I’ve heard that one a few times lately, often in a tone that suggests it’s all down to me.
When I hear it I want to say two things:
(i) Actually, they’re not (not quite as expensive as they might first seem, anyway) and
(ii) Turns out I’m not King of the World, or even Comptroller-General of e-Book Pricing
But (i) tells only a fraction of that aspect of the story and (ii) might seem a bit dismissive. Or just rude.
Let’s knock (ii) on the head first up. When books are priced, the author is never in the room, usually not in the city and sometimes not in the hemisphere. It’s one of those many things that publishers think is beyond the scope of the pretty author brain (along with meeting deadlines, understanding contracts, long division and not getting lost when out in public – I’m not saying publishers are entirely wrong in these assessments, by the way).
I don’t know authors who want their books to be more expensive. I do know authors who want their books to be cheaper. That’s why they don’t let us set the price. Publishers also don’t let us set the price because they’re the ones putting up the cash to get the book out there in the first place.
Here’s what I think we’re dealing with at the moment, in Australia at least
The e-book supply chain in still in its formative months, and pricing still works on ye olde 20th-century model for p-books, that is, a publisher decides on a recommended retail price and sells the book to retailers at a discount to that price (eg, 35-40%). The retailer then sells it at whatever price they choose. That may be above, below or exactly the RRP.
At the moment, Australian publishers seem to be sticking with the same RRP for both p- and e-books, so a casual glance might suggest that The Fix, for instance, is AUD32.95, against a major online retailer’s typical price for (other people’s) e-books of USD9.99. Trust me, no one is more alarmed by that apparent discrepancy than the author. No one wants to be priced at more than triple the market.
When I looked, though, that $32.95 was only two clicks away from a site where it was $17.00, which is at least appreciably closer to USD9.99.
So, my first point is, disregard the Australian publishers RRP when you’re thinking about buying Australian e-books. Shop in whatever way you choose to, and you may well find a significantly more appealing price.
My second point is about those USD9.99 prices at the major online retailer. This is business at work, and the threat of competition. I’m told that many of those titles are loss-leaders, and it’s about retaining market share at a time when new etailers are attempting muscle in. There’s nothing new about loss leaders – discount department stores have been doing it with p-books here for a while.
So don’t go thinking, when you see those USD9.99 books, that publishers are handing them over for USD6 every time and it’s just a question of the same old percentages being applied to smaller numbers. They might be charging USD12 or USD15, and the retailer is making a loss to keep your eyeballs on their site alone, and keep your future business.
At the same time, that retailer may be less inclined to use some other books as loss leaders, and might buy them for $15 and sell them for $17. Or $20-something. If that makes you feel inclined to kick something, try not to make it the author
Here’s two things I don’t know: what price e-books should actually be, and how they should be priced and sold.
Intuitively, I think we generally expect that they should cost less than a p-book because they don’t require trees, trucks, ink, warehousing, etc. They still require editing, design and layout, promotion and some kind of supply chain. And writing. They require that too.
I’m expecting the marketplace to make more sense in a couple of years. These are crazy times. As the market tries to find its level, some people are pushing their new e-novels out there unedited and selling them for 99c.
While we’re waiting for the dust to settle, I’m expecting to bleed sales to cheaper books, and there’s nothing much I can do about it (until I can get at least some of my material to operate according to a different business model – and don’t think I’m not working on it).
But let’s take a step back. Separate to what price e-books should be, what’s a book worth? Maybe sometimes we could ask ourselves that instead. I’m not fabulously wealthy, but I think every good book I’ve read has been worth what I’ve paid for it and the great ones have been bargains at 100% of RRP. I’ll gladly pay $30 or so for 10 hours or more of engrossing entertainment.
Maybe that’s what we should be weighing up, each in our own way and with each book we’re thinking of buying. Is this particular 99c novel likely to give us our 99c cents worth, or more, or less? Is this particular $30 novel?
PS – If I was King of the World, books would all be keenly priced all the time in all formats, and scientists directed to devise metabolic processes to make 70% cocoa dark chocolate the ultimate health food.
PPS – I will never be King of the World, because it would be a nightmarish and thankless job, I would be crap at it and I need approval far too much. My only action before abdicating would be to appoint an electoral college of wise old heads who would, through unanimity or at least supermajority, choose my KoW successors in perpetuity.
PPPS – In this particular world, ‘king’ is gender-neutral and non-hereditary. If interested, please make application to the abovementioned wise old heads, who will summarily ignore applications, since anyone who seeks the role will surely not be right for it. On the other hand, if you have a sensible scheme for operating a global market for e-books, you’re a real shot at it, and possibly a Nobel Prize in Economics.
PPPPS – As of Dec 2011, things are looking up. My books published by Random House Australia – Zigzag Street, The True Story of Butterfish and The Fix – are now a much more competitive $9.99 in Amazon’s Kindle Store. Not sure how that came about, but I’m glad it did. (Also, as more recent blogs show, I’ve started e-publishing material outside Australia, at prices I CAN infuence – 99c/story, $2.99/novella and $4.99/novel).