Blaming Amazon Pricing Policies May Be the Wrong Call

Everybody knows the big publishing houses are scrambling. They reek with the stench of death. They can merge all they want. They can point at tortured data to reassure themselves all is well. But it’s pretty much over for them, and they did it to themselves by clinging to a ridiculously outdated business model. They became middlemen who added little to no value for most authors they signed.

There are lessons to be learned here. Experience is a great teacher for an apt pupil. Small publishing houses stand to reap some significant benefits, and to become the heirs to a new age of publishing if they will but pay attention and adapt. Unfortunately, it does not seem that many are doing so.

While it completely misses the mark, this article in the New York Times points out a significant issue that threatens to quickly render small publishing imprints as irrelevant as their predecessors.

The article itself is about small presses and their authors complaining that Amazon is not offering deep enough discounts on their titles. Here’s an example from the article:

When the University of Nebraska Press brought out a bibliography of the novelist Jim Harrison four years ago, Amazon charged $43.87. The price this week: $59.87.

Rob Buchanan, a sales coordinator for the press, said the $65 list price of the book had not changed, nor had the price the publisher billed Amazon. “I can’t think of a reason on our end why they’d be charging more.”

In this example, the actual publisher of the book priced it at $65. Amazon initially sold it for a lot less, and still sells it for less than the author’s own publisher, but the author is upset with AMAZON???

I am no starry-eyed admirer of Amazon. Like all things giant, when it bumbles around, Amazon inadvertently crushes things. Sometimes we are the things it crushes. That it may not have intended to do so is cold comfort to the squished.

Yet, I just do not feel Amazon is the bad guy here. In this instance, I blame the small presses for pricing the books out of competition. I understand that even small imprints have overhead. Setting the price so high the book does not sell will only guarantee failure for both the book and the publisher.

Look, you make more money by moving lots of units with smaller profit margins than you do by moving few or none at all with big margins. I know somewhere in the recesses of their minds all publishers understand that principle.

A while back, I came to the conclusion that there was very little a publisher could do for me that I could not do for myself. Sure, they could get my book into bookstores, but the bookstores are just as happy to return them as to sell them. And they will return them if no one buys them because they’re priced too frikkin’ high.

The promised distribution channels are of precious little good if no sales result from it. Sure, you may feel more authentic walking into Barnes & Noble and seeing your book on the shelf next to titles by Mary Higgins Clark. But if hers sell and yours don’t, how does that really help you?

I know too may authors who have signed with small presses and have found the only thing that’s really changed is that their eBook went from 99¢ to $6.50. So they went from meager sales to none at all.

The publishing companies that survive are going to have to find a new way to add value that justifies their existence. What’s missing is marketing muscle. Why would any company put out a product and then put no marketing behind it? That’s just not smart business.

I understand times are tough, but when you give up on trying to sell your product, you might as well give up on making the product. The evidence shows that the higher priced books are not moving. It is wrong to rely on Amazon to offer discounts your own publisher won’t. Why get mad at Amazon for not paddling fast enough when your own publisher is poking holes in the boat?

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

29 thoughts on “Blaming Amazon Pricing Policies May Be the Wrong Call”

  1. I hear people say, all the time, that they can no longer afford to ‘buy’ books. I wonder when we will reach critical mass and folks begin to realise affordable, good books are available if they know where to look – written by Indies.

  2. I am in complete agreement with you. I saw this article when it came out in the NYT, and was dumbfounded. People were actually upset that Amazon wanted to sell a product for its list price?! Look, if the list price is too high, lower it. But, don’t blame Amazon for not discounting it enough.

    If there had been a practice of the list price not being the price publishers actually wanted to sell the book for, then that time is over.

    I think self publishing has changed things, in the sense that there’s not the same game playing in the industry. When you have to do things yourself, there’s no time for strange practices. Sell a book for the price you can sell it for to achieve your goals (sometimes that goal is to get readers hooked on a series so you can make a series profit; other times it’s about specific profit for that book).

  3. Thank you so much for this article. I had been considering lowering my book prices and after reading your article, I immediately went and lowered them. Better to sell some than none. Once again, thank you.

  4. Yes, interesting. I have seen books for ridiculous amounts, even e-books by indies. Many get told to price the book at 2.99 for the 70% royalty but it is doesn’t sell than that won’t help. Sometimes it is better to take a chance on a book by an unknown for 99p than 2.99.

  5. Textbooks have been overpriced for decades. I wonder whether the publishers have been setting the prices overly high, and then relying on Amazon to make the books more affordable, in order for the publishers to keep their royalties as high as possible. I guess it’s not a bad strategy, as long as everybody plays along. Looks like Amazon got tired of taking the haircut. Too bad for the publishers.

    1. It’s our game now. Especially with the court decision standing against Apple on price-fixing with the big publishers. The Big 6/5/4/ whatever are going to have to fish or cut bait.

  6. I could say a lot of old cliches here like ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’, but all publishing companies care about, as with any company, is making money and putting it in their pocket at the expense of the little people (authors) who put it there.

    Another great post, Stephen. Right on.

  7. Shouldn’t it be against the law to sell a paper book for $12 and the e-book version for $10? If the e-book was EVER 99 cents, what could justify raising that price? Subsidizing paper costs with e-book price-raises seems like out and out collusion to me. Sever the two, and I bet the indie/self-pub/e-pub sectors would actually benefit. I also think the impending publishing vacuum formed by the erosion of the Big X-Minus-One (depending on what time it is when you read this) SHOULD be filled by competent, small, online publishing houses that perform the value-add us anonymous indies so desperately need.
    Great article, thanks. Don’t know if I can fully agree, because my perspective is so e-pub oriented. Amazon is the Borg to e-pub.

    1. I don’t think it should be against the law, but I think the market tells what people are willing to pay. If the book is priced too high, people just won’t buy it. Unfortunately, these authors whose book prices are set by publishers have no control over the price of their books. They’re going down with the ship.

  8. I guess this is what happens when corporations believe they are kings by divine right. I don’t think indies have won… yet. But for the first time in a very, very long time, there is competition in the marketplace again. The King is dead, long live the King.

  9. Great article. If a company wants to stay in business, they will discount. If they don’t, they will be passed over for those that do. I can’t think of a reason why anyone would pay more for something if the same exact product is offered for less elsewhere. Simple. Mind you, pricing books does my head in.

  10. Great post, lots of food for thought. I have always priced my books affordably, ever since I made the mistake of signing one book with PublishAmerica and they priced it three times what it should have been. I’d rather make a few cents off several books–and have good will from the readers–than gouge them for a few non-repeating sales.

  11. Fantastic article EM! And this is yet another reason why I decided to stay Indie published. Oh, folks can pick up my book and see: “Sturgeon Creek Publishing” and think I’m published by some small press, but in reality, it’s just me. And keeping books (both e and paper) competitively priced is why I’m now beginning to enjoy some nice success in the market place. Maybe publishers still haven’t learned their lesson.

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