Author Horror Story #6: Sticker Shock

A scribe's enthusiasm disappears the minute he sees what his publisher will charge for his book.
Feb | 26 | 2024
  Feb | 26 | 2024
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BY Phil Simon
  Phil Simon

Author Horror Story #6: Sticker Shock

A scribe's enthusiasm disappears the minute he sees what his publisher will charge for his book.
Phil Simon
Feb | 26 | 2024

Author Horror Story #6: Sticker Shock

TL;DR: A scribe's enthusiasm disappears the minute he sees what his publisher will charge for his book.
Phil Simon
Feb | 26 | 2024

Adrian’s first self-published book about branding did surprisingly well in 2006. No one would call its design, editing, and title stellar, but the title sold a respectable 3,000 copies—far more than what experts said he would. Despite its warts, Adrian more than recouped his production costs. Maybe he could make a living writing books or at least create a viable source of passive income.

Even better, all of a sudden, traditional publishers were interested in his ideas. In a word, they saw upside. Ultimately, Adrian inked a deal with Foo Press for his second release. (No, that’s not the real name. Guess what band I’m listening to as I write this post?)

Six months after signing, Adrian awoke and found an especially interesting Google Alert in his inbox: his book had finally hit Amazon. Boom. Time to send out a newsletter to his subscribers featuring a link to that page. Let the pre-orders flood in, baby. Before hitting the Send button, though, he noticed something odd on the listing. Foo was charging an insane $60 USD for the hardcover and an inexplicable, unconscionable $49 for the Kindle version.

Stay in Your Lane

Surely, this had to be some mistake. After all, Adrian wasn’t writing a niche textbook that thousands of students must buy, cost be damned. Why would any consumer willingly pay anywhere near that much for a physical book—and almost as much for the digital version? He immediately called his acquisitions editor, Cleo.

Turns out that price elasticity is really a thing. Who’d have thunk it?

Cleo listened as Adrian asked pointed questions about the book’s price—arguments that she had often heard from other new authors.

As it turned out, Adrian wasn’t special. Foo wasn’t interested in maximizing the number of copies sold for any of its titles. Rather, it wanted to maximize profits. As Adrian would soon learn, the gap between the two concepts resembled a chasm.

Cleo told him that there was always a small but core number of passionate Foo readers who’d pay those astronomical prices for its titles. Cleo claimed that lowering the price of his release wouldn’t increase overall profits enough to justify the loss in revenue from each copy sold. Beyond that, she didn’t take too kindly to his unsolicited pricing input. Foo set its own prices, thank you. He should stay in his lane if he ever wanted to work with the company again.

Building a Better Research Ingestion Engine

Predictably Disappointing Sales

When all was said and done, Adrian’s book sold fewer than 1,200 physical copies—and under 100 digital ones. Although he could never prove it, he believed that his publisher’s sky-high price all but meant his book was DOA. As for the financials, Adrian earned 15 percent of the net price of his title ($18). Bottom line: Each copy sold meant that he owed Foo $2.70 less from his modest $5,000 advance. (That’s just how traditional publishing works.) Like so many others, his book never earned out.

Even worse, his friends and followers—wildly unfamiliar with how the publishing world works—thought that he was being greedy. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Lamentations and Next Steps

For years after his second book’s release, potential agents and AEs from other publishers pointed to Adrian’s lack of sales when politely declining his overtures. To him, the right question wasn’t why he sold so few copies. Rather, it was:

With such a prohibitive price tag, how the hell did he even sell as many as he did?

Eventually, Adrian embraced hybrid publishing. He set far lower (read: reasonable) prices for his books and made far more per unit sold. Not surprisingly, sales skyrocketed. He sold more copies and made more money from book sales than he ever did with Foo. It turns out that price elasticity is really a thing. Who’d have thunk it?

Postscript

Three years later, Adrian contacted Billy, Cleo’s replacement at Foo Press. Adrian implored the new AE to at least drop the price of the ebook. The exorbitant price didn’t make sense when his book dropped, and it made even less sense now. Billy gave Adrian the runaround. Foo held that the value of the book remained constant. The price would remain as is.


I’ve changed the names in this story. 

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