Who Decides What a Book Costs?

Two readers have posed questions lately that left me stumped. Not because I didn’t know the answers, but because I couldn’t figure out how to give them without seeming rude. The first question came from a woman who had purchased a Dixie Hemingway book at a Barnes & Noble store. The book had been collated wrong or bound wrong or whatever happens at the printing company that causes a page or two to be in the wrong place. She wanted me to know about it so I could correct the problem. The other question was from a reader who found the price charged for an electronic version of my book outside her budget. She asked me to get the publisher to lower the price.

Both questions are based on so many false assumptions that I feel defeated before I try to answer them. But I imagine a lot of readers have the same assumptions, so I’ll give it a try. First, only truly self-published authors — not the writers who go the Print On Demand route but those who actually hire printers to run off copies of their work — have any control over books they’ve written. Authors with established publishers have absolutely no control over printing, pricing, or distribution of their work.

If you purchase a traditionally published book with a printing flaw, it won’t help to tell the author about it. Return it to the store and get a refund or an unblemished replacement. The store needs to know they’re selling defective merchandise, and they’ll let the publisher know their printer and binder has goofed.

As to pricing of e-books, that’s a whole other can of worms created by the way Amazon marketed the first e-reader. To make the Kindle more attractive, Amazon sold electronic versions of books as loss leaders the same way supermarkets take a loss on some items in order to bring in more shoppers. Amazon lost a few dollars on every book they sold to be read on a Kindle, but it made the Kindle sell better. But no retailer can keep losing money on a product forever, so now that Kindles and their cousins are popular, book sellers have returned to selling e-books at a profit. That’s just the way business works.

It works that way for publishers and writers too. Publishers have to make enough profit from the books they publish to pay printers, editors, marketers, distributors, and, finally, authors. It may seem like they’re wallowing in profits, but the truth is  that the profit margin for most publishers is very slim.

The profit margin for most authors is even slimmer. Nobody with two brain cells to rub together goes into writing because it’s so profitable. If we figured how much we make for each hour of work, most of us make around a cent an hour. But we deserve to be compensated for our work the same way every other worker is, and that means our books have to sell for an amount that allows us to get paid. When Amazon sold e-books for nine dollars, readers assumed that nine-dollar price was a fair value. It wasn’t. If  that price continued, publishers would go out of business, authors would stop writing, and readers would be stuck with amateurish work or nothing at all.

The only way to get a really inexpensive book is to check it out of the public library. That’s why libraries exist. Libraries buy the books from publishers, and publishers pass along a small percentage of the profit to authors. That’s how we all manage to continue to do our thing. The day will probably come when electronic libraries will provide a few copies of every published book, and readers will check them out the same way they check out paper copies now. But in the meantime, if you bought a Kindle or one of its cousins because you could read nine-dollar best-sellers on it, I’m afraid you’re in for a big disappointment.

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