Publishers and their prices

Is £18.99 the new £17.99? We ask because the recommended retail price (r.r.p.) of publishers’ lead titles are on the rise, and high street booksellers—those who offer range and service ahead of discount—are starting to feel the cost.

The hardback fiction market is suffering a slowdown at a time when those book prices are on the rise, and digital is gathering pace. Since the paperback fiction market is also down, one would think that digital was the primary cause: but booksellers fear that price may be the principal reason, with customers simply shunted towards the competitively- priced digital edition, waiting for the paperback, or not buying at all.

Publishers will argue—convincingly—that the price rises simply reflect a world where old costs are on the up, and new costs arising from digital are not yet ameliorated by the growth in that market.

But in loosening the r.r.p. reins, the big houses run the risk of further devaluing book prices in the longer term, since the effect is to push more heavy book buyers into the arms of the discounters or onto the -Kindle, where that content is now available at prices that are cheaper still.

Nielsen numbers for the first half of the year back this up. Hardback fiction sales are down 10% by value, but down 7% by volume. With discounts up, the average price the consumer has paid for a hardback fiction title this year—£10.29—is the lowest since records began. Factor in Kindle sales, and we could be talking about a sub-£10 price for a piece of original fiction.

Publishers may contend that with bigger margins they are better able to help indies deliver benefits beyond price, such as special campaigns, author signings, targeted point of sale, and the like. And some publishers are going the other way using reduced r.r.p.s to competitively price print in bookshops.

But the general trend is clear and has been for some years. The strategy may not be wrong, but we shouldn’t be fooled about where it leads.

A longer and slightly re-worded version of this blog appears on FutureBook.