We know we have choices when it comes to how we obtain books. You can rent books from the library, buy at independent bookstores or box stores, or take the path of least resistance and click a button on Amazon. As consumers, we’ve been taught to look for deals—and who doesn’t love the satisfaction of a good buy? But where books are concerned, thoughtful consumers will do well to consider the supply chain, and why buying books at some outlets over others better serves authors.
First, books are underpriced (in my humble opinion). We’ll happily pay $17 (the exact same price as most paperbacks) for a movie, but we’re reluctant to pay full price for books. The reason they’re underpriced is because they’re undervalued. There are many reasons why this is the case, including: 1) Too many books are published each year; 2) It’s easy to get free books (libraries) and used books (bookstores and online); 3) Amazon provides books at such steep discounts (so much so that they often undercut their own profit).
When we undervalue books, we undercut publishers and authors, even if we don’t realize we’re doing so. With ever narrower profit margins on books, it’s really tough for small presses to thrive (or even survive) and incredibly difficult for authors to make real money at their craft. Back in the days when there were fewer books, average print runs were a lot larger than they are today, and economies of scale meant that books might be printed for $1 each or less. At the presses I run, She Writes Press and SparkPress, average print runs are 1000, and the cost per unit is a lot closer to $3 (sometimes even $4) per book. Considering that the average list price is $17, it’s a pretty clear that book publishing is no way to earn a decent living.
When you buy a $17 book from Amazon, Amazon takes 50% or more right off the list price (even if it’s discounted to the usual $11.50). The cut to the publisher is therefore less than $8.50, to be split between the author and publisher, minus the printing costs.
As consumers, we have power when it comes to how we spend our money. It’s easier to buy on Amazon, no doubt. And while bookstores insist on similarly high discounts, I would rather spend my money to buy at bookstores because they’re contributing to a book culture, valuing books and authors as more than just products they’re pushing. They support author events and publishers, and provide community. Recently I started buying books online at Book Passage. It takes a few extra days, and I have to spend more money, but it makes me feel better to support a local bookstore that I care about.
Another option that’s rarely considered by consumers, in part because it’s not been widely available, is buying direct. Many authors sell their books on their websites, however, and increasingly publishers are finding ways to sell direct, too. Ingram recently bought a platform called Are.io that allows publishers to sell and fulfill their books through Ingram Wholesale, in essence eliminating the middleman and resulting in a much better cut to publishers/authors. Are.io takes about 15% of the list price (as opposed to Amazon and bookstores’ 50%+). So the cut to the publisher on a $17 book sale is $14.45 rather than $8.50 (though this will vary depending on the price point the publisher decides to set on a given book).
Whether you’re actively looking to change your buying habits or not, it’s important to consider the impact that buying on Amazon has on independent authors. Beyond devaluing intellectual content by keeping prices low/lower/lowest and conditioning consumers to expect the cheapest possible products, Amazon is also now (as of March of this year) allowing third-party vendors to “win” the buy button. I’ve written about this at length, but this policy undercuts publishers and authors, creating a streamlined way for Amazon to dump its overstock to willing third-party vendors at super low fees and then providing an easy pipeline for those same vendors to sell said titles on the Amazon platform (as new!) where Amazon happily takes a percentage for this privilege. Double-dipping, anyone?
Contribute to a healthy book environment by supporting publishers and authors. Do this by buying at bookstores (even if it takes extra time or money) and/or by buying direct when you can. If you see that your favorite publishers are starting to offer branded bookstores online, try them out. See what the buying experience is like. Consider becoming a loyal consumer of a particular publisher whose books you like. We’re unaccustomed to doing this because we live in the era of the megastore, or in the case of Amazon, the Suggeter-in-Chief. Yes, they’re collecting data on you so they know what you like. Yes, they’re charging publishers for the privilege to push certain titles on you. Let’s choose agency over convenience, at least where books are concerned. It’s not just about authors getting paid slightly better, it’s about seeing that how we buy books has a bearing on the future of books at large and that we all play a role in maintaining a healthy book ecosystem where there’s more than just one player in town.