So what’s it worth to you? What’s it worth to me? Some thoughts on the ebook price debate.

Price is the final debate to be had over ebooks. I really do have a great deal of sympathy with those readers who resent the notion of having to pay a second time for an electronic version of a book which they’ve already bought in hard copy. I wouldn’t want to do that myself, no matter how much I might prefer the convenience of having all my favourite titles to hand on an ereader when I’m travelling. The sooner the publishing industry takes heed from recent initiatives in music and video products and starts bundling electronic versions or a licence to get one with the physical product, the better.

Where I don’t have much sympathy is when I’ve heard people muttering that it’s somehow reprehensible/selfish/greedy for authors to profit putting from their backlist into ebook when they’ve already been paid for the original publication and hey, the books are still in the shops, so they’re still earning their cut that way. Why aren’t the ebooks free? Since they should be, why not find a free download?

As with so much in life, I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Personally, one reason I’m epublishing my backlist is to try and recover some of the losses I’ve sustained over the past five years as hard copy sales of my early series have fallen off a cliff. Not only for me and not because people have stopped enjoying our books. Because these days, backlist titles by the majority of authors are simply not in the shops for a browsing reader to find and buy.

That was always a crucial element of the traditional publishing model; the way in which writers acquire new readers and any writer constantly needs to attract new readers because no series of books keeps all the people happy all of the time. Online retailing is simply not the same; it’s great when you know what you’re looking for but no amount of ‘other customers also bought’ and ‘look inside’ features replicate that browsing experience.

But some years ago, publishers stopped sending backlist books to shops on a sale or return basis, hoping to reduce both their costs and losses in an increasingly hostile economy. Booksellers responded by no longer stocking backlists, using their shelf space and promotions tables instead for the frontlist and best-seller titles, piling them high and selling them at a punishing discount for all concerned, hoping to retain some of the market share which the supermarkets were taking away.

And of course, there are far fewer bookshops for people actually go and browse in, especially after the demise of Borders. The cumulative effect of this for me and many other writers has been a significant loss of income. The past few years of financial turmoil have also had a significant impact on the foreign rights markets, where translation deals for midlist books are now increasingly hard to come by, once more reducing authorial incomes by noteworthy amounts.

Don’t mistake me. This isn’t whining or special pleading. The world doesn’t owe me or any other writer a living. This is just the way things are now. So if writers are to be able to afford to continue writing, we need to adapt. One such strategy is making money through epublishing backlist titles. That means not selling our titles for stupidly low prices, purely for the egoboost of being ‘An Amazon Top-100 Seller!’. At 99 cents a copy, that’s not such a big deal. Remember what I said about 100% of not-very-much still being not-very-much.

It’s also not in anyone’s interests to see the ebook price become fixed at an unsustainably low level. Apart from those shareholders in Amazon who don’t actually care about books or indeed any of their other product lines but who are only interested in gaining market share through predatory pricing, looking to cash out and retire with no great concern about the decline of a healthy market economy.

But I’m not interested in those people. I’m concerned about books and readers’ interests, since I was a reader before I was ever a writer and I’ll continue being a reader whatever the ups and downs of my writing career.

We’re in a period of transition and just at the moment, yes, it can reasonably be said that most of the income is profit for a publisher putting out an ebook for a backlist title that has long since earned out its advance. All the up-front costs, the author’s initial advance, the editing, copy-editing, proofing and production have been covered. Well, yes, and that would be the same for paper editions of that book, less the ongoing expense of printing and shipping the physical books. This is how publishing has always worked, with the publisher bearing those initial costs and hoping that enough of their titles earn out that advance payment and head into significant profit to cover those titles which don’t.

Bear in mind that most books take years to turn a profit, including in all likelihood titles here and there by a good many of your favourite authors, especially if your tastes are for writing somewhere off to either side of the mainstream bell curve. It’s the mega-sellers at the central peak of that bell curve which bring in the bulk of the revenue which gives the publishers the leeway to allow their editors to cut a writer some slack if a particular title hits the market at a really bad time or some other factor entirely beyond their control affects sales.

Why is this relevant to ebook pricing? Because books are books are books, whether you’re reading them by way of pixels, paperbacks or hand-illuminated parchment. There are up-front costs in producing them. Beyond the core of established best-sellers, there are no guarantees that the publishers will make their money back. If you as a reader want to continue to see a broad range of books for all tastes, well-edited, accurately proof-read and competently produced for ereaders and other platforms, the ebook price needs to become fixed at a point where doing all those things remains economically viable for publishers. Then publishers can support a broad midlist, where those writers who will emerge as future best-sellers learn their craft and build their readership through word of mouth recommendation, in person and online.

Ah but, I’ve heard it said, market forces will see best-sellers naturally emerge from the brave new world of independent epublishing, free of the dead hand of the past. Really? Like the Fifty Shades of Grey books? I have no opinion on the literary merits or otherwise of those particular titles because I have no intention of reading them, having no interest in that particular genre. I have no interest in quite a few things that are tremendously popular. I have never watched any of the X-Factor type talent shows or ‘reality’ TV (beyond a very few historical re-enactment things). Cookery, home-makeover or real-life-struggle programmes bore me rigid. I’d rather read a good book.

I have friends and family who love some or all of the above TV shows and that’s fine; I don’t pass any moral judgement on them, any more than they do on me for watching the SF and crime series which they would loathe. Fortunately there is still a sufficiently broad range of viewing for us all to enjoy the telly. As a reader I want to live in a world with a similarly broad choice of reading, where publishing professionals can offer me books to my taste, rather than being faced with a narrowing selection of titles determined by mob rule.

This is not to say that things should just stay the same, with ebooks simply priced like paperbacks. Not when the publisher is most definitely making a saving on warehousing, transportation and the other costs associated with physical books. The reader should see that reflected in the new economic model – and speaking personally, I’d like to see the authors’ share of revenues adjusted upwards as well.

Ebooks also offer publishers potential for using pricing intelligently to everyone’s advantage, their own as well as the readers’, with special offers, introductory discounts and so on. Although as some independent authors have already discovered, the dumb automated price-matching algorithms used by the likes of Amazon can cost them dearly, literally. An author offering an ebook directly at a lower cost, even temporarily, will see their Amazon prices cut, sometimes to zero, and it can take a long time for Amazon to put that price back up, if they ever do. As I said, Amazon are not interested in books. They’re interested in market share.

Then there is the problem of pricing for different markets where purchasing power is very different. Let’s not forget that half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day. That makes even a 99-cent ebook a non-trivial purchase. Especially if Amazon adds a surcharge for buying some ebooks depending on where the purchaser’s credit card is registered – or simply refuses to sell the ebook to that particular customer in the first place. For more on this, do read Charles Tan’s highly informative blog post

This used to be covered by the different rights and territories granted in publishing contracts, ensuring that publishers could set prices suited to local conditions and no one else could come in and undercut them. That worked reasonably well, at least from a First World Publisher point of view, when books were physical objects, and is still one of the arguments advanced for Digital Rights Management. Alas, that particular argument, and indeed that particular traditional publishing model, now only stands for as long as it takes for someone to crack a book’s DRM and these days, that’s measured in hours.

On the wider issues of DRM, incidentally, you cannot do better than read this post by Charles Stross (and the earlier post on Amazon which he references is well worth a read as well).

To return to the question of price, this becomes an area where questions of piracy definitely become complicated. I remain vehemently opposed to elooters – the likes of Pirate Bay who steal other people’s intellectual property and offer it up solely to enrich themselves.

But what about people in the 3rd World for whom ebooks could be a game-changer in terms of the education and access to information that they so urgently need to improve their own conditions? I’m not talking about access to the latest crime or SF best-sellers. I’m talking about textbooks and academic papers and journals and the like. Isn’t insisting that they pay American or Western European prices as morally indefensible as insisting they buy life-saving medicines at similarly unrealistic prices for local purchasing power? But a realistic price for a text book in West Africa or Indonesia would be an economically unsustainable price for that same product in the US or UK, if author and/or publisher are to stay in business.

As I say, it’s complicated. I don’t know what the answers are but answers need to be found, in everyone’s interests, readers, writers and publishers alike – and a free-for-all is not the solution.

For the moment, thankfully, finding those answers is not down to me. What I need to decide is a realistic price for my own ebooks, to see me and my business partners rewarded for our work without gouging readers. Then it’s up to the reader to choose whether or not to buy. In that sense, the unspoken contract between story teller and audience remains the same as it has always been.

2 comments

  1. It makes me so upset when writers try to score a huge target market by setting their novels to 99c on Amazon. I can’t imagine pouring my heart and soul into a novel and being degraded like that. It’s going to be an extremely competitive industry, but don’t buy into the Amazon hype, stay dignified!

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