On eBooks, eBook Pricing, and eBook Culture.

I wrote most of this waaaaaaay back in May, never posted it, and then got into another twitter debate with a friend and author, Nathan, so, a few tweaks to inclue that conversation, and.. finally.

It’s a long one. Dig in, kids.

I love this discussion at TerribleMinds.com.

This is hitting the nail on the head for me. There’s a lot more to it than “durrrr, ebooks should be cheapur!” The discussion above was sparked by twitter musings by the always-brilliant Chuck Wendig. He’s an author, and I own several of his books. In e-format, no less!!

I got involved in the discussion on twitter.

So, when the discussion moved to TerribleMinds, and grew, I kept thinking about it.

My issue is one that doesn’t appear to have come up. And I’m surprised. A lot of people talk about how there’s a lot involved in what it costs and doesn’t cost, and what the consumer gets and doesn’t get, in the production and sale of an ebook. There’s a lot of discussion of what pricing should be, and shouldn’t be.

There’s a surprising amount of discussion around ‘perceived value’, which I think is pretty intuitive, but not necessarily the issue.

One of the comments that really sticks out for me, though, is that, when it comes to this discussion “The readers? they don’t give a fuck. they are not joining in the discussion.”

I disagree. I’m a reader, not an author, and not only do I give a fuck: I’m in the discussion. And I give a fuck for very specific reasons.

There’s a mountain of solid arguments made, on both sides of the argument, and even a lot straddling the centre of it. They’re all valid. There is no official answer, I don’t think. But at the end of the day, I can’t help seeing the music and movie industry being played out all over again.

First, downloading.

Do people download books for free. Yes. Without a doubt they do. I’ve done it.

Wanna know why?

Because the publishers make it difficult to buy the thing (music, movie, book, whatever) difficult to buy legally. I’ve talked about this before. Sometimes, the only way you can get the thing you want is to ‘steal’ it. Between DRM, international and regional sales agreements, and just plain, old-business-model idiocy, they simply don’t make the thing I want available for purchase.

“Here. I have ten dollars. I would like this thing that you have.”
“Sorry. We don’t sell that in the country or region you live in.”
“what? But I want it, and you sell it, and you’re the exclusive sales front. Where can I get it?”
“You can’t.”
“But look. I have TEN DOLLARS RIGHT HERE. EXCHANGE IT FOR THE THING I WANT. THIS IS WHAT YOU DO, YOU’RE A BUSINESS, SELLING THE THING I WANT.”
“Sorry, no can do. You’ll have to keep your ten dollars.”

And that’s when I go to a torrent site.

Ridiculously, this then goes hand-in-hand with the “consumers only want it for free, so they steal it on line, if it’s available, rather than purchasing it”.

That is, in a word, bullshit.

Are there people who only download music, or movies, or books? Sure there are. But they are a minority, not a majority. And the liklihood of them having paid for the item even if they couldn’t get it for free? Generally pretty low. Most of us don’t mind paying a fair price (and that’s a term that comes up regularly in the discussion at TerribleMinds) for a thing, whatever that thing is. We also, and this is important, want it to be OURS when we buy it.

And we won’t even get started on the idea that a lot of downloaders spend more money legitimately than ‘normal’ consumers.

That doesn’t happen a huge amount, but it happens. Why else would I ‘download for free’?

Well, how about simply there’s so much stuff out there, I just can’t afford to buy it all just to try it out?

So, yes, I download music, TV, books, the works. I watch/listen/read. And if I like it? The chances are very high I’m going to go buy it. I’ll get into the ‘why’ later on, but it’s not, and I want to reiterate this, not about getting it for free. More, it’s about spending my money wisely. Because there is a downside to self-publishing in any of the above media formats. That downside is that anyone can do it. It means you get assholes and the incompetent along with the very, very good up-and-comer-who-can’t-get-a-deal. And I don’t want to support the first two with random purchases just to find out they’re crap. Hell, forget ‘want’. I can’t afford to support the garbage. I only have a finite amount I can spend on media. I want it to count.

To continue the comparison to music:

I have, in the past, emailed bands directly, to ask them where I can send them money, because their recording company doesn’t sell their album where I live, and can I then go download it from a torrent. I’ve never received a real answer. But I think this illustrates the issue, and the issue isn’t that all consumers want something for free.

But it goes beyond that. I now, habitually, download something after I’ve just bought it. Because I want it to be mine. And DRM is an ugly, hateful motherfucker who won’t keep its goddamn hands to itself. Between Sony’s rootkits, regional coding on DVD’s, and music, video, and book purchase systems that are a] locked to a proprietary device and b] can be deleted by the publisher on a whim or c] might simply disappear if they go out of business and don’t maintain the DRM server anymore, well… fuck that.

I’ve paid purchase price for it. I’ve pressed the “buy” button, not the “i’ll pay you to let me have it until you deign to not let me have it anymore” button.

I’m not renting it. I’m buying it. And there’s a difference. the difference is, it’s mine.

What I see is the print industry making exactly the same mistakes that the music and movie industries have made, with regards to their treatment of artists, and consumers. You know, the guys who make the product they sell, and the guys who buy the product they sell. And yes, I’m inferring that the industry is a convenience, not a necessity, now. They’re defending a model that is first and foremost, no longer valid. They are NOT necessary.

I know I’m going waaaay off on tangents here. But bear with me, because it all leads to the same place, I think. It leads to a place with a new model, where everyone, consumer, publisher, and artist, are all fairly treated parts of the same process, rather than enemies tolerating each other’s presence as a necessary evil.

Look, I don’t mind paying a reasonable price for the thing that I want. Hell, I expect to. I WANT to. Because if I do, the person who makes it can afford to keep making more things like it, that I will probably also want to buy. They can do it without having to spend forty hours a week working in a job that makes them miserable, and slows down their ability to make the thing I want to buy. Selfish of me, I know, but it makes the point.

But here’s the deal.

A hypothetical print book costs $9.99. To get that print book from the mind of the author, to me, you have to pay the author, format the book, edit the book, buy the paper to print it on, buy the ink to print it with, pay for the machinery to print it, the rent on the building the machinery is in, the operator who prints it, and the labourer who moves the materials on, and the product off, the machinery, the building the printed book is stored in, the truck that moves it there, and then moves it to my house, the labourers who move it from the storage to truck, and the delivery guy who brings it to my door for me. If I buy it in a store, then the store has to have its rent paid, power paid, employees paid, cleaners paid, etc, you get the idea.

A hypothetical ebook costs $9.99. To get that ebook (assuming the existence of the print book, which is still fair, I think) to me means that someone has to be paid to verify the formatting didn’t get screwed up in the conversion to epub, kindle, or other format. The server has to be maintained, and the internet connection has to be paid for. The website where the sale occurs has to have adequately secure and well-maintained purchasing software, and transmission software.

Now, whether I’ve got everything in there or not, and whether or not I’ve described it properly, I KNOW the cost on the second scenario is, assuming cost sharing when it comes to the ideas/writing/author payments/initial editing etc are equal, dramatically lower than the first scenario. The physical structures, machinery, and labour cost more than the virtual. So, where is that ‘extra’ money in the price?

Because my issue is not with the cost. But rather, where that extra profit (if you have a thing, and you have an identical thing with the same price, but lower production costs, that’s definitely profit) goes?

If it goes, all of it, hell, ninety-percent of it, to the author? Sign me up. I’ll pay the $9.99 for the ebook, happily. And I’ll pay the author, happily, and I’ll keep doing it.

If, as I suspect, that extra cost is going to the publishing company, who is, in most cases, paying the author the bare minimum they can get away with, then fuck them. You heard it. FUCK THEM. Why wouldn’t I steal it? they didn’t make it, and they’re not paying for it. And the author, who did make it, isn’t being paid for it. I’m not going to feel particularly bad about potentially preventing that extra three bucks a copy (or whatever hypothetical amount it is) from the (almost unnecessary) middleman.

This is the perception. The perceived value of ebooks is in the things they don’t consume (paper, storefront, etc). And consumers are savvy enough to perceive that if those costs aren’t being paid by the publisher and distributor, then the consumer themselves shouldn’t pay for those costs.

I’m not saying that the publishing houses don’t serve a purpose. They do. But they don’t get paid commensurate to it, I don’t believe. Same as I don’t believe that the authors are getting paid commensurate to the effort they put into the producing the profit-making thing for the publishing houses.

At the end of the day, I don’t believe there’s one ‘right’ price for an ebook. It depends on the content (which is going to become a lot more than just words on an electronic page, you mark my words). It depends on what the author wants for it, fairly, what the consumer wants to pay for it fairly, and finally, making sure the publishing company (if there is one) gets paid fairly. But the publishing companies need to get their heads together, and figure this shit out.

And, to be fair, I think authors need to train themselves to say “no” to the deals that publishing houses offer. I think self-publishing in e-only format is going to become very, very valid for savvy authors who build themselves a fan base and end up not really needing the big publishing houses.

I know I already follow a ton of ’em. And I would recommend you check them all out. Want a list? There’s the previously mentioned Chuck Wendig, there’s Mur Lafferty, J.C. Hutchins, the FDO, Scott Sigler, Phil Rossi, Ed Kurtz, Richard Kadrey, and Matt Wallace. You can add Timothy Long and Jake Bible to the list now as well. I’ve found all of these guys and girls through non-standard means. Podcasts (you should check out EscapePod, PseudoPod, PodCastle and ClonePod just to name a few).

Know what every single one of those authors up there have in common?

I got works from every single one of them for free, either them giving it away, or me downloading it somewhere.

Know what else every single one of those authors up there have in common?

I’ve spent between three bucks and four hundred dollars on their books after downloading for free.

Twitter: authors who talk to each other, and rave about the works of others? yeah, I buy stuff based on those ravings. Authors who do give-away downloads for a limited time? yeah. those guys get my money later on. For every ‘free’ download, a give-away book, by an author, for every book I see that I say “mmm, maaaybe… but I can’t afford it right now..” and then download it from THE INTERTUBES! THE BANE OF CREATIVITY! They’re generally going to get between six and forty bucks from me later on, assuming I dig what they’ve produced. And these are all things that, if they don’t directly frown upon, the big publishers don’t understand. A lot of individuals don’t understand this either. A very large number of consumers download in that grey area (I’m not going to call it illegally: that gives legitimacy to the argument, and I don’t believe the argument against downloading has legitimacy) and then go buy based on what they download. Hell, some of us download things we already own (format shift, if you want the current colloquial term) just so we don’t have to rip them ourselves or pay for the same thing twice.

Those authors, up there? They have something else in common too.

I wouldn’t have bought anything from any of them, ever, had I not gotten it for free, first. I didn’t know them. A number of them either don’t, or didn’t, have major deals and advertising. They had no way to get their product to me. Word of twitter, word of podcast got me interested. Downloading a few for free got me hooked. Then, I started buying. A lot.

Here kid. First hit’s free. Just have a taste. Go on. Everyone’s doing it. Just take a puff, and pass it along.

I buy Scott Sigler’s pre-orders not only because he writes a hell of a good story (he does: or I wouldn’t buy ’em) but because I’m a FAN. He, like the rest of those guys up there, interacts with his fans. And when three thousand of us pre-order? yeah, he doesn’t need that big publishing house as much. And I’m happy to give my money to Scott, not a publishing company. I want him to write full-time.

I could go on on this topic for a long, long time. It’s time to change the way things are done. It’s time to stop witch burning a new way of doing things because it doesn’t support the old model.

At the end of the day, all that most of us, readers, fans, authors, and yes, even the publishing companies, want to see is people reading, listening, watching, consuming. And paying a fair price to do it: one that keeps them reading, every day. I don’t know if what’s emerging now is the best way to do things. But I know the old way, the way where the artist talks about how the consumer is fucking him or her out of profits, while the publishing company offers fifteen percent of what comes in for a product with ever-reducting cost? Yeah, those days are gone. And good riddance. I want to see the publishers wise up, and the authors, artists, and PRODUCERS of content get paid. Properly. A living wage and more. Because it’s the producer I give a shit about, not the middle man.

At the very end of the day (and the blog post) I’m a FAN. That’s the word. I’m a reader, and I’m a fan. I buy things to support the people who make the things I’m a fan of. Can I get ’em free from ye olde intertubes? for sure. But, I tend not to now. Because these are all good things, and they have value to me. Which means I want to pay for them.

Oh, and for the love of fuck, let’s find a way to make it so anyone who buys a hardcover gets a free e-version? Because seriously, enough with the fucking double-dipping.

Also… Flame on!

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4 Responses to On eBooks, eBook Pricing, and eBook Culture.

  1. Just a quick read, and I’m still not done posting my various bits and pieces on the topic, but first off I completely agree about DRM – dumbest idea ever (I actually posted about that today).

    Second though, I will say this: authors see a *way* better royalty rate on ebooks (or at least every contract I’ve been privy to). So – again, in my experience and exposure – publishers aren’t snatching up the difference. I’d also add cover designer (and sometimes therefore a photographer or an artist) and line editor to the peeps involved and paid for in the production of a book, regardless of a e-format or print. I’ve also got a lot to say about publishers (and the value and intrinsic addition to books thereof), but that’s probably gonna be one of my mini-posts on the blog.

    I also agree wholeheartedly about free releases being a piece of marketing awesomeness. I’d nitpick a little bit about the difference between that and an illegal download (and would also nitpick that quite often, e-books allow you a sneak peak at the first chapter or two – or at least the savvy publishers do). But absolutely – I get free copies from publishers because they know I’ll not only get hooked on the author, but as a bookseller, I’ll do the same over and over with customers looking for something like that to try.

    This I love: “Oh, and for the love of fuck, let’s find a way to make it so anyone who buys a hardcover gets a free e-version? Because seriously, enough with the fucking double-dipping.” Can you think of a way that would work, though? Not being facetious here – I’d love to see this and have no idea how it would work beyond little slips of locked-up paper with codes on them (and a reworking of the rules around “I’d like to return this book.”) I’d also like to see more cross-marketing in that vein: you bought my hardcover? Awesome. Here’s a download code for it or any single other backlist title of mine/this publisher/a short story/what-have-you. King does this sort of thing well: here’s a story you can get on audio only, or as five download e-books only, or whatever – and then later they come out across platforms.

    • Sean McFee says:

      Nathan, in response to your question about allowing digital downloads on purchase of a hardcover, many artists/labels in music offer a free download (with download code) on a purchase of vinyl. One of my favorite groups just did this in fact; I preordered the vinyl and got access to a 320 kbps digital version and a 24/96 high-resolution audio wav on the day of release, while the vinyl was being shipped. Computer books have been doing this kind of thing for years as well; you register your purchased product and get access to a digital version that the author may continue to update.

  2. I just posted a link to this entry on the FB feed of the new sf/f con I’m part of. We’re focusing a lot on workshopping, pro/amateur networking and the like — and Scott Sigler is one of our guests — so it seemed a good discussion to point our followers toward.

  3. Pingback: Shiver Me Kindle (AKA “Please Don’t Pirate My Book” Day) « Life, the Universe, and Everything

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