#SkyeWriting: How Paperback Pricing works

There’s been a lot of talk recently about paperback pricing for a couple of reasons. Several weeks ago, I saw readers and new authors on TikTok discussing how little authors make from paperback sales.

$1-2 on a book that might cost more than $10?


And more recently, we’ve had a lot of talk about the recent increase to paperback printing costs due to supply chain issues down the line. Despite only being around a 6% increase in cost, it left a lot of authors scrambling to change their prices so they didn’t end up with royalties in the NEGATIVE.

So, why do authors make so little on paperback sales?

There’s a lot more that goes into a paperback (or hardcover) than an ebook sale because we’re talking about something that has to be physically produced:

  • Cost of production
  • Retailer cut
  • And finally the author cut

There’s also a bigger risk factor for paperback sales if you want to get your book into brick and mortar stores. If you want to see how it can go really wrong, Marisa Noelle recently shared her story on Twitter of how she now owes Ingram $5K. For most retailers to carry your book in store, they want assurance that they can either make a profit or return the book and get their money back–which means offering an appealing wholesale discount and deciding if you’re going to accept returns and whether those returns should then be destroyed or sent to you.

So, what does all of this mean in terms of paperback pricing and royalties?

Well, right off the bat, you have the cost of production. There’s no getting around this part, and higher page counts mean higher costs, but the type of paper, sizing, binding, and even your font choices (because not all fonts are spaced equally, and over a 80k word book, those minor differences can add up to pages) have an incremental impact on the cost.

My book Entrust comes in at around 39,000 words.

For a 5.5×8.5 paperback, it’s sitting at 98 pages and my production cost is $2.36. Sounds like I should get a good bit of money if I sell it for 9.99, right?

Retailer Cut

Retailers aren’t going to pay full price for a paperback and then turn around and sell it to a customer just to break even. They’re going to take their cut out of this deal as well, which means they’re going to buy the book at a discount.

The Entrust paperback is published through Draft2Digital (and ultimately Ingram) which currently goes by the industry standard “trade discount” of 55%. If you publish directly through Ingram Spark, you can determine the amount of this discount, but again, you have to factor in whether or not you want to appeal to brick and mortar stores which will expect a decent discount.

That retailer discount comes off the retail price of the book. So, any store that buys Entrust can pay as little as $4.49 depending on their contract with Ingram.

So, after their discount, I have 4.49 to cover production costs and my royalties.

4.49-2.36=$2.13 left for me! (Actually D2D calculates it as $2.14 so YAY!)

And when it comes to print copies, that’s the tip of the iceberg.

If you publish directly through Ingram, you must provide your own ISBN and in the US, that’s about $100 a pop. Ingram also has upload and update fees, so when you first publish your book you pay an additional fee. Every time you need to make an update to the interior or cover, there is another fee (some memberships offer discounts to cover these fees, but without those costs can add up fast).

I publish through D2D and have less control over things like the “trade discount” but if I have an issue, I have an awesome customer support team to handle it. Plus, no upfront costs and I can update my files once every 3 months without paying a fee.

Barnes & Noble and Amazon also offer paperback and hardcover publishing and by taking advantage of this you can earn higher royalties for the book on that particular retailer. Expanded Distribution is an option through Amazon as well, so they will list your book for other retailers carry, but this comes at a significant cost to your royalties (and, let’s be honest, how many bookstores want to buy from their competitor?).

Then there’s the issue of returns, which fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with so I don’t have much insight into this aspect.

Offering paperbacks is a widely varied and complex part of the business, and authors definitely deserve a decent royalty for navigating the process after spending months completing the book. If you came into this with no idea of how the process, costs, and royalties work, I hope this was helpful in understanding the current circumstances in print publishing.

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