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Talisman

The high price of cheap books

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I was reading an article on The Guardian this morning about an issue that as an author, albeit no longer very active, is really quite close to my heart. This touches on something that affected me personally when my own book had recently been published, and indeed affects a lot of authors I know. Although the article is about Amazon.com and their practises, this is something that does also affect authors here and indeed around the world.

 

The article states that Amazon.com have recently changed their buy buttons, whereby heavily discounted second hand copies of books sold by third-party sellers are being presented as the default buying option rather than new ones supplied directly by Amazon. It seems that third party sellers can now secure access to the buy button by meeting certain criteria, such as among things, delivery time and pricing. While this is undoubtedly good for the consumer, as they get access to cheaper books, it is disastrous for the author, who earns nothing from such sales. Most authors don't earn an awful lot from the sale of new books (an average of around 7 percent of the cover price), but this is better than nothing at all.

 

The point is that authors, like the rest of us need money in order to live and continue writing books. While it is true that many do have a second income stream, writing in their spare time, this as I also know personally comes at the expense of having less time to promote and ultimately sell your books.

 

Although this policy is yet to filter through to Amazon.co.uk or as far as I know their European counterparts, it is likely to be only a matter of time, which is of serious concern to both authors and the industry as a whole, who are likely to see sales of their new books plummet. This then has the knock on effect of there being less money to nurture new talent and also of course affects authors advances, which have already plummeted in recent years.

 

In response to this The Society of Authors have launched what they term as Fair Reading, which aims to raise awareness of how discounting practises in general affect authors livelihoods. Many readers falsely believe that when books are discounted, it is the middle man (i.e. the seller) who takes the hit, but it is in fact the author. By buying books at these cheap prices (or even worse used ones) it is therefore the author, the creator of that work that suffers. I heard a lot of people complaining about Eastern Europeans undercutting wages during the Brexit discussions leading up the vote last year, and this is a bit like that, where the authors are the ones being undercut.

 

I realise that for many this is an emotive subject, and let's face it, we all need to save where we can (I admit that I also buy discounted books, which are increasingly the norm now anyway), but perhaps we do all need to think about these things a bit more - not just when it comes to books, but with everything that we buy. 

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This is an interesting topic, and one that I've also been ruminating on of late.

 

The price of books, especially new release hardbacks, can be high.  The possibility of shaving ~£10 from the cover price by opting for a third party seller would be tempting for most of us, I'd wager.  I'm guilty of that.  If I didn't purchase a new book this way occasionally, I might not buy the book at all, so nobody wins, and it's one less person offering positive feedback on a book.

 

I'm in the situation where most of the authors I enjoy are already dead, so it's less of an issue!

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It is true that when you buy a lot of books, as we all do on this site, then it can get expensive. I read an average of 7 books a month, so if you assume that the average price per book is around £5 that means a spend of £35 a month. This is of course an average, as some books are more expensive than others, some you can pick up for 99p while others are closer to £10 - it depends on what you want to read.

 

As I have a relatively low income, I do have to think carefully about what I spend. While I want to support authors as much as I can by buying new books (there is no such thing as used Kindle books anyway), there needs to be a middle ground. The reality is that if I were to indulge my passion for reading to the fullest I would have to sacrifice a lot of other things to do so.

 

I manage to pay for my books then by doing online surveys - I am a member of several sites and earn about £40 a month, sometimes more from doing this, which I convert to Amazon vouchers that I then use to buy books. It isn't in a sense then my own money I am using as it doesn't come out of my own bank account. It works for me though, as it means I can afford to buy loads of interesting books and the authors are still supported. 

 

It isn't discounting that I see as the bigger problem here, but rather the sale of used books and lending - not through libraries, but rather among friends. The author may earn less from the sale of discounted books or books borrowed from a library, but they do still earn something. When books though are sold on or just given away, they don't. This then for me is a far greater issue. 

 

When you think about the work that goes into writing and producing books, they are actually not that expensive. To get things into perspective, a latte from say Costa Coffee costs about £3. Once you have drunk this you have drunk this, and many people visit such places without balking at the cost, yet we balk at spending money on books which last a lifetime and give so much more pleasure. It doesn't somehow make sense. 

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I really don't think Amazon's model makes sense - it seems to assume that they can screw over authors and publishers by offering their customers the cheapest option as default and that authors and publishers will continue to produce the product for them to sell, regardless of whether its economic for them to do so.

 

Maybe authors will ALWAYS write, just as musicians will ALWAYS write - another industry where the creator often now gets screwed over by making nothing or very little from the sale of the product. But ultimately the middle man - the publisher - will surely disappear if no-one is buying at a price they have budgeted for.

 

While I'm all for retailers thinking about the consumer, ultimately they also need to think about whether their practices are are affecting those responsible for supplying what they sell.

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Well said Filip. I have worked with a few musicians over the years, as I have writers as well, and most of them do it because it is what they love and know that they will never be able to make a living from it, but do they not expect to make a loss either. One of the guys I work with plays bass with a local band and they are regularly asked to do music festivals for free, which they always turn down, as of course they need to at the very least cover their costs. The organisers however, so he tells me, seem to struggle with this concept for some reason. I don't see this as any different to expecting an author or for that matter any creator of artistic works to give their work away for free. I am sure that many would argue that with used books, the book has already been sold to someone and the person who bought that book originally has the right to do with it what they choose. Many would also argue that charities such as Oxfam benefit from the sale of such books through their book stores and so on. All of this is true, but it doesn't change the fact that authors need to earn money from their work in order to survive, pay their bills and carry on writing. The average writer so I am told, earns about £12,500 a year - way less than the minimum wage and nowhere near a living one. I suspect this figure is skewed anyway, as this is taken from members of the Society of Authors. Not many authors are members of this organisation and those that are tend to be the more successful ones. If these are the ones considered to be successful then I don't know what less successful ones earn. I know when I earned this sort of money, which I did up until 2014 when I moved to my current employer, it was a real struggle to afford anything other than the basics.

 

When I first published my book back in 2006 and was trying to get it sold through book stores I worked out the sums as to who earned what. The lions share went to the book store who demanded I sell my books to them at 60 percent of the cover price, with the distributor taking a further 15 percent. By the time I allowed for printing and shipping costs, from a cover price of £14.99 I was left with about £1.39 a copy while the book seller pocketed £6. How can anyone say that this is right? The lions share should always go to the person who wrote the book, which is of course why more and more authors are taking matters into their own hands and opting to self publish e-books rather than paper editions. These of course cannot be lent to anyone - if you want to read an e-book then you have to buy it, which is why for me, from the authors point of view they will always win hands down. I suspect that though is a whole other discussion .... 

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I completely agree - the retailer, I guess, would argue they have staff and premises costs to cover. But even so, the way the split is generally assumed to work is extremely galling for the creator. I quite agree, the lion's share should go to the creator, it makes no sense to do otherwise. I can quite understand authors self publishing - I know musicians who do th esame. Indeed, I've done it myself.

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I think so too, after all without authors there wouldn't be publishers, booksellers etc would there?!

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Exactly. The idea that buying used and indeed heavily discounted books does nothing to help authors is not a new one, and one that has been mentioned on here many times by both others and myself. In the past some members have been quite vociferous in stating that they do not agree with my stance and that their right to buy cheap books supersedes the right of authors to earn a living. I find this not only strange, but also quite disturbing considering we are all supposed to be book lovers on here. This is though a free country and people are entitled to their views even if they are different to mine. It seems to me though that we are living in an age where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. This is though largely because people do not (or perceive they do not) earn enough themselves - it is then a vicious circle. As to how to break it - that is a whole other discussion .... 

Edited by Talisman

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I'm not immune to buying discounted books, I've just today bought a Kindle book for only 99p when it's currently only available in hardback with a RRP of £18.99, and I often make use of offers in bookshops such as 3 for 2 books or buy one get one half price, but I have to say, I rarely buy physical books from Amazon or online.  Most of my physical books tend to be impulse buys from browsing in bookshops, and even then I'm often getting delayed discounts in the way of reward points or card stamps for paying over £10 to be collected for a later discount.  Even if I didn't use these discounts, it wouldn't change the amount the author received for the books I had purchased as far as I'm aware, as this is agreed at the point where the bookseller accepts the book to sell in their shop.

 

I don't agree with the new Amazon process, but as I don't buy books from them, it doesn't really make any difference to me personally.  In fact, I think the only physical books I've bought online recently have been unavailable in books shops (and I tried to get them to order them as well, but they weren't available to them as they were specialist craft books) or they've been through the Amazon market place as the books have been out of print and unavailable to buy new.

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You are right Chesil when you say that retailer reward schemes such as the one operated by Waterstones have no impact on how much the author earns as this comes from the retailers profits and bottom line. I don't think you will ever stop the practise of discounting to be honest, as the public (and I include myself in this, as I too buy discounted books) have got used to this and it has become the norm. Not many people these days buy books at full price - they are always discounted in some way, either as old stock the store is trying to get rid off, or in some other kind of promotion, such as Kindle Daily or Monthly Deals or in the case of paper books, 3 for 2's and so on. 

 

For me then the bigger issue will always be and remains the practise of selling used books and friends lending books to each other and that sort of thing. When books are discounted the author at least earns something. When you borrow a book from a library the author earns something again through public lending rights, but when books are just given away for free the author earns nothing. I don't think it is something you will ever solve unfortunately as people will always want to have things for free - some authors are happy to do this perhaps for a short period of time in order to garner interest in their other work, but the bottom line is that authors like the rest of us need to eat and pay the bills, and you cannot do that if you keep giving your work away for free. You cannot walk into Tesco's and offer the cashier a book in exchange for your shopping, it doesn't work that way. You need money. 

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Well put Talisman, and there is a cap on the amount an author can earn from PLR ie library loans, think it's about 6K, which no one can be expected to live on...

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I don't have so much of an issue with friends lending books based on my own personal experience.  I'm probably in the minority, but I know that when I've borrowed books, it's often books that I've either never heard of, or have thought they might be good, but would probably have never got around to buying myself.  Very often, the borrowed book has been a gateway book into an author, so although I've not paid for that particular book, I've then gone on to buy one or more other of their books that I would never have bothered with if I hadn't borrowed that first book.  I know the same has happened with books I've lent - someone has borrowed it, loved it, and either bought their own copy, or gone on to buy further books by the same author, that again, they never would have picked up otherwise.  I might also write a review of that book that recommends it to others, and they might buy a copy that they might not have come across otherwise, so again, that could be more sales for the author of this book, and possibly their other work, that might not have happened otherwise.

 

And where do you draw the line, can I not lend it to my next door neighbour but I can lend it to my partner who lives in the same house?  What's the difference?

 

Second-hand books are also debatable.  If I've read a book and don't have space to store it, should I just throw it away?  If I give it to a charity shop, someone else benefits from the sale, and someone who is in need of help.  Plus the person who buys it, might not be able to afford to buy the book full price, or even be able to afford the library reservation fee (which is sometimes more costly than the book in a charity shop).  If a second-hand book seller buys it and sells it on, then it's helped their business which might also carry lots of books that are out of print that would otherwise be unavailable and good books forgotten.

 

Like I've said, I do appreciate that the author has a right to be paid for their work, but I also believe there are arguments for and against both lending between friends and second-hand sales of books.

 

 

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They are all valid points which I wouldn't necessarily disagree with. I guess the key is perhaps for all of us to be that little bit more mindful about how what we do may affect others - not just with regard to books but with pretty much everything.  

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One of my New Year resolutions was to try to buy books from bookstores, and pay full price if it's from a proper book shop.  I do however still occasionally buy from the supermarket (although they have a very limited selection, usually just the top 10 or so), and I also try to get birthday cards from independent shops, although that hasn't worked that well as I tend to get them in Marks or a supermarket as that's the only time I remember I need to buy a card!  And it's more convenient.

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Hello Folks

 

We, as writers, have to ask ourselves why we write. Yes, I agree this is an overworked cliché but please read on.

 

Walk through any town at the foot of a mountain range and you're see two things. One is an outfitters' shop selling climbing, walking and camping gear. You will also see about four empty shop-fronts that were short-lived outfitters. These were operated by folks - usually two and usually guys, but not necessarily - who were mountaineers who hoped to earn enough to finance their hobby, their vocation, their passion. Those who operate the successful outfitters' shop are business people who may or may not also be mountaineers. Those who operated the now-closed shops are likely still passionate mountaineers but clearly not very good at business.

 

So it is with we who write. We need to ask ourselves the question: which is more important to us, writing or running a successful business?

 

Some time ago the Fender folks commissioned a study and concluded out of every 88,000 guitars they sold, one earns a living for somebody. Statistics I've seen for writers suggest out of every one-hundred who sit down to write a book, one completes it; out of every one-hundred books completed, one is published, and a bricks and mortar publisher expects one out of eight books published to earn a profit. That's one out of 80,000 - interesting parallel.

 

Tony Black, a Scottish writer suggests the average annual earnings for a writer are £5000, certainly less than your £12,500, Talisman, but never mind.

 

So what is the answer to this problem? The answer probably is there is no answer - sorry for another cliché.

 

We write because we love writing, just as we read because we love reading. I recall sitting on a train reading Proust - yes I struggled through the entire 3700 pages and I'm still not sure what I achieved with that other than my being able to brag about it. A woman across the table from me commented her husband read it in the original French and they never, ever allowed any paperback books across their threshold. Bully for her, the pompous cow! I read mostly paperbacks because that's how I choose to spend my money and I buy used books because that, too, saves me money I can use to promote my own writing.

 

Yes it would be nice to be contacted by an agent telling me she or he has found a publisher prepared to offer me a £20,00 advance for the next three in my current series. It's probably not going to happen. Yes it would be nice to be contacted by the folks at the BBC inviting me to do a Meet the Author interview. It's probably not going to happen. Yes it would be nice to earn enough from my writing to finance my travels around the country to promote my writing. I'm working on it.

 

In any event, I'll keep writing. It's what I do.

 

Thanks for listening.

 

All the best with your reading and your writing.

 

Warmest regards

Riis

 

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Thanks Talisman for the insight into this.

I am interested to see 7 per cent of the sale of a new book reaches the author. That in itself is abysmal.

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It certainly is. It's little wonder that self publishing is increasingly becoming the norm. That though has its own set of problems, as it's bloody hard work and despite the advent of Kindle which has made it considerably easier and cheaper, there is still a stigma attached to it. There are still a lot of people who see self publishing as a failure rather than the mark of an entrepreneur, which really it is, as it's running your own business. There are a lot of different things you have to do - proof reading, editing, marketing, dealing with the press, radio, book stores etc, public speaking, and of course the financial side. It's damned hard work - I speak from experience there! 

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10 hours ago, itsmeagain said:

Thanks Talisman for the insight into this.

I am interested to see 7 per cent of the sale of a new book reaches the author. That in itself is abysmal.

 

And that seven percent is usually only on books bought at full price.  Larger distributors will negotiate that percentage down if they want to buy a large amount of a book to include on a discount offer such as their "buy one get one half price".  I saw a children's author tweet the other day showing her sales figures and I think it was something like 30,000 books sold and she earned just over £400 because the majority had been sold in bulk for discounting to the end customer. 

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Sounds about right. How many books are sold at full price these days anyway - hardly any. There is nearly always some sort of discount involved - BOGOF, BOGOHP or whatever other acronym you want to use. Its like I said, we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. 

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