Sticker Shock, Part Two
Last week, we talked about the dichotomy between authors pleas to buy new and a reader’s desire to get the most books for her money. The problem isn’t with the authors and the readers. It is the publishers’ desire to make money without regard for anything else. Publishing houses used to focus on the content rather than the bottom line. Now its all about the bottom line. There isn’t really anything wrong with having that motivation. The problem is that within the romance genre lines are failing, good authors are being pushed out, print runs are diminishing, and readers are becoming disenchanted.
Maribeth was frank in her response to the authors:
Forgive the langauge, but bullshit. . . Find me a good, solid author with consistent ‘sink into it’ writing and maybe I’ll buy you. Otherwise… no can do… you can wait.
Ironically, it’s the midlist and and new authors who are being bought at the used bookstores.
The UBS is reserved for authors I want to try, or again, authors on my “close to getting dropped” list.
The publishers are the ones who control the market to a large degree. I believe that if the publishers were more careful in shepherding the market, the genre would be stronger. Is it possible that the western is failing because no one is writing good westerns rather than the fact that readers don’t want westerns?
This problem isn’t all about the readers. I think it is also about the publishers, promotion and the sheer number of books out there.
Publishers’ desire to make money above all else is pushing readers out of the market. According to School Library Journal, average book prices have increased by more than 35 percent in the last 20 years. R.R. Bowker, an industry player devoted to studying and reporting book publishing trends, reported that mass market paperback fiction has increased by 328 percent from 1975 to 2000. Adjusting for inflation, the average mass market has gone up almost 40%. In a Publisher’s Weekly article, the justification for the price increases were due to the slow growth or actual decline in mass market books.
As Salon.com correctly notes, however, it isn’t the increase in paperback fiction that is killing us (although at $7-8 per pop it certainly helps). Indeed, the greater culprit to the book buying crisis is the rise of the trade paperback. The average trade sells for $12 – $16 and sells well. The baby boomer generation who bought mass markets in droves have moved onto the trade and the hardcover and left the mass market faltering. Younger readers are not replacing the departing baby boomers. Publishers acknowledge that the margins for trades are much higher than that for mass markets. This is supported by a fascinating series of posts by Anna Louise, a Tor staffer.
I simply can’t afford it. I buy 10-20 new books a month and usually those are new releases that I “must” have. I order just about everything through a local UBS/Indie bookseller, but if I see something I was planning on buying new already on the used shelf, I’m saving my pennies and buying it used, especially if it’s a new to me author or a trade paperback.
Michael Cader, the creator of Publisher’s Lunch, argues that prices must come down due to inversely proportional rise in book production versus the decrease in volume sold. Zebra was the first publisher I saw to offer a special below $5.00 pricing for books. It releases one book a month at a $3.99 price point. Simonsays offers its ebooks at 40% off.
But the overall cost of books, whether it be from rising mass market prices or from the increased number of books published in the trade and paperback format, does drive down the number of books bought and decreases the chances I will take on new authors.
I am forced to buy less new and more used. Further, I am contributing to the used market at a greater rate. When, in the past, I would have kept most of my books, I am now selling most book soon after I read it on half.com. Jayne makes regular use of her used bookstore. Several readers take advantage of paperbackswap. All of the aforementioned reader practices negatively impact all authors, regardless of rank at the publishing house.
With ebooks the pricing can even be more frustrating. Why should we pay near $7.00 for an ebook when there are virtually no distribution costs, no warehousing costs, no paper costs, no binding costs, and no chance for return or resale? Further, word counts on ebooks can be shockingly low for the prices you pay. (Look for a rant on this topic in a couple Sundays).
With rising prices, a stagnant economy, what will publishers do to meet our needs? Probably nothing. Which means lower sell through numbers for the mid-list. Less publisher’s taking chances on new authors or new genres. A tightening of the variety of the marketplace as each publisher tries to capatilize on the next best thing. Romantic military suspense dead. Long live the paranormal. Paranormal dead. Long live the erotica. etc. etc. I don’t really have a concrete answer for what is happening. I do know that I have to rely more and more on alternative sources to fulfill my reading needs rather than buying retail. I recognize that those buying actions only serve to feed the vicious publishing cycle but what is a reader to do these days?
I would like to think that ebooks can be the answer. Low margins, no distribution costs. But until the Tower of eBabel is resolved. Until a decently priced and easy to use ebook Reader is sold. Until publishers start charging reasonable prices for those ebooks (like Simon & Schuster). Until . . . well, I just don’t see that happening anytime soon so authors prepare yourself to write better, write more, or not write at all. And readers get ready for higher book prices, more trade paperbacks, loss of favorite authors, more of the same and less of what you want.