where the writers are

Ever since Macmillan Publishing took on Amazon a few weeks ago in regards to a new contract, the cost of eBooks have been bandied about. Some readers seem to think that publishers are greedy and have money raining down on them by pricing their books over $10. In one Amazon discussion group, a reader asked, “What’s the price of a few electrons?” He reduced the cost of a book to the energy it takes for a Kindle or other reader to receive it.

Still, without the cost of printing and hauling the books around by truck, surely the cost has to be around a buck, some people reason, so isn’t $2 for an ebook reasonable?

A number of authors in postings, on the other hand, have applauded Macmillan, stating that it’s good that Amazon is not becoming an ebook monopoly. After all, it’s not farfetched that Amazon could dictate to publishers the price they’ll pay in the future. If the list price of a book were $2, as above, then authors would be getting even fewer royalties.

Laura Miller, in one of her fabulous Salon.com columns, wrote a piece called “Kindle Killer” about the cost of ebooks in reference to the Macmillan debate. She states that no matter what form you’re getting a book in, you’re not really paying for an object. She says, “Most consumers believe that e-books should be a lot cheaper than print books because the publisher has been spared the expense of paper, printing, binding and shipping/distribution. However, only about 20 percent of the cover price of a new hardcover goes to those costs: about $5 out of $25.

“Retailers take from 40 to 50 percent, and after that, the majority of the cost of a new book goes to author royalties, editing, design, marketing, publicity, overhead and so on. But these elements aren't material or tangible, and as a result, consumers seem to be skeptical about their true worth. Or, more to the point, their value now seems to be unstable. By comparison, when iTunes was first introduced a decade ago, hardly anyone believed that most of what they paid for when buying a CD went toward manufacturing the little silver disk and its plastic case.”

As I was noodling around Amazon the other day, I came across a posting by author Anne Rice (who wrote Interview with the Vampire). She was considering debuting her next novel on the Kindle rather than with a big publisher. She had mostly questions about the possibility of this and had heard somewhere that most new book titles sold more in electronic form than in print. The fact is, Kindle sales are only about 2% of all book sales. It will grow, but not to where Rice is thinking it is now.

That showed me, however, that if major authors might be considering leaving their publishers and going the independent publisher route, then the times are indeed changing. Major authors would already have the advantage of people wanting their next books. If they created their own companies, and hired their own editors and designers and published as the authors do at Backword Books, which is to say overseeing both print and electronic forms of their books and distributing directly with Ingram, then the major authors would probably do well. After all, their previous publishers did all the marketing, making the author’s name recognizable. Besides hiring a publicist, little more might have to been done for a major author going indie. Write and control everything in the publishing process.

Of course, I’m on the other side, wanting to do less of the publishing process. Marketing takes up a lot of time, time that I could spend writing. Give me a big publisher with a good marketing budget.

To contrast this from another angle, author Steve Almond wrote that after being published many times, he was sick of the whole process. He said he knew the publishing industry wasn’t trying to piss him off, “But it’s awfully hard to remember that when you’re dealing with an agent who says your novel is ‘too literary’ to sell in today’s market, or an editor who wants to slap a picture of a chimpanzee on the cover of your book, or a publicist who earnestly assures you that your sales ‘will depend on your use of Twitter as a marketing platform.’ Read his article, “Presto Book-O—Why I Went Ahead and Self-Published.”

As for Rice’s notion of going Kindle first, then maybe offering printed versions as a kind of collector’s item, that may be the future.

As for the ideal price of ebooks, David Poynter and Mark Coker did a major study of ebooks priced at Smashwords. They examined the prices of 13,500 ebooks and compared them to their sales, and instead of one sweet-spot price coming up, two did: $4.99 and $8.99. As Coker writes, “The supply curve isn't so elastic that readers will read an unlimited amount of content at lower prices. A reader's time is limited, and the reader values their time, so it would make sense the reader is willing to invest good money if they know it's for a quality read. The possible lesson here, and it's a bright note for authors with the ability to develop high quality content, is that readers will pay for your content if it's worth paying for.”

To read their study, “How to Publish and Price an Ebook,” click here.  

In short, you’re in a year of change. 


3 Comment count
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I'm thinking that the major

I'm thinking that the major avenue for an author to get decent payment is to get a decent advance.

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Easier said than done

Dale, that's the ideal and why it's worth having an agent who goes to publishers to get such an advance. After a publishing panel I saw at USC last year, I sensed how major authors are still getting good advances, but new and mid-list authors are not. Five thousand dollars as an advance is still around. Forty thousand is better, but less likely.

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Follow Mark Twain

Mark Twain didn't get what he wanted or needed from the major publishers, so he created his own publishing company and hired door-to-door salesmen to sell his books. Result: major sellers. Of course, he spent so much money that he still need to go on lecture tours, which he hated, but the business model was a good one -- until his nephew cocked things up.

Many publishers give lower than $5000 advances to new authors, and some authors considered midlist $35,000 is about average. In this debate over the cost of e-books, and it is one I've followed and discussed, it's hard to see an e-book selling at $15.99 or higher as a good value when paperbacks cost anywhere from $5.99-$8.99, depending on the amount of pages.

 How can and do publishers justify something with fewer visible and tangible resources, like e-books, costing as much as a hardcover and more than a paperback? Whatever the actual value, the perceived value determines what people will pay.