Home » Big Publishing, Pricing, Self-Publishing » Self-Publishers Aren’t Killing The Industry, They’re Saving It

Self-Publishers Aren’t Killing The Industry, They’re Saving It

5 November 2012

From author Ed Robertson via David Gaughran’s blog:

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to much more at Let’s Get Digital and thanks to David for the tip.

Big Publishing, Pricing, Self-Publishing

13 Comments to “Self-Publishers Aren’t Killing The Industry, They’re Saving It”

  1. This is a terrific article! Nice job, Ed Robertson!

    What I love about David’s posts, and now his guest posts, is the amount of sheer concrete data they use to back up their points. It’s impressive, and persuasive.

  2. Great article. I have thought for a long time that the traditional big publishing houses are pricing themselves out of the market. They continue to do that with ebooks and frankly I think they are doing more to support the indie author than anyone else. Why would I buy an ebook for 18.99 (I’m looking at you J.K) when they can buy good ones for 3.99. A story just can’t be that much better.

    • I think that is why Amazon is so successful at selling books, not just by indie authors, but traditionally published books they sell at a discount. Voracious readers like me who live on a modest income go to libraries or to Amazon which sells books for very affordable prices.

      I mean, really, when you have a choice between buying a book at your local B&N for $27.95 or the same book at Amazon for $12.00 (with free shipping if you are an Amazon Prime member), you would most likely be going for the $12.00 one.

  3. I verified his inflation-adjusted figures, and they are correct (or within range, as different inflation calculators can yield slightly different results).

    Great job, and excellent points made.

  4. I commented over at Gaughran’s place about why the rises in book prices followed the consolidation of companies:

    There is a very simple and obvious (if you’ve ever experienced a big corporate merger) reason for the connection between rising book prices and merger mania in the industry. Merging two organizations is a costly endeavor. Not necessarily from a cash perspective (although it is often that, too), but from a process efficiency POV. The merged company is inherently less efficient than its predecessor companies. Always. It’s an iron law of bureaucracy. Everything from the big picture corporate culture issues to the tiniest details of who approves my expense report know and what kind of documentation do I need. The easy answer for corporate management is always to make every process more complicated than before. Productivity falls as more and more of the employees energy is focused on learning the new rules.

    If most of the value of the company is in its processes (which is absolutely the case with a publishing company), there’s only one way to make a merger pay off: Extract more dollars from the reduced production. So the merged companies look for ways to raise prices. I’ve seen this happen over and over. If the rest of the industry goes along, the mergers can “pay off”. If the company’s competitors don’t want to raise prices, the merger becomes a textbook case study in failure. But the “success” of these mergers is dependent on the decisions of people outside the company and they are never good for consumers.

  5. Wonderful article! It puts things into a perspective that I haven’t seen anyone explain so concisely to this point.

  6. There’s also the aspect of writers’ salaries that K. Rusch wrote about months ago. Basically she compared the numbers, adjusting for inflation as well, of what writers made in the 20s-50s and what they make now. Especially short story writers, many of which are now famous (and probably dead) and were able to make a full-time living as short story writers.

    The frightening irony… writers of 50 years were being paid EXACTLY the same rate of pay as writers of today. But current writers can rarely live off such income full-time and need to work other jobs as well as write.

    She made the case that the average pay was (as I remember) $.05 a word for first run short story submissions. Guess what, all the magazines I’ve researched this last year offer approx. the same rate for first run. And if it’s not first run, either don’t bother or it’s pennies or a flat fee no matter how many words. Usually about $50. Gee whiz. A tank of gas.

    My point, publishers (book and magazine) have increased the cost of books at the selling end, yet not increased the average pay out to the content providers. US. I say a revolution is long overdue.

    • Revolution! Hear, hear! Sign me up!

    • Re: the pulps, there was a significant difference between the pay back in the pulp days (a penny a word, sometimes less) and the pay in the Fifties and Sixties. And so you inevitably see people talking about how the pulps paid so little.

      But the pulps also were a huge market for all sorts of different stories, so a prolific writer could sell multiple stories per month, and also make a living.

      Someone really poor could usually buy at least one pulp a week. Someone really poor and prudent, and living in a real city, could even sell and buy used magazines at a used magazine dealer. (There was one in my city.) There were multiple pulps coming out every week, which encouraged people to buy multiple pulps per week per household. The sheer volume catered to every possible reading taste and demographic, and there were still “the slicks” (higher-paying, more prestigious magazines) and small literary journals put out by universities. Even trade publications (like The Bookman) often printed poetry and fiction, especially humor.

  7. All this stuff about the death of publishing is silly. Publishing is the process of getting books from author to consumer. It doesn’t matter if the people currently employed in publishing remain employed in publishing. If they go, others will step up and the books will continue to flow.

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