What is going on with book prices?!

The last part of the book production process – at least for me – is deciding on cost.

Sure, for many in the publishing industry, this might be the first consideration. But as an indie author who is primarily in it for the love of writing and my audience, not to make a living – and as a small publisher who can’t afford to negotiate bulk discounts – I want price to be the last thing on my mind when making decisions along the way.

As a reader, I want price to be the last thing on any author’s mind when deciding how long or short their novel should be. In an ideal world, it is the story that would determine the length of a book, not a publisher’s spreadsheet.

Yet, as I recently discovered, there seems to be very little correlation between book length and price.

Does size matter?

Let me answer in the form of a confession: I read the fourth Harry Potter book first.

My parents, who were leaving me with my grandparents for the weekend while they were away, promised me a book, and I’d heard a lot about the Harry Potter series. Goblet of Fire was, at the time, the most recent, and more importantly, the thickest book in the series.

It cost the same as the previous three books, at least at the big box store I was at.

So that’s the book I got.

I knew that Philosopher’s Stone was the first in the series. But I also knew that, at 223 pages, it wasn’t going to last me the weekend. Goblet of Fire on the other hand, clocking in at 636 pages, and in glorious hardcover, went on to become of the thickest books on my shelf.

And the same is true today. The Harry Potter books at my local KMart still all cost $10, regardless of whether they’re hardcover or paperback, regardless of whether they’re 223 pages, or, as is the case for Order of the Phoenix, 766 pages long.

So it’s fair to say two things:

  1. I like (big) books.
  2. I like value.

The Nonsensical World of Amazon Pricing

Confronted with the minimum costs of my latest novel, Propaganda Wars, I decided to have a bit of a hunt around and check out the most common price points for books on Amazon.

The ten NYT bestsellers were all, unsurprisingly, doing well on Amazon.

But to my dismay, their average paperback price at $14.31 was less than the minimum price Amazon would allow me to sell my book for – even if I took no royalty.

Then I realised: sure, Amazon’s commission takes up quite a hefty chunk of the minimum price. But the bulk of that figure was, unsurprisingly, production costs.

And Propaganda Wars at 617 pages has almost twice as many pages as the average of 379 pages on the NYT bestseller list. Surely that was the problem!

So I started trawling the internet for lists of books and blogs recommending novels with between 600 and 650 pages, and came up with a list of ten more comparable novels.

To my shock, the average price of these books, with an average length of 624 pages, was almost $2 lower at $12.39.

How can an indie hope to compete?

With minimum prices higher than the average TOTAL cost to consumers for books of comparable length, it can be difficult for indies to get a foot in the door.

While this is true across the board, it’s especially true for longer works. And it got me thinking:

What if my favourite traditionally-published author were an indie?

The authors whose books I chose to examine in my second list of ten were by no means wallflowers penning endlessly lengthy tracts no one is buying.

Among the sample of authors whose books came in between 600 and 650 pages I examined were Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, and my favourite, Margret Atwood, whose book The Blind Assassin is 637 pages long, and which Amazon was selling in paperback for US$7.25 brand new.

Allow me to indulge in fantasy for a moment:

Say I wrote The Blind Assassin, and decided to publish it via Amazon.

What does Amazon quote me for the minimum cost for a book of such a length, with all the cheapest production settings?

$14.16.

Close to double the price they’re selling it for.

The printing cost alone is quoted as $8.49.

While “independent” publishing via a platform like Amazon might seem to be a great way to cut out the middleman, Atwood couldn’t even compete with herself going it alone.

And in case you think she’s the only one for whom this is true, get this:

The list price was lower than the minimum cost Amazon quoted for eight out of the ten 600~650 page novels.

While none of the (shorter) bestselling novels were quite in this category, some had extremely thin margins. Take Emily Henry’s People We Meet on Vacation for example, which was selling at $9.99. Its pretty average length (384 pages) would result in a 54c royalty for an indie, according to Amazon’s calculator.

That’s about 5% – down the low end of what a traditional publisher would offer. And remember, an indie has to pay for all expenses – editing, promotional materials, web presence, cover design, formatting, ISBN purchases, etc.

I want my books to remain affordable to readers – and currently, 49% of my readers buy paperback copies. So I can’t help but wonder whether I should write shorter books?

Then again, sales for my shorter debut, Number Eight Crispy Chicken, have been predominantly in ebook format (62%). Somewhat surprisingly, the much chunkier Propaganda Wars has, so far, sold mainly in paperback (60%).

I guess I’m not the only one who likes big books!

Tell me readers, would a higher price tag put you off buying a longer novel? Or do you like big books?

So far, my next novel AutoCEO is shaping up to be shorter… but not because of price. Because that’s what the story (at least at this point) demands.

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