Feb 152010
 

There’s been much talk about Amazon, Macmillan, and Apple’s iPad in the last couple of weeks. Amazon has been increasingly aggressive towards publishers. First they forced companies that support self-publishing and that use POD (print on demand) technology to give them more piece of the pie — at the expense of the author. Second, Amazon came out with the Kindle to sell eBooks in formats that only the Kindle can read; then they set the price to $9.99, and no more, whether publishers liked it or not. And third, when the mainstream publisher Macmillan balked, Amazon did to it what they’d done so successfully to the POD publishers: remove the Buy button until the publisher falls in line.

But Macmillan didn’t fall into line, insisted on being able to set their own eBook prices, and Amazon conceded and has been slowly restoring the Buy buttons. The battle is not over yet and it isn’t that simple, for Apple has brought out the iPad, Sony and other companies produce readers with eInk technology, and unlike the Kindle, they all can read books in many different formats. Amazon has competition. Apple and Sony Reader bookstores allow the publishers to set the price for eBooks, as does Chapters eBookstore, Kobo. Publishers are more likely to supply these eBookstores than they are Amazon’s kindle library.

Several people-in-the-know have opined on this issue, so I thought I’d toss in my penny, all that I have left after publishers and retailers take what they consider they’re entitled to, after all I’m just the writer, the author, the kind of person without whom there’d be no books. Ahem.

As a reader, I prefer mass paperbacks. They’re light, portable, and affordable. I really resent publishers who quickly follow the Canadian dollar down and raise the price, but take way longer to lower it as the dollar increases in value dramatically. I usually buy trade paperbacks for non-fiction books or maybe when there’s no mass paperback version available. They’re less affordable than mass paperbacks, and so I restrict my purchases of them or wait until they hit the remainder table. I only read hard covers either when someone gives me one as a gift (can’t remember when that last happened), or I want a particular book as a keepsake, or for straight pleasure reading when I find an interesting one on the remainder table. eBooks I’m new to. I received the Sony Reader for Christmas, and I’ve been dipping my toe into the eBook market and the virtual library. As a person with a brain injury, I find it much easier to read eBooks as there’s no visual distractions, which can seriously affect my reading, retention, and learning. With eBooks, I can zoom in and see just the text I’m reading. The Sony Reader also allows me to write notes and bookmark pages. My grandmother used to fold her paperbacks and turn down pages; made me cringe. I like my books pristine. But with eBooks, I don’t have to worry about it. There’s no beauty or art to spoil, and electronic notes and bookmarks can easily be wiped clean.

So as an author, I think about these things when thinking about the current book publishing war and how to sell my book (soon to be books). And so I’m not so sure that Macmillan’s attitude of setting a high price for eBooks is the right way to go.

My first book Lifeliner: The Judy Taylor Story came out in trade paperback, hard cover, and eBook all at the same time. I figured no one was going to buy hard covers except those who wanted a keepsake. Boy, was I wrong. People are still buying hard covers of Lifeliner. True, not nearly as many are buying them or eBooks as they are trade paperbacks, but what it says to me is that we all have preferred formats. Some like hard covers and won’t buy paperbacks; some will only buy paperbacks (like me); and some are on the cutting edge and buy eBooks. iUniverse’s SOP of releasing all formats at the same time left it to the readers to decide which format they wanted to buy, and I had no quibble with that. When marketing Lifeliner, I did not consider format an important factor. All I cared about was how many I could sell. And if someone bought a hard cover, with its slightly higher royalty because of its higher price, I considered that a bonus. But whether I was able to recover my costs had nothing to do with whether I could sell enough hard covers, but whether I could sell enough books, period.

On the other hand, publishers are convinced that they can only make money by selling hard covers. They believe that income can only come from a big profit margin, not from volume sold.

Publishers also ascribe to the odd method of flooding the marketplace with a new book and hope not too many come back. That means you don’t really know your earnings until the return period is ended, however many weeks or months that is. It’s also environmentally wasteful, and in the age of good-quality POD and the burgeoning espresso book machine, there’s no reason for it anymore. eBooks also get around that entire problem because eBooks don’t need paper and it’s not likely they’d be returned.

That old-fashioned thinking is why publishers want to (1) price eBooks high, (2) gyp authors on the royalty rate, and (3) release eBooks and paperbacks only several months after hard covers. They believe that anyone who buys eBooks has money to burn and will buy hard covers if they weren’t buying eBooks. I assume they have market data to prove their point, but frankly hard covers are big and heavy, and as a previously voracious reader, I find them too expensive to feed a reading habit unless you get them out of the library. However, I would buy an eBook. I see eBooks as not only satiating the need of voracious readers but also as a way to create a new reading market, a market of people who find books not to their taste, being physical objects and all, expensive, and not cool. Anything digital is cool though. The iPad is cool. The iBookstore will be cool. Coolness is great marketing bait.

The other problem publishers have with realistically pricing eBooks is that in their minds, an affordable price diminishes the value. Huh?

The value of my work is not in how much it costs per copy, but in the copy itself. The value is reflected in the number sold. People pay attention to bestseller status, as determined by sales numbers, not by how much a book costs. Bestseller status usually denotes that this book is good. Purchase price does not.

On the other side, some people say that the price of an eBook is almost zero and the digital revolution means creators should put their work out there for free. Excuse me. But my work is not zero value. My imagination and creativity and ability to think, without which there would be no book, is not of zero value. If you want a free book, write one yourself, and then decide if all that time you spent was of no value.

I believe Amazon’s bully tactics are starting to backfire. It should be up to the publisher and author to set the price of the book, not one elephant-sized retailer who insists that they should be determine price and be given such a huge discount that it will allow them to sell for less than anyone else. It also cuts the author’s royalties. Frankly, I think it borders on anti-trust what Amazon has been doing. But that’s for US courts to decide.

I think publishers are still watching the glaciers recede, and like Amazon, don’t remunerate authors fairly, without whom there would be no books. I think publishers in the US are a bit ahead of their Canadian counterparts, but neither seem to see the possibilities that the iPad and eBook Readers offer, the possibilities of creating a different kind of product and a larger market of readers.

In the past, publishers were essential to authors to getting their books out to the marketplace. But that’s changing for two reasons: (1) publishers more and more expect authors to market their books. The one expertise publishers truly have that authors need — marketing — they are no longer offering except to a few. Since publishers have withdrawn the single biggest asset they offered to authors and since authors now have to pay for publicists and a marketing program, why should authors continue to accept the same low royalty rate? If the author is expected to do what used to be publisher work, then the author should get a bigger piece of the pie. (2) POD, espresso book machine, freelance editors and designers, supported self-publishing companies, all offer alternatives to publishers. These services replace everything publishers do, from editing to book design, allow an author to get a book out much faster than a traditional publisher (and waiting for a book to hit the public is not easy!), and gives an author greater control over the title, cover, and back cover copy. For a Canadian author, these alternatives also mean one can publish using Canadian English.

For mainstream publishers to stay in the game long-term, they need to provide authors that old value or offer a bigger royalty, they need to offer authors a higher royalty for eBooks and other digital media, and they need to provide readers affordably-priced and exciting alternatives. They need to focus on moving books out the door, not on what format those books come in. I haven’t even talked about eBooks beyond the text model, but the iPad will start that revolution too, and publishers and authors ought to start preparing for that. I also haven’t talked about agents. Some believe that the digital revolution will bring about their demise; but it seems to me that authors will need smart agents to help them navigate the minefield of the different kinds of digital rights, in addition to traditional rights like movie and spoken word.

Instead of hanging onto the old model, authors, publishers, and agents need to work together to ask themselves how they can use these new technologies to produce books faster, better, and affordably so as to expand the book-buying audience.

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