Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Table Talk: At What Price?

Welcome to the second chapter of Table Talk, where three creators of New Pulp Fiction chat about a variety of topics relating to New Pulp. This week, Barry Reese, Bobby Nash and Mike Bullock examine the topic of pricing.

Question (Mike): What do you guys think about contemporary cover prices? Comics are $4-5 these days and fans complain constantly. Fancy trade and prose books are now hitting $20-50. Where do you think the line should be drawn between making a profit and exceeding what the market will bear?

Barry: There's definitely a breaking point. We've seen in the digital music industry that people are willing to pay certain amounts and not others. It's the same here - some things are great reads at $13 but aren't worth $25. Without naming names, there's recently been a high profile revival of a pulp classic... But at $24 for a paperback and nearly $40 for a hardcover! No paperback is worth that. Charge less and you sell more is what I think. The publisher's response is that the economics of Print on Demand forces those prices. Having been around POD publishers for years, I think that's a load of hooey. It's simply a case of them wanting to boost their bottom line and if the market will bear it, maybe they're in the right. But it feels like a ripoff to me.

Bobby: Like everyone, I wish books were cheaper. I would certainly pick up more books if they were a bit more affordable. On the flip side, however, I also understand why the costs rise. It’s my hope that lower price e-books will allow new readers to find work that they may not be able or willing to fork out the higher prices for a print version.

It’s hard to gauge the perfect price point, especially as I don’t handle the publishing side of things. Although it hurts my income, I do generally discount my books at conventions, which helps sell them a bit better than cover price.

Mike: I try to look at it from both sides, but I think in the end the lower prices move more product, and thus make more money. Granted, each publisher understands their own unique situation and has to make their own decisions on what's best for them and their interests, but it seems to me I'd rather make $1 off five thousand books than make $5 off 500. But, there's not necessarily any verifiable proof that cutting the price in half will move twice as many units.

When you take into account publishers need to pay the creators, the production folks, shipping, distribution and the store's cut, I can see that rapidly ballooning a per unit price to double or triple over what it costs to print. Toss in a licensor fee and things get dicey fast, I'd bet.

Still, I think keeping prices as low as possible, especially in the current economic climate, is the best way to go.

Bobby: Agreed. There’s no proof that lower prices move books when it comes to bookstores and/or Amazon sales, but a $24 paperback is a bit pricey for me. I do know that there are books I have on my table at cons that many folks have balked at the price point. Of course, there are those that balk at the discounted price as well so go figure.

Barry: There are always going to be people who want to pay absolutely nothing – at the library I work at, we frequently sell books for 50 cents or a dollar and there are people who complain that those prices are outrageous. Even so, there’s such a thing as common sense with regards to pricing and over twenty dollars for a paperback is just inane. I feel genuinely torn when it comes to buying these things: I don’t want to encourage what I feel are unfair pricing measures but at the same time I want to support these revivals in hopes that we can get more of them… It’s a tough decision.

Mike: What I don't understand is the gap between graphic novel and prose novel pricing. It's definitely more expensive to produce and print a graphic novel, and shipping them costs more per unit due to the weight of all the additional ink per page. Yet, most graphic novels hover under $15, while many prose books of similar page counts exceed $20. I'd love to get a publishers take on that, as I'm guessing there's a reason, but it escapes my efforts to figure it out. Thankfully, there are still many prose novels that are south of the $15 mark and there are many that ride north of it that have huge page counts, giving us a bit more bang for the buck.

Bobby: That’s a good question, Mike. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. Prices are a too high on most paperback books. Maybe e-books will offer a pleasant alternative and allow readers to read the stories they want while keeping costs low. We’ll see.

Speaking of e-books, what do you think about electronic books and the pricing on them?

Mike: When I start doing my own e-books, which will be soon, I'll aim for somewhere around one-fourth of the physical cover price, or less. Since e-books don't require printing, shipping and physical distribution, I don't see the need to recoup that in the pricing. From all the research I've done, it seems like lower e-book pricing does have a direct impact on sales, so why limit your audience by only making the book available to people who can afford to (and are willing to) shell out top dollar?

From a reader's standpoint, I refuse to buy an e-book that's anywhere near the price of the actual book. It just feels like throwing away money since I don't get anything to physically hold in my hands. But, I'm an old fart who prefers real books.

Bobby: I can understand that, Mike. I won’t buy e-books that are the same price as the physical printed editions. It seems silly.

Barry: I think one-third of the print price is about right. At no point should a single book be much more than $12 in my opinion and most should be less.

Bobby: Do you guys see a solution to the pricing issue?

Mike: I don't know if there's a "one-size-fits-all" solution, but I do think all the publishers involved in the New Pulp movement are striving to achieve a price point that allows them to continue putting out product that's affordable. Obviously, there's going to be misfires, but hopefully as the movement gains momentum and a greater audience, these things will sort out.

Barry: Ultimately, the market will correct itself as publishers discover the limits for what the public will pay. Until then, you'll continue to see wild fluctuations - particularly between publishers whose primary concern is maximizing profit and those whose primary concern is maximizing readership.

Bobby: And readers can always vote with their dollars.


  1. C'mon Barry, at least show some bravery and at least call out the novel as The Desert Demons, as published by me. After all, it's quite evident you've got an axe to grind regarding my company and our books' prices. I thought the complaint sounded familiar, and I realized you'd made the same gripe in a comment left on the DD's page on Amazon.

    Is this the same Barry Reese who just 24 hours ago was lamenting the "attack" by Tony Davis on New Pulp stories, only to hear you turn around today and call another New Pulp story, The Desert Demons, "inane" and a "ripoff"?

    Your quote:

    "The publisher's response is that the economics of Print on Demand forces those prices. ... It's simply a case of them wanting to boost their bottom line."

    ...borders on libel. Please tell me where I ever mentioned such reasoning. If anything, it's clear you deliberately took passages out of context in order to validate your screed.

    I'm temped to detail our rationale for the new Doc Savage novels' pricing, but frankly, it's none of your business. No one's getting rich off these books. And when you get your books carried by major distributors, the vast majority of room for profit is gone. Mr. Reese, since I've never heard of you being a writer before, and I had to look up your books, I can safely say you have little experience with such elements of the publishing world, regardless of your claim of being "around POD publishers for years."

    Your boasts that "no paperback is worth" $24.95, and that "the market will correct itself as publishers discover the limits for what the public will pay" only show your naivety even more. We brought scores of copies of the new Doc books to PulpFest and had them all sold in less than a day. If you put out a quality product, featuring a beloved character, people will buy it. The $40 hardcover you bemoaned has sold better than the paperback edition. You're backwardly right: indeed, the market has spoken.

    Perhaps you should listen to the fans a bit more. People wanted a deluxe keepsake edition, a cheaper hardcopy alternative, and a super-cheap e-book. We created all three types (the e-book is coming this month) to meet every price point. No other publisher is doing more to reach more readers. We were happy to do it and we're grateful to every one who bought a copy. Based on our offerings, it seems that Altus Press is in reality the publisher whose "primary concern is maximizing readership," to quote you. And I look forward to your eventual rant that our $4.99 e-book is too expensive for your tastes.

    It's too bad you have little foresight, Barry, which is surprising, given your claimed years of experience in publishing. Doc Savage is the most well-known property of all the New Pulp properties. It's getting a lot of exposure. Just this week it had a 1/4-page color spotlight feature in Previews. It stands to reason that pushing these new Doc Savage novels to achieve success would only help all the other New Pulp authors. A rising tide lifts all boats. Yet you've felt it was more important to rant about the pricing based on uninformed conclusions.

    I wish to thank Bobby and Mike for a fair, even-handed debate on the logistics that go into a book's price.

    Barry, I look forward to reading more of your sales and marketing expertise on the world of publishing.

    Matt Moring
    Altus Press

  2. Thanks for coming over and commenting, Matt. Would you be up for participating in a future discussion on the topic of pricing?


  3. Matt, thanks for the comments -- the reason I didn't "call you out" in this article is that a number of folks didn't like me doing so in previous columns and reviews. To placate them, I decided to not mention anyone by name in this one. I don't doubt that you're selling lots of copies -- hell, I bought one at full price! I love Doc and as I've said again and again, I want to support Doc, even if I feel the pricing is out of whack. As for the part about the economics of POD, that came from someone (I assume Will Murray) responding to a question about the pricing of the book on the Wild Adventures of Doc Savage FB page. I had originally assumed that you were posting there but that was probably Will, so my attribution of that quote to the publisher was obviously in error.

    I *do* obviously feel that the book is overpriced. I feel that way about most of the books you publish, even though I've bought several -- the Seekay book is actually one of my favorite collections of all time, even though I paid too much for it ;-)

    As I've said again and again, if people are willing to pay what you charge, then maybe you're in the right -- but I have the right to say I think it's too much and that I don't buy as many Altus books as I would otherwise because of that.

    In terms of my publishing experience, I oversee Old Capital Press, which publishes POD history books for the middle Georgia area and have done so for about five years. That's outside of my writing career that you've never heard of. :-)

    "But it feels like a ripoff to me" is what I said and that's what it feels like to me when I'm asked to pay that much for a paperback book. That's my opinion and one that I've more than earned the right to give, since I paid my hard earned money for the book. And, as I said on Amazon, the book was a damned good read and well worthy of the Doc tradition.

    But I wish it had cost less.

    And $4.95 for an ebook sounds fine to me. I don't go that route because I do want a physical Doc book to go on my shelf beside the others -- but that's my decision and I have to weight all the factors involved (quality, price, etc.)

    Take Care.

  4. On July 25, a FB user named Danny posted: "As much as I love Doc Savage, it had better be printed in bronze to pay $24.00 for a less than 300 page book." The response from the Facebook page's owner was "The economics of POD printing dictate the price. And we're selling many more copies of the $35.00 hardcover than the softcover. Not what I expected. So go figure." I apologize for attributing that quote to the publisher. It was an erroneous assumption on my part.

  5. Barry
    Without agreeing or disagreeing with your point, what do YOU think is a fair price for a trade paperback these days?
    As a POD publisher myself, I understand the issues in deciding how to price these books. We ultimately used a pretty simple calculation - what would WE pay? And we have stuck to that price, whether the book is 500 pages or 300 pages.
    Now, we have been told that we charge too much, and we have been told we should be charging more. But we are comfortable where we are at.
    As for Altus, his sales would indicate that the prices are not to high for many people.

    Bill Mann
    Age of Aces Books

  6. Agreed on the issue of his sales, Bill -- if folks are willing to pay his prices, then he may be in the right for them.

    As for what is a fair price to me, it depends on a few factors -- length being a major one. I wouldn't complain about paying $24.95 for a well-packaged book that was 600 pages in length. That's a tidy little tome. For a paperback that's less than 300 pages, I don't really want to pay much more than 15 or 16 dollars (and that's for a small press book, where I understand they have to charge more than a major press). I might begrudgingly go up to $19.95 but I really want it to stay under $20 for a 300 page book.

  7. I posted this over at the Altus Press blog, but the comment has, to this point, not made it out of the moderation queue. So, just to make sure everyone is clear on NPF's stance on the topic of Altus Press, here's my reply to Matt on the Altus blog regarding his response to this column:

    I own the site and can assure you I will not allow your post to be removed. The purpose of the column is to let others see the conversations between professionals in the industry and open discussion on the topics at hand.

    It would go against that purpose to silence a voice that has valid input to that discussion.

    My invitation to you to participate in a later installment of the column remains open as well. I hope you accept it.

    The NPF staff admires the work of Altus Press and will continue to support it, despite any personal feelings you may have about Barry and his opinions.

    However, the topic of pricing is a valid one and we won’t shy away from looking at both sides of the equation, even if it means some people may take offense. I posed the question to Barry and Bobby after hearing/reading several people in a very short time span voice displeasure at current pricing structures (this was not aimed at Altus, or any other publisher and the complaints ran the gamut from Marvel Comics to small press POD publishers from digital comics to eBooks).

    I would like to point out that Barry has very vocally endorsed the book in question on several venues, coming just short of calling it a masterpiece merely due to the cover price. If that’s the only complaint, it sounds like your efforts deserve applause.



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