Tuesday, April 12, 2011

E-Book Prices: A Not-So-Brief Rant

Ok, the main point of this post is to vent my spleen.  I'm not sure what good it will do other than perhaps get some frustration out of my system.  But if you're reading this, you're probably among the people who would most understand.

I was browsing in the local Barnes and Noble over the weekend.  There were a number of books there in multiple genres that looked intriguing (no big surprise).  One in particular seemed to be a really good fit for this blog.  It was a new release in mass market paperback, and no, I'm not going to tell you the title.  I'll refrain out of respect to the author.  You'll see why in a minute.  It appeared to be something that would move quickly to the top of the TBR pile, both because it looked like something I would really enjoy as well as something the people who read this blog would be interested in.

Now, before I go any further, you need to understand something to get some context.

After moving to the house where we currently live, we had to make a decision about what to put in storage since this house is considerably smaller than the previous one.  Over half my library is currently in boxes.  Much of what isn't probably should be for the simple reason that I don't have much space.  As in literally none.  I don't have room in the house to bring more books in.  The shelves are spilling over, and my wife is starting to complain about tripping over the stacks on the floor.  Which is why I got an ereader, specifically a Nook, because B&N is just down the road.  When I buy a paper book, I need to clear space by either taking one (or some) to storage, selling them, or giving them to friends.  I will still buy paper books from a few writers, either because those writers are ones I want to read in physical copies or because I want them signed.  Also, there are some books that don't have electronic editions, especially if they're from small presses.  But with those exceptions, all of my book buying for the foreseeable future needs to be in electronic format.

I've got my Nook with me at B&N, so I check to see if there's an electronic edition of this particular book.  Yep, sure enough, there is.

It costs the same as the paper edition.

Which means it will cost me more than the paper edition, because with a B&N card, I get a discount on the paper copy.  While annoying, it's not so surprising.  I don't have a problem with a business model in which electronic copies are similar or even identical in price to the paper copies initially, with the electronic copies dropping  in price over the course of the next few months.  I probably won't buy the electronic copies until they've dropped in price.   Not just because I'm cheap, but I'm so far behind on my reading that usually it takes a couple of months before most new books rise to the top of the TBR pile.  So why not wait and pay the lower price?  If I want the book so badly that I buy it when it's first published, it's probably one I would want in paper.

But that model not what I see happening.  Most of the major houses that I've checked aren't lowering the price of the ebooks after a few months, at least not by very much.  Now, I admit I haven't done anything even approximating a scientific survey.  But looking at the things I read and the types of books I buy, I don't see a lot publishers pricing their electronic copies much differently than their paper copies.  (Angry Robot seems to be an exception.)  For example, I would love to have the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collections in electronic format.  That way I could read whichever story I wanted to wherever I am as long as I have the Nook with me.  All of them as of this writing are either $12.99 or $13.99.  The exception is the newest collection, Sword Woman, which is only $9.99.  I have no idea why that one is priced so low now, because I bought it electronically when it was published a few months ago and paid $12.99.  And, yes, I hear what you're saying:  I can get other electronic editions of Howard's work.  But I want the Del Rey editions because those are the ones that have the corrected texts, the alternate drafts, and the fragments, as well as other material.  My point is I think these books are priced a little high.

I realize supply and demand, author popularity in other words, comes into play.  I'm okay with that.  A publisher expecting someone to pay more for a popular author than for an unknown is not unreasonable.  That's the way the free market works.  It's not just someone like Howard, an author has been around for a while and has a solid fan base that isn't going to go away, whose books are being overpriced.  I've looked at a number of titles from a variety of publishers, and most of them are priced the same as the paper editions or maybe a dollar less.  (I'm talking mass market paperbacks here; electronic versions of books only available in hardcover are usually about half the hardcover price.  But hardcovers are luxury items.)  And not all of these titles are recent.  And not all of the authors are well known.  There are several first novels that look appealing by people I've never heard of before that have the same price in electronic and paper formats.

Before you conclude I'm one of these people who think ebooks should be priced at one or two dollars, I'm not.  I don't have a problem paying between $5 and $10 for an electronic version of a book, although I naturally prefer the lower end of that range, provided the paper copy is considerably more expensive.  I see no reason to pay the same price for an electronic book as I do a paper copy, no matter what the price is on the paper copy.  There's no reason I should.  There's still editing, copy-editing, layout, cover art, and similar costs no matter what the format.  These all need to be taken into account when pricing the book, which is why I don't think one or two bucks is a reasonable price for many ebooks, especially those coming from major publishers.  But there's no printing costs, no shipping costs, no warehousing costs for electronic books.  I find it hard to believe a dollar difference between electronic books and paper books covers all the cost of printing, shipping, warehousing, etc.  The publishers shouldn't expect me to pay for the rent on their Manhattan offices by gouging me on the price of the ebook.

If most of the difference in production costs between electronic and paper books went to the author, I would have a different opinion.  But it doesn't, and so neither do I.  See J. A Konrath's analysis for some numbers to get an idea of how much money most authors see on your average ebook compared to how much the publishers get. 

So I find  book I want to read, one that has an electronic version priced at or near the price of the paper version.  I have some choices.  I buy the paper copy, but with the spatial and spousal limitations I have, that's not an option I can use very often.  Let's assume it's not in this case, which is a safe assumption.  I can buy the ebook, and sell out my principles, letting the publisher manipulate me to pay a price I think is too high.  I have a really difficult time doing that.  Or I can take what's behind door number three, as they used to say on the game show Let's Make a Deal.  I can pass on buying the book and wait for a copy to show up in a used book store.

That last would be my default option except for one thing.  There's a writer who won't get paid for the book.  As an aspiring writer myself, I have as big a problem with that as with the first two options.  I realize not everyone does.  If the average book buyer thinks the cost of an ebook is too high, they won't buy it.  There's more than enough to read out there that's priced lower. More good and interesting stuff than any one person can ever read in an entire lifetime.  With the internet connecting second hand book dealers with customers miles away, a reader can find the book he or she wants at a lower price by exercising a little patience.

And that's where I think big publishing is going to hurt itself.  By pricing itself out of the market.  Publishing is very much a free market right now in the sense that customers have power and the publishers don't.  We have power, like I stated, to wait, read something else, or get it used.  That power is only going to increase as more authors begin to self-publish, both backlist titles and new books, and price their books significantly below what publishers are charging.  Readers are going to expect a certain price range on books, and books outside that range aren't going to sell.  With the cost of fuel rising and driving everything else up along with it, book buying is going to become more of a luxury.  I know it is for me.  That means that higher priced ebooks are going to be less attractive to readers.  And the trend will probably get a lot worse before it gets better.

We need more variety in fantasy and science fiction, in detective fiction and historical adventure.  Not less.  There's too much lowest common denominator crap on the shelves as it is.  That means more writers need a way to get their books to readers and still make enough to keep writing.  That won't happen if their books, print or electronic, don't sell.  The publishers will drop them like hot rocks.  And more voices will be silenced. More careers will end far too early.  And everyone, readers and authors and publishers, will all be the poorer for it.

Oh, and if you're wondering what I decided about that book I really want to read and review for you here?  I'm still thinking about it.

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