Sunday, October 25, 2009

Books cost too much? Or do they cost too little?

Books cost too much? Or do they cost too little?

By Walter Haan,,

I was traveling recently and stopped into an airport book shop to look around while waiting for a connecting flight. The selection at airport book shops doesn’t approach the volume of offerings at independent book shops on the strasse or chain stores in the malls or big box book stores. But even while looking at a limited selection of books, I came to the conclusion that books cost too much at the retail level.
And, don’t forget, I have published both hardcover and trade paperback books for 25 years.

I decided that even I can’t afford hardcover books at $30+ or trade paperback books at $15+. Yet I publish $30 hardcovers (Janey: A Little Plane in a Big War and The Grasshopper That Roared, are examples) and trade paperbacks that cost $15 or more (Abe Lincoln and the Frontier Folk of New Salem and Flying Low, are examples). We always knew we couldn’t charge more than $30 for a hardcover book. But a lot of big publishers do.

Of course the books I publish at Southfarm Press are basically niche books for limited audiences, books that larger publishers would not publish for just that reason. They figured they couldn’t make enough money on them. Smaller publishers such as Southfarm have a better chance.

How is a hardcover book priced? If the retail price is $30, the book’s distributor normally takes $12 ( demands, $16.50). That leaves $18 to pay a royalty to the author, to pay the printer, to pay the book cover designer and to pay for advertising and promotion. The printer could easily be due $8, leaving $10 for the rest of those I listed above. And I haven’t even mentioned a profit for the publisher, in this case, namely me.

Meanwhile in the book publishing world, Wal-Mart, Target and are busy competing with one another by selling ten new hardcover titles as low as $8.98. In a letter to the antitrust division of the Department of Justice this past Tuesday, the American Booksellers Association asked for the government to begin an investigation into what the ABA believes is illegal predatory pricing by Wal-Mart, Target and The ABA charges in its letter that the predatory, below cost, pricing practices used by these three retailers (who all sell a lot more than books) are devaluing the very concept of the book and that their fight could result in the entire book industry becoming collateral damage.

It will be interesting to see how the Department of Justice responds to the ABA letter.

Yes, I think $30 for a hardback is too much to charge but as you can see with my figures above, publishers have no choice, especially smaller publishers. But $8.98 is way too little to charge. If that were the average retail price for hardcovers across the board, I’d have to go out of business.

I came to another conclusion when I was in that airport bookshop: As far as fiction is concerned, the consumer would be better off to wait for the movie and DVD to come out than pay $30 for the hardcover book. After all, DVDs can cost less than half that amount.

The argument for reading just took another hit.

Copyright © 2009 by Walter Haan. ( and