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We Need To Talk About Book Pricing by Tara Sparling

Writing.ie | Magazine | The Big Idea
Tara Sparling Photo

By Tara Sparling

Yesterday I was briefly let out of my cage to do a bit of investigating in three bookshops. The first was a big Irish chain. The second was a very big independent bookshop. The third was a very small independent bookshop.

I went about each shop idly picking up titles to see how they were priced (because I am a nerd, and I find myself doing that sort of thing when I should be doing other things, such as following the person I’m with around the shop and piling more and more books into their arms until they have the To Be Read Pile from hell and they are creatively plotting my demise).

Prices were all over the place. There was as much of a pattern to them as a toddler’s leftovers. So as a control example, I picked up a standard paperback version of My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in 2012.

Both independent bookshops priced it in the same range – expensive, for a paperback, at around the €12.99 level, but not necessarily an eyebrow-raising price in Ireland.

The big chain had it at €17.99.

  1. Effing. 99.

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking dollars, euros or sterling here. 17.99 is a ridiculous price in all three currencies for a standard paperback which was published 5 years ago. And yet someone in this shop thought it was a lovely idea to price it right there.

It’s by no means the only pricing strategy that makes my head hurt. Trade paperback pricing drives me to drink. Trade paperbacks, in case you’re wondering, are those revolting, annoyingly huge paperback formats which are the preferred domain of the new release since the hardback was deemed too expensive to produce. Trade paperbacks won’t fit in your bag. They give you RSI, are eye-wateringly expensive, and you can’t read them in bed. But when you’re the sort of masochist who attends a lot of book launches, they’re all you’re going to get. I hate them. And the only people they’re hurting are the authors who desperately need their books to sell straight out of the gate.

Okay, But Where Am I Going With This

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how much authors aren’t earning, at least on this side of the pond. I won’t rehash the entire debate, but it pretty much boils down to this: once upon a time, popular authors whose books sold in the tens of thousands made a living from writing books. Now they don’t. The End.

There is more than one reason for this, but many newspaper articles about this in the last couple of weeks mentioned the discounting model set in motion by certain gigantic companies over the past twenty years or so. The upshot is that the mean retail price of books is supposed to be far lower than it once was, taking everything into account, such as sales promotions, which include special offers and discounting, and the distribution model, which factors in seismic industry changes such as the development of self-publishing, and behemoths like Amazon.

When a book is priced at wildly different levels from different retailers, and the customer can see it’s not consistent, it looks terrible. So who’s paying for it?

Is it the publishers, spending large on discount promotions? Independent bookshops, through shrinking margins? Or just the author, who wrote the bloody thing in the first place and is lucky to come out with royalties of less than 5% of the total retail price no matter what that is?

One thing is clear in the book industry at the moment. And that is that nobody is happy.

Publishers complain about the untamed beast that is self-publishing. Independent bookshops complain about non-independent bookshops. Small-ish chain bookshops complain about the crushing purchasing power and influence of the larger chains. Larger chains complain about Amazon. Blockbuster authors complain about discounters and online pirates. Mid-list authors could complain about everything, but nobody can hear them, because they’re all buried under a ton of ghost-written sludge released under the deciduous brand of some YouTube vlogger who really loves whatever free shit s/he was sent this week.

So could it be that the reader is the only winner?

Yet Another Survey Of Myself

I asked myself this question, because under the glare of an interrogation lamp, and with my hands cuffed to a wasp’s nest, it turned out that I am, (in my capacity as a blogger at least), a reader such as would be targeted by publishers and authors alike, and prone to buying books as opposed to seeking or getting them for free.

And I answered: No. Neither the glut of author-killer cheap books nor ridiculously expensive books are doing me any good whatsoever.

It’s a conflicted answer, because I am biased. I intend on entering the market myself as an author soon. For now, mid-list authors are my fodder. If they can’t make a living from writing, they’re going to have to do something else. In the meantime, they’ll write less and less, and eventually, I won’t even hear of them again, because their publisher will probably have dropped them, despite the fact that part of the reason they didn’t sell more books was because their publishers dedicated their entire marketing budget to “The Z-List Celebrity’s Guide To Curing Depression With Facials And A Blue Kitten”.

However, I’m also conflicted because cheaper books changed my life. The day that the 3 for 2 tables arrived in Irish bookshops was a day when my love affair with books turned into a total slutfest. I gorged on them. I went into bookshops to buy one book and walked out with six. I spread myself so thinly amongst my literary paramours that I frequently had three of them on the go at one time. Not only that, but I got to choose my own conquests instead of taking other people’s sloppy seconds – because I could finally afford to.

And The Dubious Conclusion Of The Day Is…

So where is the sweet spot when it comes to book pricing? I think it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s not 99c. It’s certainly not 17 effing 99. But anywhere between 7 and 13 euro, and a book has a dashing good chance of taking me home.

There’s also a sweet spot in bundled promotions which encourage people to buy more books. There is nothing sweet about free books which only encourage people to want more free books.

But in the meantime, we have an entire spectrum of unhappy people, and at least one very unhappy blogger.

Sort it out.

(c) Tara Sparling

Tara Sparling writes novels and screenplays. Her blog www.tarasparlingwrites.com looks at book humour, bestselling book trends, the realities of traditional and self-publishing, writing follies, book marketing, author success stories and spectacular failures. She also pokes a lot of fun at character and genre stereotypes. She can also be found lurking @TaraSparling on Twitter.

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