The other day, I reposted a meme on Facebook, reading somewhat like this: “Why are people ready to pay $ 4.99 for a cup of coffee, but hesitate to buy a book of that price?” A moment later, one of my author page’s friends answered somewhat like, “I don’t understand this either. But why does a printed book cost so much more than e-book?” Indeed, we agreed that making a cup of coffee at home is cheaper than paying a barista for their work and a cup of coffee. I hope I explained well enough what bothered her more.
Back in the mid-nineties, I started out as a journalist. I worked at a daily paper first with an in-house printing office and the actual printing house at a location in a different town. A year later, I was at a publishing company with multiple publishing houses under one roof and a printing house literally downstairs. Walking through the printing house, looking for a contact, guiding guests through that printing house became a routine that never stopped being amazing. So many different steps in the process from research to printing to distribution. So many people involved.
Now that I’m an independent author, processes have not changed. They are just not as visible anymore. And they are totally invisible to anybody going to a bookstore, visiting a book-selling online platform, or meeting me at a table at an event. You see the price of a book – $ 12, $15, $17, $19. And you balk. You think it over. You might drive to a restaurant later in the day. Your bill will triple the price of a book, or even more. But that doesn’t bother anybody. Because a book is inconspicuous. A pile of tidily organized paper inside a colorful cover. Not more, right?
But oh, so much more! A conscientious author will research their book carefully before even setting to work. In some cases, and depending on the topic, it can take years and extensive travels. Then they will sit down and write, each in their individual method and at their individual pace. Trust me, it takes a while to get it done from start to finish. Then you have your beta-readers or critically editing readers, and then you rewrite. Not once. Sometimes a dozen and more times. Just this one book. And there is usually no payment. Most of the authors you know don’t earn enough to make a livelihood from their books. I don’t make anything from a book during its writing process.
Now comes the publishing process. You have an electronic file which you submit to either a publishing house or platform according to their standards. You do the cover layout with the help of some templates that are offered, then you click, and the book is online. Or you are offered the support of a cover layouter, and they click and put it online. Either way, the e-book pretty much costs the same to the reader. Less than a cup of coffee to-go. And the author gets a pittance, even less when a layouter is placed in between. For a year’s work.
What about the print version? Think layout again. But now, you need a printing house that stores paper and printing colors, creates printable data, runs and maintains the machines, cuts the pages, binds the pages, places the book between the covers. They keep the consumer price constant though the prices for their purchases might rise and fall.
If an author works with a publisher, they involve professional editors to help with finalizing the manuscript. The publishing house prints a specific number of books that then need storage respectively have to be delivered to distributors. All these stages need financing, including the distributors aka book stores. Everybody wants a cut. But the number of prints keep the price kind of affordable, the production price-effective.
An independent author usually either pays for a specific number of prints or uses an on-demand facility. Which means that each and every book is printed as it is ordered – an infinitely more cost-intense way of production. In order to pay for all the people and the material involved in the process the price has to be upped. Which is why you find independent author’s books often (not always) more expensive than authors who are under a contract.
Either way, the number of people, the amount of material, maintenance, and market fluctuations make a printed book more expensive than an eBook. The author sees but a fraction of a book’s price return as royalties or return. And it takes a lot of sold copies to pay for the publication and marketing of a book. That’s why authors LOVE kind comments on Amazon and Goodreads etc.
Writing a book is way more a labor of love than a sure way to riches. Even though a printed book might cost the buyer double or triple the price of a cup of coffee. But I promise you it makes a better gift than one cup of coffee. And it certainly lingers on the mind longer.
Bob Warfield says
Thank you, Susanne Bacon. Your reflections on this essential industry of the mind, writing, and adjunct processes of distribution, deserves a second cup. In any language, across generations, our habits and traditions, quests, failures, triumphs and harmonies seek expression to inform and to celebrate humanity, turning the page through such windows to a wider world.
Susanne Bacon says
Thank you, Bob! I couldn’t imagine life without books, indeed. And I have to admit that I love my one and (usually only) cup of coffee a day for breakfast, usually brewed at home. With a book open on the side .
Joseph Boyle says
Thank you for your skillful thoughts to ponder.
I know, you know, I know, you know what you are talking about. (I love this second sentence. Read it carefully once or twice and you might say, “Oooookay.” It does make sense even if a fast read will make your eyes roll.)
If a potential reader goes to the coffee shop 2 times a day during this leap year, they can easily spend $2,928 or more during the year. It makes sense to me to make some espresso at home for at least two or three days and they do not even have to be three days in a row. The benefit of this kind of coffee discipline is at the end of the three days, you will have $24 to buy a book. Once you own the book, you can go to the coffee shop every day until you have finished reading the book. Then simply start over again and there you have it. Books and coffee. Joseph Boyle
Susanne Bacon says
Thank you for doing the math, Joe. Indeed, it’s stunning how much is spent on the one and how often authors hear criticism about the price of their books.
Just because thoughts are free, doesn’t mean that a year’s or longer work should be. And I guess that needs to sink in somewhat. Also why a physical copy a book should cost more than an eBook. The freebie mentality when it comes to creative products is way too abundant.