Are Book Prices Too Low?

Image - iStockphoto: Borislav Alexiev
Image – iStockphoto: Borislav Alexiev


‘A long summer absorbed in our colouring-in books’
The Bookseller 24 July editionMy colleague Philip Jones at The Bookseller today is making the case today in his leader piece that Harper Lee’s endlessly watched Go Set a Watchman “is the latest big title to demonstrate how the trade’s pricing strategy remains too set on using discount to drive sales — even of premium product.”

The book’s singular nature marks it as a uniquely useful study for its ability, among other things, to make even The Lost Symbol a lost first-day record in terms of sales.

In Go watch the price, Jones writes:

Go Set a Watchman sold 168,455 copies [in the UK] last week, earning more than £1.8m through Nielsen’s Total Consumer Market, with the ebook edition selling a further 38,941 units. Unsurprisingly, it is the author’s first number one since records began in 1998, and her highest single-week print sale. It will also be her largest digital sales week — but this was a book that was sold predominantly in print and through bookshops. Waterstones said it shifted 30,000 copies on that first day—a third of the book’s daily total—while in the US, Barnes & Noble said it had beaten its previous record for first-day sales. The book also sits atop the Indie Bookshop chart.

The UK cover design
The UK cover design

Dashing past Dan Brown’s previous first-day record, Lee has also been seen in the UK to be dancing an interesting pas de trois with E.L. James’ Grey. As my associate Kiera O’Brienwrote at The Bookseller: “E.L. James is 37 years younger than Lee and sales of Grey plummeted 37 percent last week to 41,943 copies.” The Fifty Shades play has landed, as it turns out, in second place, with Lee on either side, Watchman at No. 1 andTo Kill a Mockingbird at No. 3.

This story was written as the walkup to the our live chat of 24th July. Join us today and every Friday for #FutureChat live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

In the US, Sarah Weinman at Publishers Lunch reported that HarperCollins had announced a first-week sale of “more than 1.1 million units in North America since going on sale (on the 14th) with 3.3 million copies now in print. Her colleague Michael Cader followed with more detail as it became available:

Nielsen Bookscan posted their data on print sales Wednesday. The service recorded just over 761,000 print copies of the hardcover sold in the US through outlets they track. (Other additions, including large print hardcover, library binding hardcover and physical audio tracked another 25,000 copies combined through Bookscan-monitored outlets.)

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

And Jones’ interest here is on pricing and how we do it now and why we do it the way we do.

He’d written, in Let the right edition in here at The FutureBook, that “the assumption that readers prefer to read commercial fiction in ebook format but buy printed copies of the more serious stuff is not always borne out by the charts. “There is also the price difference between the two formats which, as with The Girl on the Train, is high. On Amazon the hardback is retailing for £9, while the e-book is priced at £5.99.”

Now, he looks at a new sticker shock:

At £10.82, Watchman carries one of the highest average selling prices within the Top 50, and yet this is 43% off its r.r.p. of £18.99—making it also one of the most discounted titles.

The e-book is selling for £7.47, a fee lower than the r.r.p. of next year’s paperback.

The US cover art
The US cover art

In the States, some interesting price points, too:

The hardcover list price is $28.09 and the going price at is $16.07.

The Kindle edition, with a $15.99 list price, is set for now at $13.99 (and here’s that agency-pricing note: “This price was set by the publisher”). That price comes in below the paperbook ask, which is $16.79 on a list of $27.99 — just 10 cents, take note, behind the hardcover list price.

Is the bucket half-full?

Watchman has shown how a title of great complexity, steeped in folklore, valiantly published and imaginatively sold, can rewrite records,” writes Jones.

But what can we take these notes on pricing to tell us?

Well, for one thing, in London, there’s a battle-of-the-booksellers interpretation to be taken into account, a ground war between the major chain store and Seattle-en-cyberspace. Jones:

Waterstones, which opened stores at midnight to sell copies, described its own performance as a “hugely significant” moment in its recovery as a bookseller, revelling in what was described as a “toe-to-toe duel with Amazon”. This week, Waterstones commercial manager Peter Whitehead told staff “don’t end here”, warning that competitors may yet “regroup”. This kind of fighting talk is to be welcomed—it shows health returning to a part of the market that has been weak and hesitant for too long.

But here comes that beachside colouring-in book line — and this is where we’re going to take the sand bucket over to our colleagues at #FutureChat.


If the story ended here, we could all sit back and enjoy a long summer, absorbed in our colouring-in books.

However, stapled to the back of this narrative is the tale of a slowing digital market—our analysis of sales data shows e-book volume growth in the first half of the year was 5%—and parts of the mass-market retail sector that remain, to put it kindly, troubled. Meanwhile, independent booksellers express concern over the increased minimum wage, while a piece published in the Irish Times, “A lament for modern publishing”, noted how authors’ incomes were failing to keep up with publishers’ “profits”.

There’s more to this story: Read the rest

By Porter Ander­son  

The FutureBook:  #FutureChat today: Are book prices too low?

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