Monday, August 12, 2013

Delving into book pricing, or, This is probably mostly of interest to people who work in publishing, but y'all buy books, too, right? So maybe you'll find something here worth your time?

As someone who works in the marketing department of a publisher, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about book prices. (Oddly, as a consumer, I spend almost zero time thinking about them: if I did, I wouldn't have ponied up $#%#@&@&# for the absolutely glorious Thomas Hardy Remembered a few years back, would I? Either you need a book or you don't, I figures.) And recently I've encountered a handful of pricing decisions that I think are unusual enough that they may be of interest even to the non-professionals among you.

1 First up is Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, which came out in June as a hardcover at $20. What's interesting about that is:

a $20 is very cheap these days for a 288-page hardcover. I would have expected a price more like $25 or $26.
b Gran's first Claire DeWitt novel, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, was published in hardcover in 2011 at $24.00.
3 They're both really good, stylized and deliberately fractured mystery novels. (And the latter makes a nice pairing with David Gordon's new Mystery Girl. They're very different books--Gordon's is funny and allusive where Gran's is cryptic and louche, even decadent--but they both approach the crime novel pleasantly aslant, with rewarding results.)

Gran's first novel sold just okay in hardcover, and from what I can tell really started to build a following only after it became a paperback. So I think it's reasonable to assume that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, not wanting to abandon the idea of publishing Gran first in hardcover, decided to drop the price--and cut into their margin--in hopes of bringing price-sensitive readers on board earlier. Are you a price-sensitive reader? It's only $20--that's like 2 lattes these days, folks! Buy a Sara Gran novel!

2 Next we turn to the opposite end of the spectrum: Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I dither about Gaiman: I admire him as a literary presence, as someone who seems almost wholly determined to do good within the world of books. And I'm impressed by his inventiveness . . . yet time and again I find myself thinking that his actual books feel a tad undercooked. That's unfair, I realize: I have no idea how much time and effort Gaiman puts into his writing. But aside from the wonderful Graveyard Book, which is creative enough to honor its inspiration, Kipling, I often find that Gaiman's ideas are more compelling than their execution--that, intentionally or not, he slides by a bit on shared tastes.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane may have made me a believer. A story of childhood and ancient magic, it calls to mind classics of the genre like Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series in its creativity and its convincing fidelity to a conception of a world rife with powers that are older and stranger than we can understand. It's taut and creepy and melancholy and, in a wonderful way, aged. It feels more personal, more important, than anything I've read from Gaiman before.

And, at 192 pages, it's priced at $25.99. Given how many copies William Morrow and Co. could be confident of selling, there's no question that they could have priced it at $19 or $20 and covered their costs. Instead, they seem to have looked around, noted Gaiman's absolutely rabid fan base, and said, essentially, "Fuck it: we can charge whatever we want, and these folks will buy it." I'm not really judging, mind you: I'm someone with a day-to-day stake in the survival of the publishing enterprise, and their decision seems entirely rational to me. But $6 more than Sarah Gran's book, for a novel that's nearly 100 pages shorter and that will sell ten times what hers will sell? It's impressive.

3 Finally, we turn to the recent trade paperback reissues of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels by Random House. I should say up front that I'm grateful to Random House for these: in recent decades they've only been available, spottily, as mass market paperbacks, and the only authors I can bear to read in mass market are Rex Stout (It's easier to make shelf space for 70+ mass markets than for that many trade paperbacks) and Joseph Conrad (Good god, those old Anchor editions with cover illustrations by Edward Gorey!). I've re-read the first ten now, for the first time since high school, and while they're dated in many of the ways I expected (primarily in their gender politics, as I've discussed before), they're also still well worth a crime fiction fan's time. On the plane returning from vacation Saturday I read the ninth, Pale Gray for Guilt, and I barely noticed the nintey-minute delay before we took off.

Random House has priced them at $16.00. The McGee books tend to be 240-300 pages, a size of book that in this genre these days would tend to carry a price of $13–$15 or so--but what Random House seems to have thought is:

a Right now sales of crime novels tend to run 40-70% e-books.
b Therefore, and especially for a reprint/revival series like this, people who are buying the print edition are really committed to buying the print edition.
c So we can charge essentially whatever we want.

That "essentiall" means that they risk coming up against market-based sticker shock around $16 or so, but nonetheless: that's an addition $2–$3 per book, over the course of a twenty-book series. Even so, it's worth it for a reader--seriously, if you enjoy MacDonald, will you ever think later about that extra dollar or two you spent? That's the thing about book pricing: it can be a barrier initially, but any good book will erase the memory of its price within an hour of your cracking its spine.

And that concludes today's publishing seminar. Tune in Wednesday when we discuss binding inks, or matte finishes, or how to write an e-mail to a disappointed author in the face of one of those absolutely gutting English reviews . . .


  1. Maggie Bandur2:58 PM

    I don't have the copy you gave me of Clarissa on me -- because it is fucking huge! -- but I believe the pricing on that was an unusual: UK £ 20/ US $ 20. Because they obvioulsy didn't think anyone in America would read it for more than half price.

  2. I wonder if the Gaiman pricing has something to do with the discounts Amazon and B&N will generally put on hardbacks? Gaiman's a big enough name that his new book would only sell for list price at independent stores.

  3. This is very interesting to me. When I'm buying books, I rarely consider why one TPB is $12 and another is $16. I may have to pay more attention to book pricing!

  4. Maggie, now that you mention it, I do remember that--and I still don't understand it. I think I would have made exactly the opposite decision: no one in America is going to buy this book regardless, so we should at least charge more for it. A Penguin PB at $35 would be enough to make all but a Richardson specialist gulp, but $27.50? Sure.

    Matt, there's no question that this factors into publishers' thinking, and it could be part of what's driving them here, too--just under $20 after discount doesn't seem that bad.

    And Brooks, I think you're probably better off: like I said, I spend way too much time thinking about all this stuff.

  5. >But aside from the wonderful Graveyard Book, which is creative enough to honor its inspiration, Kipling, I often find that Gaiman's ideas are more compelling than their execution--that, intentionally or not, he slides by a bit on shared tastes.<

    Yes, yes, yes! I so wanted to love American Gods, and just could not.

    His children's poem "Blueberry Girl," OTOH, is very good, though the illustrations help give it the lushness the words don't always provide.