This post, by Ed Robertson, originally appeared on David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital site.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment that cheap books are destroying the industry.
In traditional publishing circles especially, fingers are being pointed at self-publishers (and their chief enablers, Amazon), who stand accused of encouraging a race to the bottom, of devaluing books, and training readers to pay ever-cheaper amounts – making the whole book business unsustainable.
Today, I have a guest post from Ed Robertson – author of Breakers and Melt Down – which takes issue with that view. His logic is compelling, based on a historical look at book prices. This is really worth the read:
Self-Publishers Aren’t Killing The Industry, They’re Saving It
I’m a self-publisher. An indie author. Whatever you want to call me. I’ve read many articles about how self-publishers are killing the book industry. I’ve heard it from big publishing houses. From the president of the Author’s Guild. From traditionally published novelists and agents and even other self-publishers. If I want, I bet I can find a new one of these articles every single day.
But I won’t, because I no longer believe them.
Self-publishers don’t have the power to kill the publishing industry. I don’t think anyone does. But we do have the power to change it. We already have – and paradoxically, this change isn’t a change at all. And instead of killing books, this change has helped resurrect them.
We aren’t the first to be accused of killing the industry. In 1939, Robert de Graff threatened to kill publishing, too. At the tail end of the Great Depression, when hardcovers regularly sold for between $2.50-$3.00, he started selling paperback Pocket Books for $0.25.
To put that in 2012 dollars, hardcovers cost roughly $40-50. The new paperbacks, the first of their kind in American markets, cost the equivalent of $4.16. In modern terms, a book that once cost as much as a coffee maker now cost as little as a cup of coffee. A book that once cost as much as a full tank of gas now cost as little as a gallon.
In just over five years from that 1939 launch date, Pocket Books sold 100 million paperbacks.
But it wasn’t all high fives around the burgeoning paperback business. One publisher at Penguin was so aghast at the tawdry covers on his books he wound up selling off the entire line. Others worried openly about the death of the hardcover industry. On the concept of skipping hardcovers entirely and printing straight to paperback, even Pocket Books’ own VP Freeman Lewis said, “Successful authors are not interested in original publishing at 25 cents.”
But they were, of course. Particularly genre writers who didn’t care if this new format was disgraceful. Because it sold. Readers bought their books by the millions. As the format was being denounced as the playground of hacks, authors like William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick got their start with bargain-priced paperback-only prints (specifically, with Ace Doubles that sold two novels bundled for $0.35). The history of the era is fascinating – a short yet rich article recaps it here – but what is most interesting to me is that initial $0.25 price.