Cheap books or surviving business?

I recently posted about how Aussies can get great prices on books right now because the Aussie dollar and the US dollar are at around 1:1 for the first time. Chuck McKenzie, recently wrote about how cheap online stores are a real threat to bookshops. He cited my post in his own. Chuck’s a good friend of mine, a writer and makes his career as a bookseller, so there’s a good case to be made from his perspective and I certainly don’t take any offence that he would use my post to help back up his own position. He makes many good points that are worth considering.

Chuck’s points about the comparisons between online bookstores and the paralell importation issues are valid. Follow the links in Chuck’s post to learn more. Chuck says:

I’m not pissed off that people are buying online – I’m pissed off at the lack of balance, in that so many people – and, it must be said, so many of the same people who vigorously defended the rights of authors and publishers during the PI debacle – are now singing the praises of the online booksellers without apparently taking stock of what effect this shift in consumer behaviour will mean for traditional booksellers.

I’m rather torn on this subject. I want there to be traditional booksellers. I love bookshsops. I love the people that run bookshops. I’ve always dreamed of owning a bookshop, though I know it’s a pipe dream. But I also love cheap books, because that means I can afford to buy more. I love shopping online because I live in the country and the internet is like a massive mall right on my desk. I’m also a big fan of ebooks, Print-On-Demand as an alternate publishing model and so on. The face of publishing and book selling is changing. We’re moving into the future every day.

The problem is that these things are market driven. While I would love to support Australian stores by buying from them, if I can get two books for the price of one by going online, I probably will. I guess bookshops need to rise to the challenge and offer something the online stores can’t. If they can’t compete with pricing, they need something else to keep them viable. What that something else might be is anyone’s guess. But market forces will ensure that bookshops survive or die based on the services they offer. It would be great if it were different, but we can’t hold back progress, even if it kills things. Which is regularly does.

In my own case, my novels are published in the US. There’s no domestic Australian distribution. So the only way to get them is online. I have some copies here and am always happy to send out a signed copy to anyone that buys one, but it’ll cost them more than if they bought it from Amazon or Book Depository. Maybe having a signed copy is enough to warrant the extra expense on their part. I also sell them at cons and have books in a variety of bookstores that are generous enough to stock them for me. Chuck’s store is one of those and I’m extremely grateful to Chuck for helping me to shift books by making them available on Australian shelves.

You may remember the instore signing I did recently. That was at Chuck’s shop and it was excellent fun, we all sold some books and had a great time. I don’t want to see things like that stop. I don’t want Chuck’s career to get eaten by progress.

Perhaps it’s worth all of us stopping periodically to check before we buy a book. Maybe we should think about local business over price and try to help bookstores survive. But it’s not really our job to do that. We’re the consumers and we’ll be guided by the market and the prices. As a writer, I want as many bookstores as possible, because that should mean more sales for me. I can’t see bookstores ever disappearing completely. But while we wait for the shops to come up with ways to keep themselves going, maybe we should do all within our means to support them in the meantime.


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14 thoughts on “Cheap books or surviving business?

  1. Hi Alan,

    Like you I live in the country, but we have a Collins bookstore, which I support. They support local country writers by stocking their books. I will only use Amazon as a last resort. I have the patience to wait for Collins to order in a book for me. I get relatives to send me Collins book vouchers as Christmas and birthday gifts. But I just brought a Kindle, for two reasons. One, I had heard they are a lot easier to read, with bigger fonts that prevent tired eyes, which they are, and two, I was coming across books that were only being released as ebooks. So I will probably be buying less from the Collins bookstore.

    It is inevitable that it will close. But in the country it might last for a lot longer than city based stores, as most people out here don’t even know what an ebook is. It is also inevitable that the Australian publishing industry will be almost non-existent in a decade or so. They simply won’t be able to survive on the tiny ebook margins that will require massive sales of a title to make any money from it. Most ebooks will be free anyway.

  2. I’m in the USA, but we support our local independent bookstore largely because they offer things wecan’t get elsewhere, namely a sense of community and comerodery through things like DnD game days, discounts that coincide with local events… People who came in dressed like zombies during the local zombie walk got a discount that day… They have genre specific book discussions & even a knitting group. On top of it all, they’ll order anything you want that they don’t have as long as they can get it. They are rising to the challenge imo. 🙂

  3. I’m proud to say I have never bought a book from Amazon… I believe they are the evil empire. I have bought through Border online – but only books I couldn’t buy direc off their shelf.

    It is a catch 22… I like you love book stores. There is something about going in a browsing, picking books from the shelf etc… the experience I don’t think you can get online. But I like cheap books too. However… if a book or an author is important to me… I take the time to buy the option which puts the most dollars in your pocket. I bought direct from you, because that’s what I do. And I love the hand written dedication in the front.

    As a small press owner – we’re going struggle against the big guys who can offer free postage for online sales. It’s a big, deep murky pond out there and we’re about to jump in and find out if we sink, swim or are eaten alive by something bigger in the pond.

    Still nothing ventured, nothing gained. And as long as we continue to love books… we have to hope it all evens out in the end.

  4. I think book stores have a hard time ahead, but I don’t think they’ll disappear entirely. There is a paralell – there was a time here in the UK when there was an Our Price Records store on every High Street. The introduction of both online stores and electronic formats for music mean they no longer exist. However, many towns now have a Virgin or HMV store where you can still go and browse through CDs and, in some cases, vinyl too. These stores have expanded to cover DVD, Blu-Ray, Games and Mobile Phones and also have a significant online presence – all of which helps their continued survival. It’s been many years since downloadable music formats came into being and CDs became cheaper through online stores, yet they’re still here.

    The difficulties for book stores are price and stock availabiity. I understand the sentiment of supporting your local book store by sucking up a higher price for the product, but that price difference can be so vast I don’t think it’s practical. If I could get a book online for £9.99 and it was £12.99 in a store, then I’d happily pay the store price, but it’s so much worse than that. An actual example that I have just this very minute checked out – The Hardback edition of the new Stephen King novel Full Dark, No Stars is £18.99 at Waterstones, but I can get it from, with free delivery, for £9.49. That’s too big a difference to ignore – it’s one thing to want to support a book store, it’s another to get royally shafted on price. Your average consumer has no real concept of what you guys go through as Authors and Publishers to get a book into the hands of your readers all they see is a desirably cheap price and that’s what they’ll go for.

    Then there’s the lesser issue of stock. With so many books and limited shelf space it is inevitable that there will be times that your book store does not have what you want. I know you’re not a fan Alan, but for me I had great angst in this regard with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I was working in the heart of London at the time and was coming to the end of book 3. I headed out at lunchtime to pick up book 4 and it became a massive trek round the city to find it. Two independent stores, two Waterstones and three W H Smiths and I eventually found it. Not one of these stores had a complete set on the shelves and all bar the last store I went to (a tiny W H Smith in Victoria Station) had the one I wanted. Yes, I could have ordered it in store, but their next delivery would have been 5 working days away. As consumers we have become very impatient and now, if you can’t get something immediately, you can fire up your smart phone, place an order and chances are it’ll be dropping through your letterbox the next day.

    We’re talking about books here, but fundamentally this issue spreads across everything from toys and electonics to clothing and household goods. It’s challenging times for retail outlets.

  5. I don’t know. I think ebooks are the wave of the future. I don’t think they are the death of publishing or anything of the sort, but I’m more likely to buy a paper copy of a book by an author whose work I’ve read electronically than I am of one I’ve never read before. Paper books are more expensive, and prior to ebooks I bought most of my paperbacks through used bookstores. Now when I buy a paperback, it’s something I really want and am willing to pay more for because I want a hard copy. So I’m buying more new paperbacks because I read more ebooks.

    Also, bookstores sell more than just books. That same independent used bookstore also sells art from local artists, etc. and we buy that stuff there too. As a general rule, we try to get from local first, then a local chain bookstore, and if that fails then online.

  6. Great comments everyone, thanks for chiming in. Just to address some of the points raised:

    Graham C – I agree with you in part, but I strongly disagree about the ebooks. Ebook margins are far greater than print book margins and they certainly won’t all end up free. We need to see ebook prices come down to around the $5 or less mark to be competitive, but why free? How would authors or publishers make money without charging for ebooks, especially once ebooks are the primary delivery system?

    Ganymeder – you raise a few ideas of what bookshops need to do. We have a local genre bookshop near Sydney that does that stuff too. They have a games night, a book club night, regular signings and author visits, etc. This is what brick and mortar stores can offer that online stores can’t.

    Jodi – I think Amazon get a bad rap. Sure, they can often be a nightmare, but they’ve opened the world to small and indie press, so we should be thanking them for that.

    Graham – You said: “The Hardback edition of the new Stephen King novel Full Dark, No Stars is £18.99 at Waterstones, but I can get it from, with free delivery, for £9.49.” That’s a perfect example. No consumer is going to look past that kind of saving through a sense of loyalty to a bookstore. And the author will make more money. In Stephen King’s case it doesn’t really matter, as he probably swims in money every night anyway. But for lesser mortals, it makes a massive difference. I’d rather sell 5,000 books at $9.99 than 500 books at $19.99. It might not be so good for the bookstores, but it’s way better for me as a writer.

  7. I’m in the same boat as you, Alan. I have bookstores in walking distance, yet if the better deals are online, what’s the draw? Christian bookstores had a model for years where they charged more for CDs and books than people could get at other venues like Walmart. Loyalty waned. Why would we want to be penalized to support those businesses? And so the models have changed somewhat. But the stores complain about unfairness, etc. This is how free market systems work though, folks. I support used and new bookstores when I can. But I am not willing to pay extra to do so. I can’t afford to, my dollars are hard earned and not enough to go around. I think the models are going to be changing and it may be for the better, but it’s hard. I still would rather hold paper and cover in my hand than read on a laptop or other electronic device. For one, how can I have the author sign it? And I also don’t have to worry about battery life. But a lot of people feel differently about that and ebooks are rising in popularity by the second. The whole industry is going to have to adjust to all of these factors and where it ends up will be different and interesting. The bookstores must change with it to survive as with any other business.

  8. Hi Alan,

    I don’t want the ebooks to be free, but the trends point in that direction. I have been tracking the top 100 ebooks on Amazon for about eight months. At the start about a third were free, now half are.

    Every unpublished author, and many who are, will be offering free ebooks to get noticed and to drum up business. There will be hundreds of thousands of them on the web. Many of these writers will be good writers, and many will probably pay editors or have friends who are editors edit their book. All someone has to do, if it hasn’t already been done, is create an amazon type site with links to all these free ebooks.

    Many ebook gurus at the moment suggest an ebook price of between $2 and $2.99. If that eventuates, publisher’s margins will be very low. But they will still have to compete with the hundreds of thousands of free ebooks.

    How will authors and publishers make money out of ebooks? Most won’t. The established authors will probably turn to self publishing of ebooks, eliminating the publisher and taking all the money for themselves. New internet sensations will come and go, selling more on hype or a great title than anything else. But they are very likely to endure massive piracy if they charge more than a couple of dollars for their ebook.

    Authors like Cory Doctorow are already looking for other ways of making money out of books than the selling price.

  9. I’m sorry, Graham, but I really disagree with you. For one thing, the whole point of the free ebooks is to bring attention to the authors. When people read something by an author they don’t already know because its free, they are more likely to buy their other books (free or otherwise). I know that’s been my case personally. The same goes for the cheaper ebooks. I’m more likely to buy an ebook for a cheaper price by someone I don’t know if its only a couple bucks and a lot less likely to buy one from an unknown if it’s more than 5$. Also, saying that the free ebooks will cut in on sales strikes me as similar to saying that libraries loaning out books for free will discourage sales. I think both arguments are flawed.

    Cory Doctorow has made a good living from giving away his work for free. The last article I read from him he talked about how well his model worked, so did he come out with something that says he changed his mind? I scanned his site (just quickly) but didn’t see anything to indicate that.:)

  10. Graham C – You actually contradict yourself here:

    “How will authors and publishers make money out of ebooks? Most won’t. The established authors will probably turn to self publishing of ebooks, eliminating the publisher and taking all the money for themselves.”

    If they’re taking all the money for themselves, then the books can’t be free! 🙂

    I absolutely agree that giving away work is a great way to generate interest. Cory Doctorow is the poster child for this, as Ganymeder points out. Another example is Peter Watts – you can get all his novels on his site for free as PDFs and he says it helped to save his career. But giving away PDFs is different to a well formatted, device specific ebook.

    Not all ebooks are free and not all will be free. My publisher regularly does promotions where they’ll offer the first book by their authors for free or $1 or something like that. Sales of all that author’s work (ebooks and print) always spike after those offers.

    As for the top 100 books on Amazon – of course the growing majority are free. People will get a book for nothing because it costs nothing whether they read it or not. Including free books in a “bestseller” or “top 100” list is flawed.

    Certainly we’re going to see a lot more in the way of free ebooks, but once the publishing model moves further and further into ebooks as the primary interface, rather than print as it still is, then those ebooks need to be monetized so the authors and publishers can make money. Pricing those books well (i.e. under $5) is the way to start. Margins may be low, but I’d rather sell a lot at a low margin than none at a high margin.

  11. Hi Alan,

    If they’re taking all the money for themselves, then the books can’t be free! – It’s just a step in the downward spiral. Established authors are already starting to do it for themselves with ebooks, cutting the publisher out. Writers with vast back catalogues will do better. Those with a series might do well too. Offer the first one free. But what will consumers pay when they try to charge for the next book? Consumers will have an increasing expectation of paying nothing from all the free ebooks that abound on the web. At the moment you might offer a free or cheap promotion, but what happens when there are thousands of established midlist authors offering free or cheap promotions on Amazon at once?

    Do you think the consumer cares about whether an author and especially a publisher make any money? All they care about, as has been made clear by most of the comments on this blog, is getting a book as cheaply as possible, and free is pretty cheap. The same people would probably think nothing of spending $15 to go to the flicks or $10 on takeaway food.

    I know of a number of established authors like Scott Nicholson who sell their ebooks for $2. During a session he suggested that ebooks will eventually be predominately free due to consumer demand for them to be free.

    ganymeder, Cory Doctorow made those comments on finding other ways to make money from books on at least one panel at the Aussiecon4 convention. I listened to him on about five different panels. And your point about libraries – they may play a role in getting the price of ebooks down to nothing. In Australia libraries are just starting to loan ebooks online, so you don’t even have to go to the library to borrow a free ebook for three weeks. I would suggest that as an ebook is not actually a physical object people will be less incline to want to hold onto them, so there will probably be less of a desire to pay for an ebook to keep.

    Unless all authors and publishers make a stand on a price they think is appropriate, consumers will win. But that is not going to happen. I can’t see most publishers, especially those run by Rupert Murdoch who is purely in it for the money, surviving.

    Lots of independent publishers will come and go. But writers will see that they can self publish ebooks on Amazon to the world – at least after they give the first one away for free to make a name for themselves – so why let a publisher take any of the $2 you attempt to charge for the second book.

    I read that Amazon at one time was considering taking out all the free books from its list, I think to hide the fact that so many of its so called ebook sales were free.

    Amazon, Apple and Google don’t care about the authors and publishers making money. If they can somehow make money out of all the free ebooks out there, they will. And when Google or some other monolith rises to strike at Amazon, like the Book Depository might, they will compete on price. The cheaper the better. Any margins from publishers will be squeezed until the publishers think about leaving Amazon and co. Will they be able to survive on their own? Perhaps they should all get together and form a cartel with their own publishing site. That would last until the US government’s lawsuit.

    I have been reading and thinking about the trends in publishing from ebooks for a while. Writing on people’s blogs when they mention them. No one has come close to convincing me that ebooks won’t destroy the Australian publishing industry, and possibly the worlds. Some authors will make money out of ebooks, the ones who get in first. But when everyone else follows, I don’t see much of a future for the vast majority of authors.

    Graham Clements.

  12. You seem to imply that consumers deciding the price for books is a bad thing, which it’s not. Those consumers work damn hard for their money, and to expect them to pay a higher price in order to support businesses not willing to adapt to the market is just wrong.

    As both a consumer and aspiring author, I empathise with both sides, but publishing is a business. Bookstores are businesses. They need to adapt.

    One more note about high ebook prices. I will almost never be willing to pay more than 5-7$ (7$ high end) for ebooks. From my perspective, the seller has no print costs and I’m not getting a hard copy, plus ereader formats vary so that there’s no guarantee now that I will be able to read the same book at a later time if the formats change. I’ve paid one time $20 and that was for a well known series that I’d already owned multiple paper copies of. Guess what happened? The format changed and I can’t read those ebooks anymore because my current device won’t read that format.

    Consumers drive the market, and the reader is the consumer. And after all, don’t we want MORE people to read the books? I’d rather make less and have people actually read what I’ve written. People who write or create art will always do so, whether they make money at it or not.

  13. Graham – You say that ebooks are all going to be free then, in the same comment, you say:

    “But writers will see that they can self publish ebooks on Amazon to the world – at least after they give the first one away for free to make a name for themselves – so why let a publisher take any of the $2 you attempt to charge for the second book.”

    So are books going to be free or not?

    This is a prime example of the current situation. No one really knows what’s going on, but things will slowly settle. The same way that music became MP3s and everyone said the music publishing industry was dead. It hasn’t happened. People still buy CDs, even if that slice of the market is greatly reduced, but they also buy MP3s, so the digital versions of music have become established and people shop online for songs or whole albums. And people still download MP3s illegally. No industry has collapsed, but those that adapt have survived and are making new methods work for them.

    When people offer free books to get readers and price other ebooks reasonably, they will sell those books. Making a career from the digital publishing world will be difficult, but that’s nothing new. I know a lot of writers, some of them really well established, “famous” authors with very loyal fan bases. They all still have day jobs bar one or two really successful people. If you’re into writing for the money, you’re in for a poor life!

    You also said:

    “No one has come close to convincing me that ebooks won’t destroy the Australian publishing industry, and possibly the worlds.”

    Just sit back and watch. The industry won’t be destroyed, but it will need to adapt. Which it will.

    ganymeder – You’re absolutely right about the problems with ebooks. But just like you can play MP3s on pretty much any device now, the same will happen for ebooks eventually. My money’s on the epub format as rising to prevalent, but we’ll see. These things will be sorted out by the market as the game progresses.

  14. Alan,

    Okay Alan, if you want to argue semantics, I will put the points together for you. Many writers are starting to charge cheaper and cheaper prices for their ebooks, while other writers are giving them away for free. There is a downward spiral in prices. That is a fact, just do some research. The ebook publishing guru’s are suggesting free giveaways, and lower prices, $2 – $2.99, at the moment. Where will it end? I doubt if any publishers, except those selling huge quantities, will make any money out of a $2 ebook, especiaily when other authors start undercutting them with $1 ebooks and, as I have mentioned, thousands of free ebooks.

    Music and ebooks are completely different, a huge section of the population will buy and listen to hundreds of songs in a year. Most people only read and buy a couple of books a year. The quantity of music downloads will always be infinitely greater than the quantities of ebook downloads. Musicians also have different avenues to make money, like concerts. Authors don’t. And are you sure the music industry is doing that well? I can see many purchasers of e-readers filling them up with free ebooks and never reading many of them.

    Ganymeder, the arguement that you work hard for your money is weak. It says nothing about the choices a person makes when spending their money. Someone who spends all their time viewing porn could try to justify that use with the same argument. And your not the first to attempt to use it. People should think about the implications of their purchases before going ahead with them. That’s why people are still employed in sweat shops, because people use their hard earned money to buy nike runners.


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