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Why Selling E-books at 99 Cents Destroys Minds

Chad Post, the publisher of Open Letter Books, explains why his company decided to sell e-books and price them at $4.99.

Editorial by Chad W. Post, Publisher, Open Letter Books

Chad Post

Last Tuesday, after months of hemming and hawing about the whole e-book thing and Open Letter Books’ place in that world, we announced the launch of our first nine e-titles, and decided, that for the first month, they would sell for $4.99 a piece.

As much as one might hate e-books (and trust me, I’ve in no way incorporated this part of the digital “revolution” into my reading habits), it’s become impossible to ignore. It may be overstating things a bit, but if your book isn’t available as an e-book, it basically doesn’t exist. This is sad; this is true. For many, publishing e-books is simply a foregone conclusion.

For us, the last phrase of that first paragraph that’s been getting all the attention — both good and bad. As a nonprofit publisher of translated works, Open Letter isn’t likely to overthrow any currently accepted best practices, but after all the talk about predatory e-book pricing, retaining revenue streams, and the agency model, we sort of shot off in a different direction from most publishers, selling (at least initially) our e-books for a third of the cost of their print counterparts.

When we started sending out the press release, I figured everyone would be overjoyed: “Great international fiction for cheap! Including the world’s largest collection of Catalan literature in English translation! All for my Kindle/nook/iPad/Sony Reader/etc.!”

Instead, I heard a few cheers about our entry into the e-world, and a few comments about how we were “damaging the sales of our own books” and “helping depress the e-book price for literary fiction.” Some of this was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but for a lot of people — especially at commercial presses — this is serious stuff, especially seeing that our announcement happened to coincide with “this report”: about how Amazon’s Sunshine Deals program — offering 600 Kindle books for $.99, $1.99, and $2.99 — forced the price of the average Kindle best-seller to almost instantaneously plunge from $7.75 to $6.43.

Since e-book pricing is such a hot button topic in the industry, and since we went with a semi-risky strategy, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at some of the e-book pricing policies and issues and try and explain why we’re doing what we’re doing.

***

Open Letter ebook price

Before getting started, I should admit upfront that I’m no pricing expert, or economics expert, or expert of any sort. Most of what follows is my interpretation of events and situations in an attempt to get at the more philosophical and far-reaching effects of e-book pricing on the reading public. This is by necessity a relatively elementary sketch of the situation, and one informed by a subtle (or not-so-subtle) point of view.

When the Kindle first started setting the world on fire (pun intended), Amazon discounted the vast majority of available books — a lot of the e-books for sale on Amazon were discounted to $9.99 or less. This upset a lot of publishing people. At the time, e-books were being sold under the traditional bookselling terms — Amazon gave the publishers 50% of the list price on all e-books sold. Which was totally fine . . . at first.

The problem was that Amazon was selling a lot of books for less than half the retail price, thus capturing the vast majority of the e-book market and set up a potentially difficult situation for publishers. Obviously you can’t last forever by selling all your goods at a loss. The basic fear was that Amazon would amass enough power to successfully depress e-book prices, causing publishers to either lower prices or give Amazon a larger discount — two situations that could cause a huge drop in revenues, especially as e-books sales increase every quarter.

The Big Six publishers are based upon a very standard, very old school revenue model: sell X thousands of $25+ hardcovers, then a year later sell X+ thousands of copies of the $15 paperback. The price differential in printing costs between the two editions is negligible, making those hardcover sales especially important to the bottom line.

To the common reader on the street, the idea of selling $9.99 e-books sounds like a great opportunity for extra cash. Which it would be if there wasn’t the problem of cannibalization. As with almost every product ever produced, the lower the price, the more people who want to buy it. So if everyone rushes headlong into the $9.99 e-book world, not nearly as many people will be buying the $25 (or $35) hardcover, and if e-book retailers strangle their hold, the profit margin on the sale of each book drops from a few dollars to a few pennies, and everyone is screwed.

Thus the agency model. Publishers get to price the books at what they want, and none of the retailers can offer discounts. The same e-book is available at the same price from all vendors — including independent booksellers. Which has a nice spin to it, and more importantly, allows publishers to stick to their current revenue model. Sell X books (e- or print) at $25+, then sell X at $15. Or you can even sell e-books at the “discounted” price of $12.99, and based on the 70% the vendor is giving you on every sale, you could maybe, just maybe, increase your revenues.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this structure is designed to retain the status quo. The bloated overhead, the trumped up marketing.

***

But what’s really at the top of the e-book best-seller lists? As of this very moment (10:10 pm on Wednesday, June 8th), here are the top five and their prices: A Little Death in Dixie by Lisa Turner, $0.99; My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler, $1.99; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, $5.00; Summer Secrets by Barbara Freethy, $4.99; and The Help by Kathryn Stockett, $9.99.

So aside from The Help, which is the 9th bestselling book in paperback, the top five are all $5 or less. And aside from The Help, none of these books are in the top 10 for Literary Fiction paperback sales. So what does this mean?

At BEA, Keith Gessen introduced me to the works of John Locke (probably not the one you’re thinking of), a best-selling Kindle author whose books are all sold for $0.99. He made over a hundred thousand of dollars in royalties last year — far exceeding the wildest dreams of most every mid-list (if John Locke is even midlist) author in the country. Having read the opening of one of his “Donovan Creed” novels, I can assure you that he’s not selling all these books due to his talent. No offense intended, but let’s be real about this — it leads to a much more interesting conundrum.

Two of my longstanding issues with e-books are: a) how your brain processes texts read on a screen, and b) e-books make books feel like disposable entertainment. I’m going to leave the first for a separate article and/or book, but I think the second objection is valuable here.

As announced by Bowker a few weeks back, more than three million books were published last year: 300,000 from “traditional” publishers, and 2.9 million from nontraditional publishing outlets, such as self-publishing.

So, you have an e-reader, you’re bored with TV and all your video games, ain’t feeling the Facebook, and want a book. Why pay $12.99 for “entertainment” when you could buy a John Locke thriller for $0.99? I have no answer to that question. Seriously. And this has always been my problem with e-books: they emphasize immediate entertainment — and gratification — over real “reading,” which takes more commitment, patience, attention and time.

Now, you pay what you would pay for an app and dump it after you’re done. And why not? Those “expensive” books are a lot of work.

As someone devoted to literary culture, this scares the crap out of me. Sure, John O’Brien and a few others will claim that this has “always been the case,” that there has always been only 10,000 “serious readers” in the U.S., and that’s the same today as it was 50 years ago, but I don’t know if these people are actually in touch with the world around us. It’s all $0.99 e-books and instant movies and Angry Birds.

But to pull back from the misanthropy, the point is this: self-published authors game the system. You set your e-book price at $0.99, get a hundred friends to buy it in a short window of time, and shoot into the best-seller list where sales breed sales, and Terry Gross has only a momentary impact.

My gut reaction is that this is BS. That it cheapens the art of writing. That . . . and I’m probably old and out of touch with pop culture. And for those reasons I never wanted to get involved in this whole e-book thing. Not. At. All.

***

At the same time, I work for a nonprofit publishing house whose mission is to promote international “pure literature” to as wide an audience as possible. There were fewer than 300 translated works of fiction published in the U.S. last year. And aside from that Swedish crime writer, the other 299 sold way less than 50,000 copies. The reasons for this are diverse and complicated and occasionally xenophobic. But the point is: the 10 authors we publish a year are sort of lucky to have their books available to English readers. And they’re damn good books! Books praised by the New York Times, books that influential tastemakers gravitate towards, books that sell a few thousand copies.

And as a nonprofit, our goal is more focused on readers than sales. We couldn’t survive without donations (and yes, we can always use your support — anything is great, a million dollars is better), in part because we can’t sell enough books to survive without them. We could quit publishing this “pure literature” stuff and go all in on Donovan Creed & Co., or we can continue to raise money with the belief that what we’re doing is important to culture — as long as people read it.

And there are a lot of people who like e-books. And even more who like the $0.99 variety.

If our goal is to reach as many readers as possible, and knowing that the vast majority of the independent stores can’t/won’t carry our titles (we sell to about 100 indies a year), and knowing that the chains (or is it chain?) don’t stock us in all stores, the vast majority of readers out there will never run into an Open Letter book “out in the wild.” Sure, they can order it online from anyone and anywhere, but they’re unlikely to stumble upon A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch in the physical world. And if they did, would they really drop $13 on an author/book they’re completely unfamiliar with?

I’ll end here with the joys of being small: A Big Six press can never do what we do. They have shareholders and restrictions and people to employ at (occasionally) decent salaries. They have buildings and holdings. I get why they consider the e-book price war to be a serious business. As a small press we can operate outside of the box at times. And if our goal is getting people to read our books, a great first step is making them aware. And if the world loves the $0.99 price point, we’ll meet them halfway.

By pricing our e-books at $4.99 for the month of June, we hope to do two things: make people aware that we have e-books, and get that fringe reader — the one who’s intrigued but for whom even $9.99 is a maybe a bit too much for something they don’t know enough about — to take a chance. Catalonia isn’t that scary.

And in terms of that revenue thing? Here’s a concept: We can’t survive by selling all our books at $4.99 unless someone drops a million-dollar check in the mail right now, or we sell 4 or 5 times the number of copies we typically sell. But we can survive if every fifth person who buys a $4.99 Open Letter e-book raves about it to friends and convinces a few people to buy either the $14 paperback or a $9.99 e-book. Which fits in with our mission of generating genuine excitement about our books and may help expand the audience for works in translation in general, which is good for everyone.

And I stand by our content. It’s not John Locke — it’s at least five times better.

DISCUSS: Can Affordable Literature Ever Compete with “Palatable Plonk?”

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103 Comments

  1. Ilya Zarembsky
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Ed, your porn/lovemaking analogy isn’t a simplification, it’s a bad analogy. If we want to make a sex analogy to e-books/paper books, it’s clearly just online porn / porn magazine.

    Like Natasha and others above, I’m uncomfortable with the claim that pricing books cheaply devalues literature. It seems much more accurate to me to say that what devalues literature is the thinking underlying such claims, namely that a book’s worth can be expressed in dollars. The more you think along those lines, the more you vulgarize even the best books by making them into just another luxury commodity.

  2. Lisa
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    So now reading an e-book is akin to getting off on internet porn?! If you insist on the comparison I would say we are talking about the difference between missionary position and oral sex. Just a lovely enhancement of the overall experience. Everything depends on the “partner,” in this case the content of the book, and that doesn’t change because of format.

    As for snobbery, Chad can enjoy his esoteric works without crapping on those who don’t. Why is it that you never hear physicists whining that the common people don’t read their theorems? Maybe because they understand that it requires specialized knowledge to do so. The literary elite should embrace their own tastes but stop judging those who don’t.

  3. Edward Nawotka
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    @Ilya, It’s not a literal analogy. And I’m talking about content, not format, in this case. In the case of books, the long term sustainability of our business depends on creating a revenue stream that is sustainable. The underlying argument is not about e-books v. p-books, but about books and literature in general. I’m not favoring one over the other, but trying to see the big picture.

    Don’t get fixated on the porn analogy — which is perhaps too laden with preconceptions — how about onanism vs. lovemaking, instead?! The point is about the complexity of one’s mental/emotional engagement with something.

    How about a wine analogy: you can get box wine from the gas station that is perfectly drinkable or you can get a bottle of something more complex, sophisticated and challenging to the palette. Both satisfy a desire — and will get you just as drunk. But the experience of drinking them, depending on your relationship to wine, can be vastly different.

    Wine was viewed for a long time as something for snobs. Cheaper, better bottles made it accessible to a larger number of people — this is happening in China at the moment — and that is a good thing for the wine industry. At the same time, the influx of cheaper wine was viewed by the industry as way of expanding the audience, and serving as a gateway for their more expensive and, presumably, better bottles. This is still being played out…

    That said, I’m much less concerned about whether or not it comes in a box or a bottle, with a screw top or a cork. Doesn’t matter. What matters is your relationship to it and experience of it.

    And no, I personally don’t think that the influx of more inexpensive bottles of wine has devalued wine overall. Perhaps that’s an analogy the book business might do well to consider?

  4. Neil Griffin
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article and I’ve enjoyed the spirited debate after. What I’m curious about is the assertion that brains process words differently on an ebook. Are there other articles that study this in-depth? I have heard similar claims, but after buying a kindle, I’ve found the reading pretty similar.

  5. EJW
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Reading between the lines, it seems as if there is a suggestion here that reading electronically is somehow mentally less engaging than reading off of paper. Do people seriously think that words on an electronic screen offer less brain nutrition than paper words? (Sort of like cooking vegetables …) The idea is silly, much less the actual scientific probability of such a difference.

    When I read these kinds of articles I’m a bit staggered by the idea of people who clearly love literature deriding a something that’s encouraging MORE reading. Ultimately, I say give the damned things away for free if it means people will read more. How will authors, editors, etc., etc. make a living? Who knows, but they WILL, because talent and entertainment will always have a price.

    Speaking of price, traditional publishers are pricing themselves out of the eBook game, which is fine for many authors. It’ll mean less competition in the future.

  6. Lisa
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    @Edward I like the wine analogy much better. They way you present takes the comparison in a more positive and one that corresponds better. Let’s just steer clear of having the aged scotch drinkers dissing the Corona crowd. As long as people are “drinking”, it’s a good thing. Cheers!

  7. Edward Nawotka
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    @Lisa, yes, I like that analogy as well. Let’s stick with that one instead.

  8. Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Great analysis. Would be interesting to carry the debate further and compare these reflections with the situation in France where ebooks are subject to price control (which has been the case for printed books since 1981): http://read.bi/lOqrSp.

  9. Monica La Porta
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Writers want their words to be read. The writers who wrote the books you publish want their words to be read. As a reader, I want to read them. But, if I never heard of X, how I am going to find his/her books? Now, passionate publishers like you, committed to discover rare jewels and translate them, should rejoice at the idea that your favorite authors’ voices can be heard by millions of people. As a parent, I try my best to make the right decision for my kids. If I were a publisher, I would treat the authors I represent the same way. Although you don’t feel good about it, when you decided to offer their titles as ebooks you did right by them. And that is all that matters.

  10. Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    @Monica I totally agree with you. In the larger scheme of things I’ve been writing/thinking about, the real question becomes “how does person x find these books?” That–in my *opinion*–involves a lot of factors: price, publicity, gatekeepers, tastemakers, reading patterns, self-selectivity, behavioral economics, etc., etc., etc. It’s an absolutely fascinating topic. I think it may be the essential publishing question of our time.

    @Neil I think the jury is way out re: screen reading vs. print reading. There are studies showing the decline in reading comprehension when the text is read on a screen. It drops even lower when hyperlinks are embedded in the text. Nicholas Carr writes about this, but there have been several critiques of Carr’s conclusions.

    Studies of what happens in the brain in these two reading environments are really just beginning in earnest, and in addition, this is something that will continue to evolve as more people grow up in our very tech-dependent world.

    I personally don’t care for reading on the Kindle (haven’t used anything else), but I also know that that’s just me. (Or not really me, here are a few interesting pieces to check out: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/the-future-of-reading-2 and http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/36037/) Another thing to check out is http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/screen-readingprint-reading/8551

    Now, none of this means that I think ebooks are the work of the devil, or that you’re stoopid to read them. I just think looking at the broader context of how reading (selection & comprehension) work and impact culture is an important thing. But I know that not everyone does.

  11. Ilya Zarembsky
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Ed, with all due respect, I don’t think you really grasp what an analogy is.

  12. Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Edward Nawotka drew a very apt analogy to wine. Wine (like literary fiction) was for the longest time considered elitist, confined to those “serious” consumers (“serious readers”) who knew good from bad. Sure, there was bad wine out there (genre fiction), and it often sold in cheaper formats (paperback), but that was just to please the rabble.

    Well, guess what happened? The vintners saw a chance to make more money! Good God, they actually WENT COMMERCIAL and started marketing their fine and medium wines to the masses at reasonable prices (lower ebook prices). And don’t you know that pretty soon, everyone was drinking wine (reading ebooks). People who only drank beer or whiskey before (non-”serious” readers) suddenly couldn’t get enough wine, because the prices were no longer prohibitive, AND it was plentiful, much more so than ever before. Sure it wasn’t Louis XIII (James Joyce) but it was pretty darned good for their unsophisticated palates (John Locke, Amanda Hocking).

    Those vintners who wised up and sold to the masses became wildly successful and lived happily ever after.

    The End.

  13. Lisa
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I just realized that I left out a couple words on my last post, making it kind of garbled. Here is what I meant to say:

    @Edward I like the wine analogy much better. The way you present it takes the comparison in a more positive direction and one that corresponds better. Let’s just steer clear of having the aged-scotch drinkers dissing the Corona crowd. As long as people are “drinking”, it’s a good thing. Cheers! …Or to connect to the previous analogy, Bottoms up!

  14. Ilya Zarembsky
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    To be more constructive, Ed. You’re conflating and confusing two distinct binaries in your comments; e-books/print books & “quality”/”literary” fiction/entertainment fiction. In your first comment, you try to present the difference between online porn and live lovemaking as analogous to the difference between e-reading and print reading. This is a bad analogy because the elements are not parallel. It does little good to say you didn’t mean the analogy to be literal, as “literal analogy” is an oxymoron. In your second comment, you try to present mass market wine / fancy wine as a refinement of your first analogy when in fact that difference is analogous to the completely unrelated second binary.

  15. Edward Nawotka
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    @Ilya, appreciated.

  16. Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I posted in here yesterday, but here’s an addendum that I think Chad (and anyone else who agrees with his “analysis”) might want to think about.

    What might it be like to have been in on the marketing session that came up with the word “Kindle” as the name of the device that would eliminate books? They could’ve just as easily decided to call it the 451, right?

    Is Kindle the singular of *kindling*?

    Regardless of how you look at it – Kindle is the device by which books cease to become physical objects and become mere electrons. But that does not suggest that what is contained within those electrons no longer have any value to those who come in contact with – no matter what the price. If the words have value, they will find an audience – but do not count on it being a paying one, unless your name is Clancy, King, Winfrey, etc.

  17. Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget that Amazon adds a Whispernet charge of $2.00 for every customer outside the US, so $0.99 books actually cost $2.99 if you don’t live in the US (I think Australia might be excluded now). Your $4.99 book will cost me $6.99 which is approx R50 and I can buy a small McDonald’s hamburger for R18.00. Just sayin’.

  18. Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    As with all other technological advances, @Gregory, it’s never the device itself, it’s the device’s impact on society. Ebooks don’t automatically degrade the quality of books, but the existence of ebooks/devices is clearly having an impact on culture (and business). Again, not that shifts in audience behavior are automatically bad (we’d all mostly agree that getting more people to read is generally a positive thing), but they are interesting for authors, publishers, commentators, readers, etc., etc. Crazy & exciting how fast everything is changing, and fun to see how it’s playing out . . .

  19. Neil Griffin
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the articles, Chad. I’m definitely conflicted about how reading experiences are different with ebooks as opposed to the real thing. I’ve mostly bought “genre fiction” that I wouldn’t necessarily want on my bookshelf with my kindle and then continued to read “literary fiction” (quoted words are obvious shortcuts) in physical form, so, in a sense, I can’t really compare the two the experiences, since the books are so different.

  20. Natasha
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Re the articles Chad linked to:

    Sigh … so it’s not enough that the texts themselves be difficult, the act of reading them has to be physically trying too, else it’s not really “reading.”

    Honey, if you want to make it difficult to read on your Kindle, just change the font and fool around with the margins some.

    Wrapping prejudices about “difficulty” and “worthiness” in scientism doesn’t make them anything more than prejudices.

  21. Posted June 14, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I wasn’t going to make a comment until I read Edward Nawotka’s comment. Now I just can’t help myself. First Chad belittles readers and now Edward patronizes posters. I suppose that actually makes Chad a little more sympathetic in my view because clearly there is a whole culture of snobbery in this little organization.

    Kudos to John Locke for not engaging anymore. Hopefully, the ignorance and irrelevance of this blog (and Chad’s publishing decisions) will cause it to achieve the fate of so many before: to become unknown.

    I don’t know. Maybe we’re all being played and this is brilliant short term marketing. But I’m pretty sure you’re not gaining new, quality readers by talking down to them and cutting them off.

    Just my 2c. Good luck in your endeavors.
    Kate Madison

  22. Posted June 14, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    I think the correct phrase to apply to this post is simply: Sour Grapes.

  23. Posted June 14, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Something that is supposed to be pleasing or enjoyable comes with a price tag!
    When something costs less than a DOLLAR, Red flags go off in my head. A 99 cents Burger or 2-Burgers for 99 cents. I find it hard to eat the former, but the latter, I would, only, feed to my Dog! I find it hard to read a 99 cents book-Most are terrible, have no substance, or SCOPE.

  24. Brian
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    “Hi! I’m old and hate change. I also can’t think outside the box because new ideas terrify me, so I wrap my terror up in a veil of snobbery and tell people that access to cheap, plentiful amounts of information is actually destroying their minds! That way I can look super smart and feel better about myself.”

  25. Posted June 14, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    the only thing that destroys minds is the quality (lack of) in your writing in this article, chad.
    now go take a shave.

  26. Posted June 14, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Price is not value. Value is not price. Almost anything published before 1900 is available for free as an ebook from Project Gutenberg. Just because we live in the age of money does not mean that everything can be reduced to thatb denominator.

    Disclaimer. I give all my books away for free. I don’t want money from them. I don’t game the system. I don’t know the tens of thousands of readers who have downloaded them. Not all of them think my writing is crap but what other people think is none of my business.

    Put whatever price you want on your stuff. There’s no shortage out there. This post was like a box of whine, indeed.

  27. Posted June 14, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Sour grapes indeed.

    After being screwed over by the Big Six for decades, authors do not need to apologize for going into business for themselves–they are the creators of the work, after all. No need to subsidize an antiquated system just to feel validated.

    John Locke made $100,000+ last year. Good for him. He will only get better now that he is writing full time.

  28. Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I disagree that eBooks cheapen the value of books. Either you like to read or you don’t. We all know people who buy books all the time yet never finish them. Books, for many people, have always been impulse buys. People who enjoy reading will read regardless if they bought a physical book or an eBook. I still avidly read both.

    In most cases, I suspect that cheap eBooks likely lead to sales which never would have occurred in the first place, rather than subtract from physical book sales. I’m more likely to check someone out at .99 or $2.99 than I would at $9.99. But I’m still going to buy from the big authors I’ve come to know and love no matter the price.

    To your last point, no, not all publishers can thrive in this new market. Nor should they.

    You either adapt and provide value or you find enough people to support your business model in some other way. Holding prices artificially high for the sake of propping up a failing business model will never work because the truth is, authors no longer need publishers.

    Let me rephrase that – authors are now becoming publishers.

    Writers finally have the opportunity to go directly to their audience and build their own fan base/readership. They are no longer held up by production schedules or the interests of the publisher. They don’t have to take a pittance in digital sales royalties or take a back seat to another writer in the stable. In short, writers can now write their own rules (pun intended).

    So the question publishers need to be asking themselves isn’t how can we force our will onto others, but rather, how can I provide value to my customers? How can I make the book buying/reading experience more valuable so people will feel compelled to support our efforts?

    Not an easy question, I know, but I’m sure the most creative types will find ways to thrive. Or more indie author/publishers will rise. In any event, “literature” is no worse for the wear and the readers win.

  29. Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Pathetic. It would be almost funny, but actually it’s just irrelevant.
    It reminds me a bit of the discussions that took place, or so my father tells me, when the CD replaced the vinyl record. Vinyl records, or so their proponents said, were far superior. The sound was better, warmer, and blah and blah.
    I suspect that this whole non-existent problem has more to do with protecting the profit margins of publishers than with the lofty concerns that are so ineptly uttered here.
    It’s actually very simple. Mr. Post doesn’t get a vote in this. Neither do the publishers. Neither do the writers. The only people who get a vote are the readers, and they will vote with their wallet. It’s sometimes called capitalism. Sometimes free market. Sometimes even democracy.
    There is a remedy however. Take a good look in the mirror. Take a good look at the history of dinosaurs. Decide what you’re going to do. Adapt or die out.

  30. Chad
    Posted June 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always considered myself a “serious” reader. I went to an engineering college and double-majored in Literature so that I could continue to be exposed to talented authors and amazing stories. To this day, I still read ~5 books a week (mostly on weekends), and here’s my take on eBooks:

    The Kindle and other devices have the potential to disrupt other forms of entertainment (TV, movies, etc.). They make reading and books more accessible and “real-time” than paper books do. Since getting a Kindle, my weekly reading has gone from ~3 books to ~5, because I *always* have a book to read or can get one instantly. In the past, the debate would be “do I re-read a book I already have or watch something on TV?” For me, the debate has shifted to be almost exclusively “what do I feel like reading today?”

    Adding to that, I also find that I’m reading a much wider breadth of authors and types of novels, for two reasons:
    1. The financial commitment is small (and I know this is killing the industry, but it’s the truth), and
    2. It’s simply easier to find great books. I’ve gone from spending hours browsing at a bookstore trying to find something interesting, to spending minutes browsing top-seller lists.

    Having said all that, I don’t like that Amazon is introducing risk into the market and that in the long-term it’s possible for us to see fewer books from publishers because of shrinking margins or even worse – no more bookstores. So I’m going to do my very small part and switch to a Barnes&Noble Nook so I’m at least supporting the brick-and-mortar bookstores that I’ve always loved (and miss now that I’m 90% “e” reading).

  31. Posted June 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the entertaining article. It made me laugh on so many levels; I lost count. I read most of the comments, so I could get a sense of what people thought. I was amused by your Editor-in-chief swooping in and defending you. Really sweet.

    But, your statement in your article: “And this has always been my problem with e-books: they emphasize immediate entertainment — and gratification — over real “reading,” which takes more commitment, patience, attention and time…” just demonstrates your naivete and snobbery. “You just don’t get it. And, you can’t sell it either.”

    It’s a business–this book publishing thing. You’ve got a model that isn’t working in the new age of business that functions in an electronic-based world. Your little publishing firm has too much overhead and too many mouths to feed, but the only ones that count are the reader and the author. Loved the comment about the agents and publishers freaking out on the price points if you went lower than $4.99. Geesh, no wonder, it becomes way too obvious agents really aren’t needed in this new game.

    I’m buying the rest of John Locke’s books because he was compassionate enough to respectfully respond, despite your insults of his writing and because he also defended his audience so nicely.

    You and your editor are the epitome of the rest of the traditional publishing world that “just doesn’t get it”. Good luck with the agency model formula going forward.

    I’m off to my Kindle to “read”, even though it isn’t real enough for you.

    Katherine Owen
    Author of Not To Us and Seeing Julia

  32. Doug Welch
    Posted June 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I find it ironic that the writer is using the very same medium in which e-books are popular, to denounce the e-book market as not being a serious literary effort. I can recommend e-books that are every bit as serious in literary terms than any he proposes to publish. (But, oh yes, he won’t read e-books – too bad.) Live with it!
    It’s time to stop killing trees just to satisfy the miniscule appetites of snobs that think they have a lock on what’s considered literature.
    People read to escape the world and enter a realm they’ve never encountered before. They want to vicariously experience in their minds the adventures of fantastic characters and exotic scenes.
    If you must re-read a sentence or paragraph multiple times to make sense of it, then where’s the fun in that?
    If a modern, wanna-be Shakespeare submitted one of his plays to a modern publisher, it would never be able to pass the editor’s knife, and if it did, no one would read it. (It certainly wouldn’t be made into a major motion picture.)

  33. Ady001
    Posted June 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I personally don’t think writing a book and pricing it at 0.99 cheapens literature. There are even some people with genuine literary talent who give their books and writings away for free. It’s just a matter of priorities. I even buy books which are too expensive yet written sloppily.

    I am personally publishing a book in kindle for the price of 0.99. My reason? I just want to bury the whole thing and give it a proper burial, and that’s giving it a publishing right.

  34. Posted June 15, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    But you posted an explanation of the ending of the TV series LOST?

    So that’s great and didn’t destroy your mind?

  35. Posted June 16, 2011 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    I do believe in good bargains but selling ebooks at 0.99C devalue the books and gives the appearance that the content is not that important.

    Chiaka

    http://www.newweboutlets.com/ca6475

  36. Posted June 17, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    I think you really forget that the “art of writing” IS NOT and HAS NEVER BEEN ABOUT FORMAT or professional legacy publishing deals!!! In fact, I’d go so far as to say (and as an author, I attest to this myself) that those authors who self-publish put MORE work into their product than traditionally published authors.

    I design my own cover art, I work out the dimensions, I format my interior so that text is justified all across the page (which takes a good amount of time), and in some cases, I use graphics for my interior. A LOT of work goes into making the most professional presentation possible.

    It’s no different with my Kindle books. I put a table of contents in the file (which I’ve observed many self-published and even traditionally published authors don’t always do).

    So a lot of hard work goes into it. I bust my ass. If I could price my books higher than 99 cents, I would, but that would be suicide, and this is the only point I can really somewhat agree on with you. I’d love to be able to make a living off my writing. However…

    Let’s not forget that in the end, how many titles you sell depends almost entirely on marketing once the presentation is done, and learning how to market your work online as a self-published author is a challenging task. Some don’t have all the time to be able to do it, and I applaud anyone who sells enough of their books to get by, because I have yet to bust my ass in that playing field.

    So price is only one part of this.

    One thing you’d do well to remember is that if readers have a choice of going to a real bookstore, the price of print editions is still much higher than e-books. At least the Big 6 have that going for them. Still, this won’t last long.

    They need to understand that authors will ultimately control the market. You work with the technological advances or not at all. I cherish print books more than e-books. They’re more tangible, real, and the words on paper can often have greater impact as a permanent structure, instead of being something you can hit the “Delete” button on. But self-publishing also gives you the same benefit, and still more, at a lower price.

    This world runs on convenience and ease of use now, whether companies like it or not.

    It’s just the way the market evolves. Selling more books is more important at the end of the day than actual sales. That’s how I see it. There’s something very gratifying about seeing the emotional impact of your words and stories on people, and that’s not something that upping my prices would ever replace.

    I realize we all need to make a profit for living and the economy sucks.

    But don’t cheapen the impact of self-publishing or ebooks. Just like all that glitters isn’t gold, all that’s priced lower isn’t trash.

    The same amount of hard work and dedication goes into it.

  37. Posted June 17, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Are you truly losing money at 70% of $4.99 when there are no printing costs involved?
    While I think that you always have to keep competitor’s prices in mind I don’t think that John Locke is your competition, so I disagree that his $0.99 books are in any way affecting your prices. 1) Different market with different expectations, and 2) his books are priced so low that if your prices are reasonable I can buy both.
    The price I will pay for a book is based on a number of factors:
    -The age of the book (I’ll pay much more for a bestseller, then I will a book that has been around for awhile.)
    -Hardback, paperback, or ebook. Sans printing costs I expect an ebook to be priced no higher than a paperback. (Actually I only purchase ebooks these days, but I would expect to pay more for a hardback book)
    -How much money I have
    -If it’s one of my favorite authors. Even then if the price is too high I’ll go to the library.
    As far as books being entertainment, popular fiction has always been entertainment even when printed on the hallowed paper. And I bet those books, even though priced higher than ebooks still outsold the books that you published.

  38. Sarvi
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, I plan to buy several e-books at the $5 price, and then buy the real books for the ones I like. I don’t have anything against e-books, but they’re just a bunch of text. A book is an object. It smells like paper, it has my grandfather’s cigarette papers tucked between the sheets, it’s giving me a bad back, it holds down the corners of the beach blanket, it gets gnawed by my toddler and one day she will find my handwriting in it. I didn’t start reading Thomas Bernhard because he was priced at 99 cents, or because he was marketed to stay-at-home moms in the valuable 39-45 age bracket. I started because somebody told me he was one of the worst writers he’d ever read. There are other people like me, too. I see them on LibraryThing and in shops that sell smelly used books. We exist, and we buy books for ourselves, our friends, and our children. E-books will not save me money on books, but they’ll help me be more satisfied with the books I buy.

  39. Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    Would you say that people checking out library books for free means they also don’t value them?

    Haranguing people to read Fine Literature (TM) has never and will never get them to put down popular fiction, nor should it. You read what you like and so should everyone else. This makes reading literary fiction sound like such an arduous task.

    Books are content. If you want people to ingest your content, have it available in a lot of different formats cheaply. It still has to be interesting.

  40. Posted June 23, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    The author of this article seems to be misrepresenting their problem with ebooks.

    They’re pretty clearly motivated by worry that ebooks will put traditional publishers out of business, not by worries about quality.

    Traditional publishers have given us the Twilight series and The Situation’s autobiography.

  41. Posted June 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I remember watching an episode of ‘Deep Space Nine’ where Sisco’s son hands him a hand held computer device and asks him to read his novel. I was both blown away by the concept of both being able to write a novel on such a small device, and being able to read it like that too. I had mixed feelings. I like books. Could this ever happen for real? After all, this is science fiction. Might not happen for decades.

    Well, it could and did–way quicker than I expected. People are writing their novels on their iPhones and reading other people’s books on them too.

    Ebooks – print books, I love them all. They are the hard work of many writers of all walks of life. I have vast libraries of both kinds. Fiction, nonfiction, courses on this or that . . . They were all different prices. If I wanted it I got it.

    Every time we move,I get told by my kids I need to downsize and get rid of all these print books. Now, one of my sons feels we need to move into a smaller place. Where will all my books go then? He’d be thrilled to pack them all in boxes and cart them to the dump for me. The only reason he hasn’t yet is because I’ve threatened his life. :)

    Some of them I have read a dozen times, and others I haven’t opened the cover yet. but I might . . . someday. But, yes, ma’am, sir! I am all for the instant gratification of the moment. And I will buy an ebook on the instant I see it and want it–whether it be fiction or nonfiction. I don’t have a real Kindle, I read them on my PC or iPhone with the free Kindle software. I have a free app for almost any format. I have no qualms for printing out a hard copy if I wish to read paper and the author/publisher has allowed for that. My ebook library is considerably larger than my print book one. I have them all saved on disc.(Heh! my son has no clue . . .) Money spent on any form of book is money spent. Plus, I might want to read those books again.

    The pages of an ebook won’t turn yellow. The binding won’t fall apart, letting parts of my treasured story go missing . . . like the ending. I can read them in the dark by the light of my monitor or iPhone. I love my ebooks.

    Well, hey, I wrote my books on screen. Why not read them on screen too. I know it’s not the norm. And, frankly, it doesn’t matter. I can read my books where I want to. I don’t have to please anyone anymore than anyone has to please me in their reading habits. Looks like there is room for all, electronic and print. Variety. Isn’t that supposed to be the spice of life?

    I don’t care about the format. I care about the words. Moreover, I’m most likely going to be looking for that new author than I am going to be following a best selling one. They’ve already got a mess of readers. I want to read the work of authors who are like me. Trying to get a reader base going.

    Yes, sure,there is crappy stuff out there, and it is easier to get your stuff published. But, I have read quite a few crappy print books – a few of them were by those best sellers everyone so adores. In fact, I began writing romance because I read so many crappy ones, I felt I couldn’t do too much worse. And, in my children’s author guise, I began writing for kids because I hated how often parents are written off as clueless, stupid, losers, etc. Many authors started their careers in the same way.

    So, I wrote and, for years, did the traditional things trying to get noticed.

    I got a lot of rejections with hand written notes on them: “Great stuff. Keep trying! You have the potential. It just doesn’t fit our needs at the moment . . .” Long story short(er), after getting burned by a traditional publisher, I decided I would try self publishing. I had a lot to learn and am still. My stuff is priced at $7.97 on my sites, but after reading John Locke’s How I Did It manual, I decided I’d try the Kindle versions at .99. I’m not selling much of anything as it stands, so . . . The beauty of doing it myself is that, if this doesn’t work for me, I can tweak until something does work. And nowhere in his manual does he claim to be a great writer. He freely admits he is not. He simply writes what his readers want and they want what he writes. I should be so lucky.

    I’m not going to diss anyone’s system or method or whatever. At any price, fiction books are entertainment. What’s wrong with getting a book instantly and being able to enjoy escaping into another world right this minute, and for a price my wallet won’t notice? If I love it enough, and see it in print, I will buy it . . . much to my family’s dismay . . .

    Whatever format you prefer to read in, just read! Let the author know you loved the story. If you are an author, price your work how it suits you, and let everyone else do the same. Appreciate your readers whether they like to get your stuff as ebooks or print books.

    Okay, I’m done. I have books to finish writing and then get out there into the cold cruel world, not to mention new authors to discover.

    Happy reading! And I hope your books sell billions!

  42. Posted June 24, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    A few years I might have agreed with some of your points, but having recently been converted to reading eBooks on my Kindle, Mac, and iPhone (most prevalent), I find I’m reading MUCH more than ever before, buying ten times the books I used to (because I can afford it!), and thoroughly enjoying the whole process. My wife and I are voracious readers, and this whole new world has enriched our lives with more books and more armchair adventures!

    My books (via Twilight Times Books, a very fine midsize press) are now automatically offered as eBooks, and we’re working hard to get backlist books in the same mode. I sell far more eBooks now than print, and I understand why, because I’m now buying far more eBooks for the family as I mentioned above. It’s a trend that offers great options for readers, and I’m thrilled about it.

    Take care and enjoy your weekend!

  43. Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Not only does this not understand ebooks, it doesn’t really understand the entire process of reading. As if someone who’s used to reading Pynchon or Chabon or Franzen or insert serious writer’s name will pick up a book by Locke because it’s cheap and instantly be enthralled. More likely, they wouldn’t last five minutes and then gravitate towards something they love. Locke is for people who want a quick read, he’s not siphoning off the “serious readers.”

    And we’re in a world where traditional publishing has so little money that the next Franzen/Pynchon/etc. will not be given a chance because of marketing concerns. Because of this ebooks are your friend – they create readers and give an outlet to all sorts of writing, including “crappy” writing. The major successes will be in mainstream fiction – just as they are in traditional publishing. Dan Brown/Koontz etc. aren’t serious either, but following your argument – print books rot minds because more people read commercial paperbacks.

  44. Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    If you want to use wine as an analogy, it seems to me the wine would be the same, it’s the container that would change. The question is, does the container change the content? Would a fine Bordeaux still be a fine Bordeaux in a cardboard box instead of a glass bottle? And is Pride and Prejudice the same story whether read on a Kindle or read in hardcover or paperback? With books, I get so immersed in a story, I don’t notice what I’m reading on. With wine, I suspect I might notice a difference in taste for the first glass or two, but after that I doubt very much I would care.

    I guess I get drunk on words faster than on wine.

  45. Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:33 am | Permalink

    WE ARE A PEOPLE OF CHANGE AND GROWTH. . . EBOOK’S ARE THAT VEHICLE. Nobody is going to ride to work in a horse covered wagon when they can ride the subway that’s faster and cheaper. If I can watch a multi-million dollar Hollywood production for .99 cents at a redbox… you better believe I would expect to read a book at that same price. I went the traditional path and got published… but honestly my publisher charges like 18.95 for my soft bound and 8.95 for my kindle book, for what? Air, digital space. I know for a fact he hasn’t done jack to promote it. Seriously thinking of putting it on Ebook, just so I can share what I love with the world and not limiting myself with stagnant beliefs. However Chad, I do love the classic’s and am grateful for bound books and library’s and wish your endeavor luck. If it was a great book, I would pay 4.99 for it. There is one book, I buy whenever I see it in a store, regardless the price. That is Louise Hays book, you can heal your life… I am so glad that those are available in print. They are like my favorite gift to give to everyone.

  46. Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for all the useful information

  47. Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    … and most here are authors… think of what is left for the translator, the last link of the food chain… :(

    This is certainly an interesting (raging) debate. For some reason, it reminds me of some writers’ claims that computers (=word processors) killed talent, and that you could write good prose only with a Montblanc fountain pen…

    I am a “traditional” reader and I’m slowly moving to ebooks, and I must say Voltaire on screen or on paper, it’s still Voltaire, thank goodness… Because the buying/download process is so easy, I am getting a real appetite for many works I hadn’t gotten to yet… mostly classic. If you have a limited budget (and no more room in your small cottage), this is definitely an appealing solution. I read on my laptop. I prefer the “real” thing (for all the reasons mentioned in posts above), but there is room for both formats. We are blessed to have so much choice!

  48. Charles Tutt
    Posted December 5, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    These discussions are just history repeating itself. It happens every time a major shift in the way we do things occurs. For example: horse and buggy to automobile, fingers and toes to calculators, snail mail to email, etc..

    The market will eventually set the prices. It always does. Prices too low or too high will obviously not be sustainable as the producers will either starve by producing at a loss or because too few want to pay their price.

    It’s just that simple.

  49. Posted December 13, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    We have come to the conclusion that e-books, print books and audiobooks are mutually exclusive markets and sales in one of the categories seldom takes away a sale from another. It’s about customer preference. However, when you have a stock of printed books you want to capture the early adopters and others who must have the latest thing. So we are going to adopt the old release pattern with our new book, “The Queen of Washington” It’s only in hardbound now and that’s because Amazon.com and Bares & Noble online and Books-A-Million stared taking preorders at 34% off the $32.00 list price. (It’s now still at 24% off.) That put the actual hardbound price at 12 cents over our suggested retail over the trade paperback — which we promptly canceled, converting that run to hardbound. We tell people to buy from the online stores because we don’t want to follow them down the price structure and can get full price for signed copies.

    We also have my previous novel,”The Shenandoah Spy” which they all sell at full price and no longer discount and there are e-book editions at $9.99 for Amazon Kindle and B&N Nook. We had to get these professionally formatted to have them come out right for the consumer. That cost a few bucks.

    Two days ago we dropped the price of the e-books to 99 cents until January 8, 2012. We’ve set a goal of selling 100,000 copies at that price and are promoting the hell out this deal. The first day we went up more than 460,000 places in the Kindle sales rankings — whatever that means. The trade paperback of this book is still at $22.50 because that’s a different market and we are working on an audiobook which will probably sell at about $40.00. That’s for all my neighbors, who don’t read, but do listen to audiobooks. Seriously. They balk at paying eight bucks for a mass market paperback and cheerfully pay five times that for audiobooks, about every other week.

    So check out our deal of “The Shenandoah Spy” e-book, because it’s the best one you’re going to get and the real danger to print is customers discovering how easy it is to get and read Kindle editions on your desktop computer.

  50. Steven
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    Shakespeare is garbage because it’s free. If I’m to follow this analysis, then this must be true. If I sell a book for a million dollars, then surely it must be the greatest in the world. This too holds true. The words in the book have nothing to do with literary merit.

    Money has nothing to do with quality. That’s the truth.

    If someone wants to sell their books for 99 cents and makes a hundred thousand dollars doing so, then that’s awesome. Maybe you guys ought to try selling them for 99 cents. Maybe someone will actually pick one up and read it.

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