Print Pricing Piracy: The Perils of Free Trade

POSTED ON Dec 7, 2016

David Kudler

Written by David Kudler

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I’ve heard a number of folks ask recently about people offering their print book[1] for different prices — specifically on Amazon. I thought I’d share what I’ve told them.

This question comes in two flavors:

  1. Someone’s offering your book at a price lower than your set price.
  2. Someone’s offering your book at a price above your set price (often WAY above).

Sometimes you’ll see both at the same time.

Econ 101

First of all, let me assure you: you’re not being ripped off. This is simply free trade at its finest.

A quick economics refresher: in the US (as in many industrialized countries), there is no set price for any product or commodity. The producer can name a price (the manufacturer’s suggested retail price or MSRP, also known as the cover price) , but stores can sell that product for whatever the market can bear. [2]

The important thing to remember in book sales is that the distributor/wholesaler (i.e., Ingram or Baker & Taylor, or, for print-on-demand on Amazon, Createspace) pays you for every sale based on the MSRP.

Generally that works like this: a customer orders a book from a store. They pay 100% of MSRP. The store orders a copy from the wholesaler, typically at a 40% discount — this covers their costs. The wholesaler holds onto a 15% cut, leaving you (typically) 45%, which after paying for printing, storage, shipping, etc., goes into your pocket (unless you owe royalties on the title — but let’s not make this even more complex than it is).

I’ll get it for you wholesale

NOW, let’s look at how books are sold on Amazon.

There are a bunch of ways that a title shows up on Amazon’s page. For the purposes of this conversation, let’s suppose that your book is distributed by Ingram. Every book in the Ingram catalog is carried by Amazon — even though it may not be in their warehouses.

Since the Ingram catalog shows the MSRP, that’s the price that goes up on your book’s Amazon page.


Sometimes Amazon, in its infinite wisdom, decides that the best price for your book is actually lower than MSRP. [3] So they sell it at a discount. People love a discount, so they buy more books. And Amazon still pays Ingram their 60% of MSRP, and Ingram still pays you your 45%. Got it?

There are also vendors who offer their wares through Amazon’s enormous front end. You may notice these if you look the format tab for your book (or other product) — the one that says “paperback” or “hardcover” right below the description. Sometimes they’re selling used books — it will say “14 used from $XX.XX.” Hey: you’ve already made your money on those. Don’t begrudge the used book market its share.

If you see a link in small type that says “32 new from $XX.XX,” and that price is lower than the MSRP, than some enterprising bookseller is trying to drum up business by offering your book at a discount.

Here’s the thing: you still get the same 45% of MSRP. They are taking a risk by lowering their percentage, hoping that the increase in sales volume will be larger than the per-book loss of revenue.

Make sense?

That’s what’s going on when you see your book at a discounted price. As I said: no worries!

ARR! Prepare to repel scallywags!

But what if the price is higher than MSRP?

Ah. That’s a greyer area, and involves something known in business as “the next damned fool” concept.

The idea is that if I get something I don’t necessarily want at a good enough price, I should be able to find someone else to take it for a higher price — the next damned fool.

On Amazon it works like this: a “bookseller” (and I use the term very loosely) offers your book at a substantial mark-up. Perhaps they’re linking it to your ISBN, in which case it shows up in the “32 from $XX.XX” — but more likely they create a supposedly new product with your book’s cover, description, title — all the metadata that populates your book’s Amazon page except for the ISBN. They also add something to the title — “Special Edition” or something like that. They get a new ID number (Amazon’s ASIN) and sell it for, say, ten times the MSRP. Or twenty times. One associate of mine recently ran into a listing of his $19.95 book for $2250.

I kid you not.

Now what’s the likelihood of someone ordering that book for over a hundred times its cover price? Not high.

But this seller is just looking for the next damned fool — someone who sees that price and wants the book badly enough that they’ll pay it, rather than searching for a more reasonable cost.

Then the seller turns around, orders that book at MSRP or below, and has it shipped directly to their “customer.”

They’ve almost certainly got hundreds if not thousands of these bogus items for sale. All it takes is one or two people buying and they’ve made an enormous profit for almost no investment.

But hey, you still get paid your 45% of MSRP.

A solution

There’s not a whole lot that you can do about this. But if it bothers you (as it does me), then you might consider the following procedure to shut these hucksters down, at least with your title:

  1. Copy down the ASIN for the bogus item. (It’s a ten-letter ID beginning with B0XXXXXXXX.)
  2. Go to Author Central.
  3. Claim the book as yours.
  4. Once Author Central lists the book as one of your titles, use the Contact Us link at the bottom of every Author Central page.
  5. Select the following pop-ups in the page that comes up:
    1. My Books
    2. Update information about a book
    3. Update something else
    4. I want to link one edition of my book to another edition
  6. In the email box that comes up, tell them that you want to link your book (give them the title and the ISBN) with the bogus product (give them the ASIN). [4]

Within a couple of days, Amazon will link the two “editions” of your book — and that $2250 version will be listed right next to the $19.95 version. Wonder which version people will buy?

That should keep any of your readers from getting ripped off.

I’ll be back with my run-down of CSS in ebooks after the new year!

[1]Ebooks are a whole other ball of wax. Sorry.
[2]They will occasionally even sell it below its cost to them; this is called a loss leader.
[3]And believe me, they’re not stupid. They lower the price because it will sell more books. They make more money, you make more money, ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing.
[4]In case you’re wondering, yes, you should use this same procedure if you want to link a new edition to an old one, or link the ebook to the print edition, or whatever.

David Kudler

Written by
David Kudler

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