilla paste. Something that closes the deal.

There’s the problem. Instead of just going to MySpiceSage and getting the cardamom, I’m waiting for them to offer me a bonus I want. I get e-mail messages from them every few days telling me about the latest promotion.

The smoked salt has come up again recently. So has the vanilla paste. I could have gotten a couple of free glass spice jars last week. I have enough of the first two items, and I have no need for the last. So I’ll just keep waiting. Something will come up soon that appeals to me, and then I’ll again be able to make the spice butter for the Ethiopian beef stew that my youngest daughter enjoys so much. It’s all rather ridiculous, I realize.

A four-ounce package of cardamom (that’s a lot of cardamom) costs $12.50. I can handle it. But the idea that a better deal is waiting stymies me.

I’m doing with spices what so many people are now doing with e-books. A recent poll indicated that, with the exception of their very favorite authors, the majority of commercial fiction readers surveyed were happy to wait until a book was deeply discounted to buy it. If they encountered a novel that sounded good to them, they’d add it to their to-be-read list and then wait to see if it showed up at $.99 or $1.99 or at the outside $2.99. Maybe if everyone they know was talking about a book, they might be willing to pay more to read it.

Otherwise, there are plenty of $.99 books to choose from.

I assume you see the issue here. Book consumers are becoming conditioned to believe that books should cost less than three dollars — in many cases much less than three dollars. I’m not an economist, but I have a feeling that this is not a good thing.

This is hardly the first time book consumers have recalibrated their price expectations. There were the pricing wars of the early ’80s (anyone remember the Crown bookstore chain?) that first got readers thinking that the cover price of a bestseller was more than they should pay. Then internet retailers extended this to nearly every book in print. The difference in these cases, though, was that the discount was funded entirely by the bookseller. Yes, publishers gave a little in terms of discount and co-op money when it came time to negotiate new contracts, but authors got the same royalties for their books whether those books sold for $22.95 or $13.77. Readers still have lowered price expectations for print books, especially hardcovers — does anyone ever pay $27.95 for a novel? — but the author is not affected, at least not directly.   

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