The first thing I found out after my book was published was that it was too expensive. Bottom line, price matters. It signals not only what type of book it is, but also what the buyer might get out of it. It can also signal how many copies the publisher is expecting to sell.
So a book to be bought with a child’s pocket money will generally cost less than $5, or better $2.99 and will likely be a small, thin, stapled paperback. That price means that won’t matter too much then if the child scrawls all over it and then “reads” it in the bath, as mine did.
On the other hand, a glossy coffee table book with lots of luscious photographs may fetch more than $100, but let’s bear in mind such a book is generally given as an aspirational gift or to show visitors what fabulous taste one has, so the price is not so much a book price as the tag of a luxury good.
A text book typically is also highly-priced, in part because it saves the student/reader a ton of time that would otherwise need to be spent researching and synethesising information. Students may also perceive that a book will help them get their degree or qualification and so be willing to sacrifice more gold than usual to that god. I know I did, for better or for worse.
Airport novels are on the opposite scale, the commodities of the book world. They’re what people consume when they’re trying not to remember that they’re in a scary plane, or in an even scarier world, the book equivalent of a guiltful chocolate bar, or a hamburger. Most people don’t want to pay more than $10 for a hamburger meal, supersized. To make their profit, traditional publishers will print hundreds of thousands of copies, words tightly packed on paper that’s cheaper than disposable tissue. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that books are the commonest item left on a plane.
Now it seems unfair that literary books, even those as good for one as curly kale from Wholefoods, do not command greater prices than blockbusters. A quick squizz at amazon shows that Grisham’s latest massmarket blockbuster is $9.99 while Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winner is $10.88 for the paperback. This price parity signals that a novel is a novel—books of a certain type should be priced similarly. Yet self-published print books of all types consistently have prices almost double of comparable traditionally published books. Don’t you wonder why this is? I did, but not early enough in the process.
In the last six months, I’ve learned that price is critical not only because it has a direct bearing on whether people will buy (can’t be too high) but also because royalties are derived from this (don’t go too low). Price also matters because of the basis of the discounted prices to authors–for copies we might send to reviewers, or to sell directly at self-organised events.
Many self-publishing companies fix the book’s retail price–you have no say at all–and it’s generally on the high side, mainly because they keep the font size generous and that has a bearing on the number of pages. The longer the book, the higher the price, and they don’t mind how high it is. You see, most of these companies are not really interested in selling millions of copies of your single book–their business model assumes that they will sell just a hundred copies of lots of books, any books. It assumes that the author will buy those first hundred copies and so if they sell more than that, it’s just cream.
It’s important to understand this business model. If you go with a self-publishing company, make sure you have your say on price BEFORE you sign the contract, and, for example, discuss ways to reduce the page numbers. Buyers don’t like paying over the odds for anything, and retail stores won’t stock your book if the price is twice that of comparable books, because their customers won’t buy an expensive book they’ve never heard of. I mean, would you?