The price of books

Last week I read an interesting article by Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, on what he expects to be the big publishing trends in 2017.

Smashwords is an online platform for distributing independently published e-books. As such, the article has a strong focus on the year’s forecast for the indie book market, and in particular on the role of Amazon’s KDP Select program in shaping the direction of that market.

KDP Select provides preferential placement and promotion to authors who make digital versions of their work available exclusively through Amazon for a period of at least three months. Amazon provides marketing tools to Select authors that are not available to non-Select authors. It’s an option which is taken by many new independent authors who are seeking avenues to connect readers to their work, and one that I have actively considered myself.

In 2014, Amazon also introduced Kindle Unlimited.

In Coker’s words, Kindle Unlimited is ‘a subscription service that caused significant devaluation of books, both in terms of what readers think a book should cost, and also in terms of what authors will be paid for those books.’ Think Netflix, for books.

Authors enrolling their books in KDP Select are also making them available to readers for the price of subscription through Kindle Unlimited.

I’m not qualified to comment on a lot of what Coker talks about in the article, though I certainly read it with great interest. I just haven’t done the research yet.

I have, however, been reflecting since I read it on this issue that Coker raises of whether readers should expect to read books for free?

Here are a few interesting facts using myself as a research subject, sample size of one.

Fact One: I have no idea how many books I have read in my lifetime. But lots. Lots and lots.

Fact Two: Books have comforted me, taught me, befriended me, given me courage, made me question, helped me lose myself and find myself.

All very nice, I know, but how much money have I spent on them?

Fact Three: Honestly? For the role they have played in my life: not all that much.

As a reader, I exist in a shadowy world of public libraries (BLESS THEM TO ETERNITY), hand-me-downs from my bookworm older sisters, long-term loans from friends (oops sorry), and books I have acquired for ridiculously small sums of money from second-hand bookshops, garage sales, Lifeline Bookfairs and so on.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to buy brand spanking new books.

I love to own books.

I am infinitely happy walking into a bookstore and buying a book by an author I’ve never read before, or by someone who I know that I love.I have no aversion to purchasing and reading e-books, either. I find something intimate about words on a screen, about tracing my finger along the glass to swipe the page.

But as someone who loves books and cannot imagine life without them, over the course of my lifetime I have contributed remarkably little to the publishing industry as a consumer.

That being said, since my son was born in 2014 I have not yet managed to buy a new bra due to lack of money, but I have somehow managed to buy a good few dozen new releases, and a handful of lifesaving audiobooks, and a bunch of e-books downloaded with reckless joy at random times of the day and night (and not from Amazon).

Because I know, again and again, books have saved me.

The thing is, sometimes it’s the times when you most need the words that you can least afford the financial transaction.

None of this is offered in defence or support of Amazon’s marketing tactics or Amazon’s dominance of the independent publishing scene. Even more so, this is not to say that authors shouldn’t be paid for their work, and paid commensurate to the value they provide, which in my view is immense.

But I do feel there is a conundrum here.

I am curious about the way so much of the ecosystem of stories has existed outside of the capitalist market system described by Coker for most of my lifetime.

In part, I have a sense of horror to think that authors who I adore, whose words I carry with me always, may have never actually received a cent from me in recompense.

(Though to be fair, lots of them are dead, and if they’re not there is the chance they may receive money through  things like the lending rights program).

In part, I find it wonderful that good stories, once made, are so hard to pin down, that they are more like a virus than a commodity.

But the reality is, though writers may hope for immortality, they also need to find a way to pay for food and a roof over their heads to continue to do what they do. Being poor can be very stressful, and in my experience, extreme levels of stress are remarkably bad for creativity and productivity.

I don’t have any answers. But I am going to keep thinking about these questions.

Shoot me your thoughts in the comments below if you have some, whether you’re a reader or a writer. I’d love to hear from you!


5 thoughts on “The price of books

    1. Thanks, and sorry if I didn’t make that clear enough.

      I think what Coker was pointing to was the broader trend of dropping prices, offering things for free or perms-free and how that is shifting readers/consumers expectations of how much they should pay.
      My thoughts were a bit peripheral to the main strands of that argument!

      I would be interested to know, if you’ve been publishing a while, whether this downwards pressure is something you’ve noticed yourself and whether you think it has had any impact on what you’re able to earn?


  1. A blogging friend of mine, Ruth Nestvold has written quite a bit about KDP and KU, and reblogged a lot of others as well. There was a lot of controversy not long ago because pages-read weren’t being calculated properly and despite all the evidence and stats authors were putting forward, Amazon was denying there was any problem. I’m currently enrolled in KDP/KU because I made my book free for a weekend, and I’ve only had about 150 pages read all up, which I imagine won’t equate to very much when they divvy out the payments at the end of the 90 day period. As far as I can tell from the reports, there’s no way of really knowing how many people read those 150 pages and how many sales of the whole book that might have equated to otherwise.

    I definitely rely on my public library a lot, and I take great comfort in the existence of the Lending rights program, even though I have no idea how much authors actually get out of that. Wikipedia assuring me that Australia has the program is about all the research I’ve done on it.

    There is that pervasive idea that creativity (whether writing, music, etc) should be something that you shouldn’t ask money for, that you’re doing it for the love of it and should be embodying the whole “starving artist” thing, rather than it being a business/job like anything else. I haven’t sold enough copies of my book to really make any kind of comment. Writing isn’t going to be my day job for a long time yet, but I feel this sort of thing must affect the writers in some way.

    Liked by 1 person

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