Self-publishers stand accused of destroying the publishing industry with bargain basement ebook pricing. At least, that was the accusation in 2012 when this guest post was written. And it’s definitely still worth reading today because a lot of the same myths about pricing endure in 2021 – so I’ve dusted this post off from the archives and given it a quick polish for you.
This guest post is so much more than a polemic in support of self-publishers or in defense of cheap books. SF/F author Ed Robertson makes a convincing and deeply researched case that self-publishers’ pricing is far from anomalous. Indeed, Ed’s analysis shows that our ebook pricing is firmly in line with the historical pricing of paperbacks since their inception.
Even more interestingly, Ed further shows that it’s large publishers whose pricing is out of whack, and that their pricing of books began to diverge from historical norms when the industry began its wave of consolidation in the 90s. Fancy that.
Rather than engaging in a race to the bottom, Ed argues, self-publishers are saving the industry… from itself. Here’s Ed with more:
I’m a self-publisher. An indie author. Whatever you want to call me. I’ve read many articles about how self-publishers are killing the book industry. I’ve heard it from big publishing houses. From the president of the Author’s Guild. From traditionally published novelists and agents and even other self-publishers. If I want, I bet I can find a new one of these articles every single day.
But I won’t, because I no longer believe them.
Self-publishers don’t have the power to kill the publishing industry. I don’t think anyone does. But we do have the power to change it. We already have – and paradoxically, this change isn’t a change at all. And instead of killing books, this change has helped resurrect them.
We aren’t the first to be accused of killing the industry. In 1939, Robert de Graff threatened to kill publishing, too. At the tail end of the Great Depression, when hardcovers regularly sold for between $2.50-$3.00, he started selling paperback Pocket Books for $0.25.
To put that in 2012 dollars, hardcovers cost roughly $40-50. The new paperbacks, the first of their kind in American markets, cost the equivalent of $4.16. In modern terms, a book that once cost as much as a coffee maker now cost as little as a cup of coffee. A book that once cost as much as a full tank of gas now cost as little as a gallon.
In just over five years from that 1939 launch date, Pocket Books sold 100 million paperbacks.
But it wasn’t all high fives around the burgeoning paperback business. One publisher at Penguin was so aghast at the tawdry covers on his books he wound up selling off the entire line. Others worried openly about the death of the hardcover industry. On the concept of skipping hardcovers entirely and printing straight to paperback, even Pocket Books’ own VP Freeman Lewis said, “Successful authors are not interested in original publishing at 25 cents.”
But they were, of course. Particularly genre writers who didn’t care if this new format was disgraceful. Because it sold. Readers bought their books by the millions. As the format was being denounced as the playground of hacks, authors like William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick got their start with bargain-priced paperback-only prints (specifically, with Ace Doubles that sold two novels bundled for $0.35). The history of the era is fascinating – a short yet rich article recaps it here – but what is most interesting to me is that initial $0.25 price.
Passive Guy suggests that self-publishing is saving an industry crippled by missteps (scroll down for his comments underneath the excerpted article). He says big publishers have raised the price of books far beyond the rate of inflation, driving away readers and strangling the market. He doesn’t cite numbers. I will.
- From 1939-1961, many paperbacks sold for $0.25-0.35. In 2012 dollars, prices started at $4.16 and decreased to as little as $2.71.
- By 1966-68, low-end prices bubbled back up to $0.60-0.75. In 2012, that’s $3.99-4.99.
- By 1972-75, mass market paperbacks kept on climbing to $0.95-1.25. In 2012, that’s $5.26-6.92.
- By the mid 1980s, mass markets hit $2.95-3.95. In 2012, that’s $6.34-8.49, with some beyond $9.50.
In short, relative prices slowly decreased between 1939-1961. By 1966, they climbed steeply, peaking around 1982-86 at an inflation-adjusted $7.99 (or more). The price of most mass market paperbacks has remained there ever since. In less than two decades, paperbacks cost 295% what they did in the years before.
Coincidentally, corporate mergers of publishing houses began in earnest in 1958, accelerated in the 1960s, and became an “epidemic” by the 1970. By the 1980s, the American publishing industry reached a state largely like the one we see today, where a handful of companies own the vast majority of the business.
And as publishing companies grew larger and ostensibly more efficient, the prices of their cheapest offerings tripled.
Correlation isn’t causation. I don’t know that the consolidation of the publishing industry was a direct cause of this massive surge in prices. But if I had to bet, I would bet that these mergers resulted in a de facto monopoly, a semi-collusive state where publishers raised prices simply because they could. I don’t think these price increases were natural or inevitable.
Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter why they happened.
What matters is that prices went up. A lot. People had to pay more to read. The more they read, the more they had to pay. Books, as much as it might feel otherwise, aren’t a necessity of life. They aren’t food. They aren’t gasoline or electricity. As prices go up, sales go down. Readers read less–especially in times of recession. The market erodes. Becomes vulnerable to change.
For whatever reason, the publishing industry failed to keep their lowest-priced books anywhere near the prices they’d maintained for decades. When ebooks arrived, instead of going lower, they wound up costing even more than the old paperbacks. $9.99. $12.99. $14.99. They still don’t cost as much as a tank of gas, but three of them do.
Big publishers maintained these ebook prices through outright collusion. Even as they fought to keep ebooks even higher priced than their artificially-inflated paperback prices, online retailers like Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo threatened to kill the publishing industry again. They made it possible for authors to publish directly to readers. In the midst of the Great Recession, independent authors offered their books at prices first established in the Great Depression. Some authors went even cheaper. Many wrote genre trash. Many sported lurid, shameful covers. Across the industry, hands were wrung.
“If indies have killed anything, it’s the publishing industry’s idea that books need to cost as much as they do.”
I don’t know what happened to spike prices between 1961 and now. Maybe publishers got greedy. Maybe they just got inefficient, but never had to address the issue, because they were the only game in town; if people wanted to read good books, they had to buy from traditional publishers. Publishers who, for whatever reason, abandoned those low-cost, Pocket-style books.
And when the opportunity finally arose, indie authors stepped in to that gap. If indies have killed anything, it’s the idea that books need to cost as much as they do. Many indies have gone so far as to sell their books for $0.99, or give them away for free. Confronted with this novelty, and constrained by their own recession-tightened budgets, readers have snapped up these cheapest books, leading to a constant deluge of arguments that self-published authors have gone too far, that these prices are unsustainable, that in their race to the bottom, they’ll ruin the market for everyone.
The proper dismantling of these fears would require a response even longer than this one. I will say that indie authors need to eat, too. The rising class of professional self-publishers has to pay for cover artists, editing, proofreading, and advertising of its own. To treat writing as a job, indie authors have to find a way to be paid like it’s a job. In the meantime, self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s prevent prices from bottoming out by rewarding higher prices with better royalty rates and more visibility.
And readers help keep prices from zeroing out by proving by the millions that they are willing to pay a few dollars for books by the indie authors they love.
Very strangely, if you look at many of the moment’s most successful indies, the prices they charge – $2.99, $3.99, $4.99 – are the exact same prices readers paid more than fifty years ago. Indies are the new Pocket Books. And some of them are very, very good. I expect several classics have already been self-published. Able to buy and explore at prices they haven’t seen in half a century, readers are giving us real careers. In return, we’re able to offer them even better books.
Tomorrow, there will be a new article about how self-published authors are killing the book industry. I won’t read it. I don’t believe it.
And I don’t think we have anything left to prove.
Final Note from Dave:
Thank you to Ed for that fascinating post. Aside from being a very smart guy, Ed is a fine writer too.
You might have heard of his bestselling post-apocalyptic Breakers series, or perhaps his bestselling epic fantasy Cycle of Arawn series, or maybe his bestselling space opera series Rebel Stars – all of which I own and enjoy. However, my favorite was always a one-off SF time-travel thriller he did called The Cutting Room, which I simply urge you to read.