Book Price Complaints

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten more than a few complaints about the price of books, especially the price of ebooks, and how they have gotten more and more expensive, and how the people who complain just can’t afford to buy new books.

How does price factor into this? Since 2013, print book prices have stayed relatively the same, but the average ebook price from traditional publishers has increased about a dollar to about $9.50.

During this period, ebook sales have declined about three percent, while print book sales have increased slightly less than one percent, but what is interesting is that juvenile fiction sales of print books are up 13% since 2013, while adult fiction print books are down by 7%. Those numbers don’t include ebook sales because they’re based on BookScan data, which doesn’t track ebooks. Sales of hardcovers and trade paperbacks are up, but, not surprisingly, the sales of mass market paperbacks are down by over 25% in the last four years, and they’ve been declining steadily for almost fifteen years. In most reading categories, print books make up something like 65-80% of sales – except in adult fiction, where ebooks comprise 48% of sales.

The high rate of ebook sales for fiction makes sense to me, because much fiction is read for one- or two-time enjoyment, and ebooks are more convenient for many people, and that convenience is definitely a component in the steep decline of the mass-market paperback. And, no matter what anyone claims, ebook piracy is a definite factor in the decline of the mass market paperback/ebook reading sector, given that ebook sales have been flat for the past four years while mass market paperback sales have plummeted.

As for the complaints about book pricing, I did a little research, and while some of that research involves my own books, that’s because I know the prices and times. For example, the hardback version of The Magic of Recluce was published in 1991, and the list price was $19.95. According to the CPI calculator, which likely understates inflation, an equivalent price today would be $36.67. The mass market paperback version came out in 1992 at $4.99, which equates to $8.80, compared to the current list price of $9.99 [discounted to $7.70 by Amazon], and an ebook price of $10.00. A more recent book, Imager’s Intrigue, was published in hardcover in 2010 for $27.99, and an inflation-adjusted price today would be $31.31, but Treachery’s Tools, a book of equivalent length, published in late October of 2016, also lists $27.99.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness came out as a mass market paperback from Ace in 1969, costing $1.25 for all 284 pages, which would equate to $8.64 today, also now list-priced at $9.99 and discounted to $7.70. Adjusted for CPI inflation, most mass market paperbacks published more than ten years ago cost slightly more today in inflation-adjusted dollars than when published, but given the discounts, actually sell for less.

Yet compared to other forms of entertainment, books are anything but exorbitant. Today, the average movie price in the U.S. for a one-time ticket is $9.00, the average pizza price around $13.00, and a single Big Mac costs just over $5.00, on average, yet people complain about $10-$15 ebook prices. This desire to get books cheaply has had a definite effect on authors and publishers. Many major publishers are barely profitable, even after often massive cuts in staff and editors, and reductions in the numbers of books published.

As an author, I can’t complain,because I make a comfortable living from writing, but while my hardcover sales numbers [including those ebooks released at the same time as the hardcover] are slightly higher than fifteen years ago, my mass-market/ebook sales on an individual title basis [these ebooks being those priced comparably to mass market paperbacks] are down by more than 30 percent, and so is my total income. Without my extensive backlist, the drop would be catastrophic, which is why a number of authors who publish fewer books have literally dropped out of the market. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, this situation affects all but about the top one percent of authors. A recent U.K survey found that of British authors who published work in the previous year, only 11.5% made a living wage in 2015, compared to 40% in 2005.

Author Earnings – a website devoted to writing – recently reported that only 4,600 authors made more than $25,000 a year, and only 1,340 made more than $100,000, compared to 1,696 NFL players in any given year drawing an average salary of $1.9 million. Given the methodology used by Author Earnings, I suspect that those numbers are a bit high, because they’re based on gross sales and include self-published authors, without deducting all their costs of promoting and producing.

So… do you really think that books and ebooks are that expensive?

12 thoughts on “Book Price Complaints”

  1. I wish there were more ways to buy both the ‘dead tree’ version and the ebook with a greater price advantage. The ‘match book’ option on Amazon is the right idea, but doesn’t seem to be available even on all new releases. I’ve purchased the last twenty-odd books in hardbound, usually on day of release, but when I’m traveling I’d like to have the ebook without paying full pop yet again. If I were not now retired/disabled this would be less an issue, and I certainly don’t grudge you a fair living. Consistency in offering a match book type option would be very helpful.

    For the record, (since my husband and I are both inveterate readers and had extensive collections before we married) we have at least one copy of every paperback non fiction book you’ve published. We share these liberally to introduce new people to your writing. We’re missing about four of the Recluce books in hardbound, and, with luck, might find them inscribed at a convention somewhere. We have all of the Soprano Sorceress books in first edition hardbound, and all of the Imager books in first edition hardbound. Missing a few of the Corean Chronicles, and about half of the rest of the mixed bag, some of which I’ve never seen in hardbound and without looking am not sure they were ever released that way.

    I recognize there is no good, easy, fair answer. I wish there were. In the meantime we do what we can. Developing a workable model would reduce illicit copies in circulation, I would hope, and provide the ten percent of two hundred pies versus the hundred percent of a dozen.

    Cheers, and my very best to you (who I’ve not met in the flash) and to Tom (who I have).

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      I’d like that too, except I have little choice but to buy ebooks as much as possible, since there’s not enough basement wall left to put more shelves on. 🙂

  2. Frank says:

    A few comments:

    I have been buying your books, in one form or another, since I first stumbled into “The Magic Engineer” in late 2001. I fought getting a (electronic reader – Kindle) for years. I like books; the feel, the weight, the whole experience. I finally gave in about 6 months ago. I must say that my Kindle is very easy to use and I find myself reading more because the act of purchasing and receiving the book is almost immediate.

    I actually was buying hardbacks for some time. In part because I couldn’t wait until the paperback came out, and because of what you have said on this blog, that hardbacks are more lucrative to the author.

    I think that, in my lifetime (1950 on), I have noticed that it seems less and less people read for pleasure. That worries me, as I think it is somewhat of a barometer of our society’s intellect and attitude towards learning. People seem to demand a higher level of overt stimulation delivered to an increasingly shortened attention span. I’ve heard this need for quick blasts of stimulation blamed on technology, especially smart phones, but I think that’s like blaming a knife for cutting yourself…convenient and seemingly intuitive…but not logical.

    I’m also somewhat concerned that libraries are beginning to atrophy, of they’re changing from a place of books, to a place for computers and “programs.”

    You are a writer. I’m sure there all a great number of aspects to your craft and skills, but, for us “civilians” sitting down and writing some thought out has some very beneficial effects…not the least of which is having to organize our thoughts.

    No, books and ebooks are not expensive compared to what we lose if there are none, or not enough, to choose from.

  3. raeann says:

    I’ve gone from print to digital to audio in my book consumption and while I’m always looking for deals, I would never complain to an author about the price of books. Books are not a luxury item for me, they are a necessity and most get read multiple times. I’ve always figured that authors have little say when it comes to book prices…am I wrong about that?

    1. I’ve had some limited say in a number of aspects of how my books are published, but very little — usually none — in pricing terms

  4. John Mai says:

    I despise e-books, however I travel for a living and carting around several book cases is just not practical. So e-books it is. As for the cost, until I read this post, I’d not thought a great deal about it.

  5. Bob Walters says:

    There is no logical reason an ebook should cost the same as a paperback. Nor is there a reason an author should earn any less if ebooks were not as expensive. Someone gets a greater cut from them but I doubt it is anyone who does any actual work.

    1. A first release e-book costs anywhere from $4 to $13 less than a first release hardcover, depending on the seller. What the publisher gets from a hardcover [and thus, what the author gets] is the same for the hardcover because that’s based on the list price, but what both get from the ebook depends on the sale price. As a result, the more first release ebooks I sell, and the fewer hardcovers of a new title that I sell, the less I now make less in royalties. Silicon Valley tech companies may have profit margins in excess of 30% on sales, and sometimes more, but publishing firms struggle to get above single digit profit margins. Book publishing is not high profit and never has been, contrary to popular expectations and wish-fulfillment thinking.

      Regardless of what people think, the difference in production/marketing/distribution costs between ebooks and print books is only a few dollars. As for non-working publishing employees, there aren’t any. Publishers can’t afford that luxury. The downsizing of staff over the past decade has been significant, and at some publishers, brutal.

  6. Alison Hamway says:

    One HUGE advantage to e-books compared to past prices is e-book compared to large print book. My poor mom loved to read; but when her vision was failing, the supply of large print books was EXTREMELY limited — and expensive. Now my own ability to read is greatly enhanced with a larger font; and e-books with their adjustable font size enable me to continue reading at my usual pace. I’ve gone back to a few of my old paperbacks, and the small font size gives me a headache.

    I think it is extremely sad that book sales are declining.

  7. Mayhem says:

    I think one of the problems with ebook pricing is the intangibility of the ebook works both ways. It wins in terms of convenience, which is something you should pay extra for, but it loses out in that you no longer have a tangible “thing” to stick on a shelf as a trophy, meaning it is perceived as being worth less.
    So the collectors value ebooks less, while the travellers are willing to pay more for them. That runs squarely up against the perception that physical costs are significant in book terms (they aren’t, not even for HC – HC you pay for early access more than for the binding)

    I sympathise greatly with the publishers in the ebook market – amazon should be allowed to sell the book for whatever it likes, but it should have to buy the book at the price the publisher sets, not a fraction of the sale price.

    Out of curiosity, are you hearing much demand for audiobook versions of your work? It seems to be a very lucrative booming market today.

    1. There’s a modest demand for audio versions of my books, strong enough that my audio publisher, still wants my new books and has published all of my fantasy backlist, and a portion of the SF backlist, but the SF audio doesn’t sell nearly so well as do the fantasy novels.

      1. Robert Jacobson says:

        I have always been an Avid Reader, often reading more than 20 books a month as a child. In recent years, problems with my hands have made it difficult to read, and I have transitioned entirely to audiobooks.

        The quality of the reader can absolutely make or break a book. Some of my favorite books are intolerable to listen to, while others I never cared for gained a whole new life with the right reader.

        For what it’s worth, I purchased your entire Saga of recluce series on audiobook, and the reader is phenomenal.

        I had read the series from start to then – current four or five times in the past, and it has always been one of my favorites. Yet despite all of the read throughs, I still felt like I gained a whole new experience and understanding by his reading of it.

        Thank you for all the years you’ve put into writing such an amazing series!

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