The Book Price Wars

by Michelle Gagnon

I stumbled across this article yesterday:

“The cost of John Grisham’s “Ford County,” officially released Tuesday, moved up and down like stock market shares as rivals and extended, then rescinded, their high discounts for top-selling pre-orders. Early in the day, Amazon was selling Grisham’s book of short stories for $9, the same price it had offered for “Ford County” before publication and a sign that Amazon was ready to continue the cost competition beyond the release date. was selling “Ford County” for $12 early Tuesday, then cut the price to the pre-order discount of $8.98.”

The larger booksellers like Amazon did something similar for Dan Brown’s last release. While most hardcovers retail for $24.95, chances were you could find The Lost Symbol on Amazon for $16, or even less.

But cheap books are a good thing, right?
Wrong, and here’s why.

This type of price fixing devastates independent booksellers, who can’t possibly compete with those discounts. Already under pressure from the big box stores, this trend of offering the most popular releases at huge discounts almost guarantees their demise. I spoke with one independent bookseller the other day who confessed that for some books, she sends her staff to Costco or Wal-mart, because the discount there is far greater than what they receive from their regular distributors. Wal-mart and Amazon are slowly but surely tightening their grip around the throats of the indies with this practice. Although there will always be some consumers who are willing to spend a bit more to support their local bookstore, in a tight economy, it’s unrealistic to expect people to spend two or three times as much for the same product they can order from the comfort of their home.

Right now, the publishing industry has quite literally put all their eggs in one proverbial basket. Fewer than fifty authors are currently propping the industry up. Their books already receive the lion’s share of the marketing budget, and now those books are being offered at previously unheard of discounts. So a typical consumer wanders into a bookstore. What’s the likelihood that they’ll purchase a hardcover by an author they’ve never heard of, when the latest James Patterson opus at the front of the store is selling for half the price? The top of the pyramid will continue to shrink, as the publishers place all their bets on a few proven writers. The likelihood of breaking out, or building an audience, in the face of that is daunting to say the least.

In addition to that, here’s another excerpt from the article, “Authors, publishers and rival booksellers worry that cutting the price so low will harm competition and force down the cost of books overall, leading to a reduction in author advances.” Advances have already shrunk by up to a third this year for many authors. While the writers who are considered “bankable” will still receive six and seven figure advances, most authors will end up working for less than minimum wage. Which means that fewer people will be able to afford pursuing a publishing career, shrinking the talent pool even further.

I’ll confess to not knowing exactly how much it costs to produce a hardcover once editing, marketing, typesetting, printing, and distribution costs are factored into the equation. However, now that Amazon, Walmart, and Target are conditioning consumers to expect lower prices, the margins for publishers will shrink. They simply won’t be able to afford to publish as many books each year. Titles that might be viewed as riskier will be avoided entirely. So there will be fewer options out there for readers. Grisham himself acknowledged as much in a recent interview with Matt Lauer, in which he criticized predatory pricing and said it was going to make it much more difficult for aspiring writers to be published, and for publishers and booksellers to survive.

Last week, the ABA sent a letter to the Justice Department requesting that they investigate the predatory pricing practices of vendors like Amazon, Wal-mart, and Target.
Price fixing is never a good thing. The bookselling industry is facing an impending monopoly, with a few retailers gradually eliminating the competition. And if they succeed, it’s bad news for everyone.

16 thoughts on “The Book Price Wars

  1. “The top of the pyramid will continue to shrink, as the publishers place all their bets on a few proven writers.” Not much good news here, Michelle. I’m not even sure if there are any winners at all right now. But I do feel there is one bright spot in all this: the publishers still need something to sell. That means that it’s even more important than ever to write the best books we can and make them as close to perfect as possible. It’s the only thing writers have any control over.

  2. I was going to blog about this too, Michelle, but you’ve done a superb job covering the main issues. The bottom line in all this is, I think, a smaller bottom line. As Joe points out, people still need stories, and those who write them well will find a way to sell them. The return may not be as great as in the past, true. There will be shake ups and shake outs. Perhaps this is all something resembling the beginnings of mass market paperbacks after WWII. People still bought books and authors still wrote them and publishers still sold them–all at a low price point. A lot of writers got their start that way. Some managed to make a living at it, too.

  3. What’s happening to books is an example of the “box store” syndrome that’s decimating countless types of businesses across America. Huge vendors such as Wal-Mart and Amazon are making it impossible for traditional booksellers to compete, much in the same way that traditional Mom and Pop stores cannot compete. We authors are the producers of content, so ultimately it’s up to us to decide where our books are sold. Unfortunately, in today’s book contract model, we don’t have any substantive say over selling venues or pricing.

    If I were an Indie bookstore right now, I’d get my Indie organization to start working with midlist authors who are out of contract to develop exclusive distribution contracts for new works. Here’s how it would work: In exchange for in-store placement, distribution and promotion, the Indies would get exclusive rights, including ebook rights, to that author’s work for the duration of a particular contract.

    What I’m suggesting is that Indie bookstores become a sort of publishing cooperative. I think it’s the only way they can survive.

    And I know for a fact that many midlist authors who are out of contract would jump at the chance to go Indie exclusive.

    Very good post, Michelle!

  4. This is definitely a problem for the Indi distributors as well as the Indi authors who have a higher cost of printing.

    I like the idea of a cooperative effort between the indi’s and the mid-list authors. Someone might want to bring Jerry Simmons ( in on it since he’s already involved in this from a different perspective.

    Another avenue is the burgeoning eBook market. More authors, especially new talent, are choosing to break into “print” with eBook publishers. eBooks can be very competitive since the cost of production is so much lower than print. However, the market, though growing rapidly, is still just a small fraction of the total. One example of an eBook only publisher is AKW Books (

  5. Michelle,

    Where did you get the data that says that fewer than fifty authors are propping up the book industry? That sounds ridiculously low to me. And what does it mean that they are “propping up” the industry? Isn’t that true of any type of art, where big budget movies and massive album releases support the other films and music artists that studios and labels are taking a chance on breaking out?

    I think like any industry that has seen retailer consolidation, indie bookstores are going to have a rough time in the next five years unless they have a unique selling proposition. Just look at, say, toy stores. There used to be mom and pop toy stores everywhere when I was a kid. Now there are very few, and even Toys R Us is having problems fending off Walmart. I’m sure I could find more examples, but it’s hard to fight consumers’ desire to spend the least they can to buy the items they want.

    In the future, e-publishing is going to be the medium where indie and new authors can find a fan base.

  6. Actually, Boyd, I think 50 might be an overestimate (can’t find the link to those statistics now, but will try to dig them back up). In 2007 alone, one of every fifteen hardcover novels sold was a James Patterson title—totaling an estimated 16 million books sold in North America alone. The publishing industry relies on authors who produce a NY Times bestselling book every year- Lee Child, James Rollins, Janet Evanovich, John Sandford. They’re the backbone of the industry.

    Kathryn, I think you’re on to something. It’s a great idea. I personally also think that Indiebound needs to become a little more like Amazon-it’s just not as user-friendly, even after the revamp.

  7. This is a very provocative post, Michelle. And one which should concern all of us. I also liked Kathryn’s idea about Indie conglomerates. It makes a lot of sense. But the activities of the Target-Walmart-Amazon axis is really almost to be expected, given the shrinking nature of the publishing business.

    I wrote a blog about this issue, comparing it to the record business, which, by the way, is populated with almost exactly the same type people as the publishing world. You can see it on my website, just by clicking on my name above. It’s about the 3rd post down the screen. Long story short, I’m a little more optimistic about things.

  8. We can rant and rave about the big boxes eating the Indie’s lunch (and I’ll be right beside you with my fist in the air) but I think what we all have to wake up to is that this business model is irrevocably broken. Ink on paper and returnable to boot just isn’t going to work anymore.

    Okay, now that we’ve identified the problem, what’s the solution? I’ll have to get back to you on that…..

    But not to leave on a down note. Stories have been told since the dawn of man. That model isn’t broken. Keep thrilling me with your stories and I’ll find a way to read it – whatever medium it comes on or in.

  9. Very topical post – In the UK since the Net Book Agreement was disbanded a decade or so ago, the supermarkets piled in, as well as the chains, and so bye, bye independant bookstores such as Murderone, Crime-in-store etc

    Letting market-forces exert such an influence on books, which can not be lumped into the retail sector such as toothpaste etc will only bring destruction onto the indie sector


  10. Okay, I have to confess. I was spending part of an early Christmas gift certificate at Amazon and came across the pre-order page for the next Stephen King book, “Under The Dome.” It drops on November, 10 and was available for pre-order for $9.00 for an 1100-page book.

    Yes, I yielded to the wishes of my dark overlords and ordered it. However, because I paid $9.00 instead of $40.00, I also ordered 3 other books for the same price, including Ms. Gagnon’s “Gatekeeper” and one of the writing books from John Ramsey Miller. I also picked up another book recommended by my writing group. All in all, I got all four books for the retail price of King’s opus.

    The use of a loss leader kept me shopping and buying and trying authors I haven’t read before.

    However, while I agree about the indies, I don’t have an indie in my area. I am in a very small town that supports one used bookstore and a small bookstore/gift shop that carries historical and local interest titles, mainly micro and/or self-pubbed.

    So, without Amazon, my access to all the books in the world is pretty darn limited. Although my local supermarket does have “Gatekeeper” on it’s 8-foot long book section, how’s that for distribution??

    word verify, “merpets” —> that one’s just too easy!


  11. First of all, Terri, I have to indulge in a little…
    Yay! They had Gatekeeper in your local supermarket! Would you mind telling me which market? And should you find yourself back there, and able to take a photo, I’m collecting snapshots of the book on shelves, and more are always appreciated. But if not, no worries.

    Okay, the giddiness has passed. Thank you, that made my day.
    I really appreciate the fact that you not only used the bonus King dollars to purchase more books, but that one of them was mine. ๐Ÿ™‚

    It’s possible that this kind of price slashing will prompt other readers to do the same, in the end buying more books. We can keep our fingers crossed that that’s what will happen, because barring govt intervention for a perceived monopoly, the price wars will likely continue.

  12. Michelle, it is Wood’s Market in Fort Scott, Kansas and photos will be forthcoming.

    I’m reading ‘The Tunnels’ right now and really like it. Can’t wait for ‘Gatekeeper.’


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