April 22, 2019

Why should you pay more (if you can) for a book that’s cheaper on Amazon? Read this thread from an indie bookseller


Over the years we’ve had much to say about the economics of book publishing, from how difficult it is to subsist as a writer to the value of sub rights and beyond. Realistically, we’ve probably spent the most time talking about how Amazon is bad for bookstores, and, well, humanity.

But when we talk about Amazon being bad for independent booksellers, perhaps we too often overlook a crucial variable in the equation: the consumer, who can find even the newest books attractively discounted on Amazon.

But even if customers can afford to pay a higher price at their local bookstore, why should they? It’s an interesting question, and behind it lies some math that your average reader may be blissfully unaware of.

Luckily we have Raven Book Store—a Lawrence, Kansas indie—to explain how it all works. They took to Twitter last week to shine a light on why some of your favorite businesses might be disappearing from your neighborhood.

Let’s hand the mic over to them (what follows is a text-ified reproduction of last week’s thread):

Today a customer mentioned that she could get a new hardcover book online for $15. Our mission is not to shame anyone for their shopping practices, but we do feel a responsibility to educate about what it means when a new hardcover is available for $15 online.
When we order direct from publishers, we get a wholesale discount of 46% off the cover price. The book in question had a cover price of $26.99, meaning our cost for that book from the publishers would be $14.57. If we sold it for $15, we’d make . . . 43 cents.
It goes without saying, but we cannot operate making 43 cents per book sold. We have 10,000 books in stock. If we sold every one of them with a 43 cent markup, we’d make enough to keep the store open for about six days.
The biggest (and cheapest) online booksellers have lots of other revenue streams that are MUCH more profitable than books, so they can stand to lose money on books. They also most likely get better discounts from publishers because they sell at higher volume. Fair enough.
But remember what those giant online booksellers have no interest in doing:
  • bringing your favorite authors to town so you can meet them and get your books signed
  • creating good jobs in your community
  • partnering with cultural organizations in your town to enrich the arts
  • feeding and taking care of store cats that you can take pictures of and pet
  • creating a safe and comfortable space for you to spend an hour or two
  • working to support the local authors where you live
  • hosting open mics etc. so emerging artists have a platform
  • paying taxes
Every time we tweet something like this someone replies with something like “shut up and let me enjoy my cheap book.” Fine, go nuts. We have no right to tell you what to do. We want this to be informative, not shaming.
But we will say: we feel a responsibility to use our platform to educate people about this stuff. If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like “there are no bookstores anymore” or why retail businesses keep closing in your downtown, this is it. A cheap book still has a high cost.

Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.