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Book Prices: Have Authors Lowballed Themselves?

18 March 2014 iStock_000022110025Small photog isaxar texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Our Wednesday Live #EtherIssue Chat
  2. Book Prices: What If Authors Have Lowballed Themselves?
  3. Kobo “has seen its position in the US market dwindle”
  4. Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 11 a.m. ET / 3 p.m. GMT
  5. Last Week’s Topic: New Rooster on the Block

Our Wednesday Live #EtherIssue Chat

Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host a live Twitter chat on this week’s Ether topic(s) at 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT—and that’s 3 p.m. London GMT, not our usual 4 p.m. At the moment, the States is only four hours behind London, as we’ve already shifted to Daylight Saving Time. Much of Europe will make the change to DST on Sunday March 30 at which time we’ll return to a five-hour difference between Eastern and London time. This week? 3 p.m. in London, and the regular 11 a.m. Eastern.

We’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue as we do weekly. Join us and watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

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Book Prices: What If Authors Have Lowballed Themselves?

By Porter Anderson

Joanna Penn

Joanna Penn

Many podcasts are like musical theater—more fun for the people doing them than for the audience.

You know how audio and video are. Linear. Not searchable, as text is. That’s why I always appreciate the fact that Joanna Penn offers high points of her podcast interviews in text.

Penn also has begun introducing new covers of her novels, as she tells us in a post, On Changing Book Covers, and these latest new designs feature gun-slinging women on them.

Pentacost new cover March 2014 by JFPennIf her nonfiction offerings such as How to Market a Book start showing up with these armed beauties on their covers, we may finally discover…how to market a book. You have to admit, this cover treatment could be particularly effective on Penn’s Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives, and other Introverts. Imagine a sleek young Lara Croft-type at the podium. With her revolver. And the undivided attention of her terrified audience. Don’t try this when you speak at the Kiwanis breakfast.

So there I was in my flak jacket, listening to Penn’s good audio interview with “Mark from Kobo” (or @MarkLeslie, to your tweeting neighbors)—Selling Books at Kobo and Publishing News with Mark Lefebvre. Kobo sponsors Penn’s podcasts, as it happens.

Some cool facts were flying by. For example, at time code 14:15, we learn that Kobo Writing Life authors—meaning self-publishers who produce books through that platform—have so far sold in 184 of the 190 countries and territories in which Kobo operates. “So you have six more to go,” Lefebvre tells us.

At 15:05, Lefebvre explains price-promotion scheduling at Kobo, noting that at Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing one must be “locked into” the exclusivity arrangements of KDP Select to get such a thing. One wears one’s competition on one’s sleeve these days, it seems.

Mark Lefebvre

Mark Lefebvre

He adds that at Kobo, the author can “make your book free at any time, which we’ve done since Day One.”

One thing that comes out of this discussion of the price-promotion scheduling functionality is the fact that Kobo command is watching these promos for bargains the site can feature as a Daily Deal. “We mine the data,” he says (at 17:25), of these price-promo scheduling events. The system is being read for upcoming “gems.”

And when Penn asks Lefebvre (at  18:23) for his definition of a “gem” at Kobo, the interview begins to hunker down around the issue of pricing in an interesting way.

In looking for a “gem,” Lefebvre tells her:

[20:01] We’re looking for a price promo. If it’s $2.99 and it’s going down to 99 cents, well, that’s not a big deal…If the regular price is less than five dollars? Well, it’s not much of a deal, it’s already a deal…Ideally, the original price would be above five dollars, the sale price would be below five dollars, and ideally fifty to eighty percent off. That’s a ‘gem.’  With the right cover, with the right book, at the right time.” [20:38]

Lefebvre is describing what Kobo’s merchandising team is looking for in a “gem,” because, as Penn discusses with him, a book that meets the team’s criteria can be considered for feature Daily Deal treatment on Kobo’s site.

Listen carefully to what he’s advocating here.

He speaks at 21:00 of “a great book with a beautiful cover for 99 cents. And at the end of the day, we get to keep 30 cents of that.” Not much of a promo, in terms of its value to Kobo.

And then:

[21:04] “And there’s another great book for ten dollars…and we’d be getting three dollars.”

Lefebvre is advocating higher prices.

This makes perfect sense to me. Higher prices help the company make more money. Kobo’s cut of a promotional discount on a book that costs ten dollars, he’s saying, very rightly, is better than Kobo’s cut of a promotional discount on a book that costs 99 cents.

Kobo Writing LifeWhat we’re learning, then, is that the Kobovian Machinery is scanning authors’ price-promo schedulings for “gems,” which are, as we’ve learned, books the regular prices of which are high enough that a deep-discount promo will offer Toronto something worth having, say three dollars, not 30 cents.

I’m in no way condemning Kobo here for this. In fact, I’m glad to hear Lefebvre saying it and I hope he’ll be emboldened to come right out and say this more clearly to authors. The relationship of a major platform with authors can still be a sensitive thing, of course, as writers learn the business and platforms try to sort out how to handle their entirely independent creative workforce. You hear Lefebvre going to such charming lengths to, ha-ha, suggest that there are business realities here to be considered. One doesn’t want to sound too corporate when an awful lot of one’s suppliers are amateurs aspiring to professionalism. For example:

(21:10) “Pretending for just one moment that Kobo is a business…what book are we going to put into that prime front window” of a metaphorical bookshop, a book “that will make sure we can turn our lights on the next day?”

Time for another Toronto-Seattle missile to fly: (21:24): “Other places may not have to sell books to make money and they use books as loss-leaders. Places like Kobo, we only sell ebooks, we have to make money off books in order to stay in business…the only way that we rarely bring in money is by selling books.”

Conversational podcast-y format aside, the point I want is to pick up on is that Lefebvre is talking to you about pricing up. Upward.

This is hardly lost on Penn, and she knows where to go with it.

She reaches for her derringer…no, wait, that’s not right. No, she reaches for the point Lefebvre has just made and bravely takes us right on into the corral for the shootout we never quite seem willing to have these days: why are books so damned cheap now?

Like Lefebvre, she takes the conversational, friendly tack on what some of us believe is a dire subject:

[21:59] The way that I feel that it’s going right now is that perhaps full-length books should be…it used to be they were $2.99, now pretty much most people are at $4.99, but it’s almost like you’re saying, ‘No, a full-length book should be $5.99. And I know Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith are going for, like, $7.99. [22:19]

Dean Wesley Smith

Dean Wesley Smith

You can check out some of what she’s referring to in the case of author Dean Wesley Smith’s blogging on the topic in this post which, although aimed at 2013 has a list of price ranges he suggests for books.  One of his points is that traditional publishers have considered the $9.99 ebook price familiarized by Amazon to be cheap, too cheap.

Penn to Lefebvre:

[22:19] Are we at the point now where indies are better to have some free products and some higher-priced products, and just forget the middle ground entirely? [22:33]

As the conversation goes on, she and Lefebvre talk about his own experiences in short books, “digital chapbooks,” he calls them. (Yes, like all but three people in North America today—and we can’t find those three people—Lefebvre is an author.)

[23:16] The best price is somewhere between here and here, depending on your genre, depending on your…I can’t give one pat answer. the best possible price is the price by which you sell the highest volume, right? And make the most margin at the same time. And for different titles, it’s different. [23:36]

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Kobo “has seen its position in the US market dwindle”

Now, breaking away from that friendly but armed podcast, and just before we get to some broader questions for our #EtherIssue live discussion on Wednesday, I want to another, potentially worrisome bit of commentary coming from Kobo.

Publishers LunchIn Kobo Continues To Press Case To Preserve Agency in Canada at Publishers Lunch, Michael Cader catches us up on some interesting statements being made in legal proceedings there. He writes:

Kobo continues to press their motion to rescind the ebook pricing consent agreements in Canada between the Competition Commission and the four agency publishers…In a memorandum of fact filed March 10, they [Kobo] reiterated their primary argument that “without a stay, Kobo will be irreparably harmed. Its contracts with four of the largest ebook publishers in Canada will be terminated or fundamentally altered. Kobo – not the Consenting Publishers – will bear the financial losses arising from these changes.”

Even at the corporate level, and in the setting of legal price-regulatory assertions, the company policy seems to echo the author-level tone of what we heard Lefebvre saying in his talk with Penn. Cader quotes the company’s filing referencing a “view [that] wrongly assumes that price decreases are the only marker of a competitive market.”

Michael Tamblyn

Michael Tamblyn

And in the most interesting part of the article, Cader excerpts comments from Kobo’s chief content officer, Michael Tamblyn, an affidavit (a February 21 filing). Here is how Cader quotes what Tamblyn is saying:

“Since the entry of Agency Lite, Kobo has shed significant revenues as it has been forced to discount titles to match the deep discounting that some US competitors have engaged in. Despite these efforts to protect its market share by lowering prices, Kobo has seen its position in the US market dwindle. At this time, Kobo has stopped making significant investments in the US market. It has closed its one office there, has not replaced US sales staff, and is generally focusing on other markets.”

Thanks to Cader, I can give you this link to Tamblyn’s affidavit, and this one to the memorandum of fact filed by the company.

The Agency case in Canada is not directly linked to what Penn and Lefebvre are talking about—author pricing of books sold through Kobo and other online retail platforms—although it’s interesting to hear Lefebvre discuss what’s better in terms of discount procedures for Kobo (higher regular prices), and thus what its scanners are watching for when it comes to featured book promotions.

Let’s widen this whole question for our discussion on Wednesday, thanking Penn and Lefebvre, Cader and, by proxy, Tamblyn and Smith.

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Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 11 a.m. ET / 3 p.m. GMT

At this point, we’re not privy to insights into what Kobo’s executive suite is saying in regards to the effects of Agency Pricing of books. However, the glimpses we’re getting, as in Lefebvre’s comments about what’s good for the company when authors select their price-promotions and schedule them are understandable.

Let’s take our lead from Kobo but posit our core questions on a wider basis of valuation:

  • Are book prices too low for what authors’ efforts and talents and skills actually are worth?
  • Is it really possible that a full-length book is ever really worth only $2.99 or less?
  • What signal does that send to readers about what writers think of their own work?
  • What if, in order to try to capture market share from traditional publishers, independent authors’ bargain-basement pricing has seriously damaged the public’s idea of what books are worth?
  • What’s wrong with the $9.99 price point for an ebook which, as Smith has written, is actually considered too cheap by some publishers?
  • Can we expect to see ebook prices in the self-publishing world rise to something higher than the $7.99 to $9.99 range that many self-publishers seem to think is the high end of self-published ebook prices now?

We’d love your input on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern, 8 a.m. Pacific, 3 p.m. GMT on hashtag #EtherIssue — see you then.

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Last Week’s Topic: New Rooster on the Block

As soon as your long-form-loving neighbors take a break, the short-read cheerleading squad takes over (another of our industry whiplashes of the moment). And in Short Reads: The Rooster Crows, Very Briefly, we profiled the arrival of a new reader service, Rooster — from the founders of Plympton and DailyLit, Yael Goldstein Love and Jennifer 8. Lee.

What made our #EtherIssue even cooler than some was that Love jumped on with us (at 8a her time in California, no less) and stayed with us for the full hour, taking questions and talking us through the various ins and outs of what short-form can do and how and why Rooster is set up as it is.

And as is frequently the case, our good friend and colleague, author James Scott Bell got us off to a fast start. He noted the fact that Rooster offers an established novel and a newly written piece at once. Subscribers ($4.99 per month, with a free trial on offer) choose which to read, and they get the text in bursts of about 15 reading minutes each to their iPhones. (Love promises me they’re working on an Android edition for my Samsung S-4.)

What Bell wanted to know, when he found out that there’s a choice of a classic work and a newer work, was this:

To which Love answered:

Our frequent #EtherIssue participant Carla Douglas in Canada was ahead of a lot of us, as usual:

And Love was glad to have a chance to do some audience research:

When Bell asked what the advantage of a short-read delivery system like Rooster might be over “having the whole book and reading chunks whenever,” Victoria Noe join in to say:

A comment for which Love was ready. (You don’t have to wait for Rooster to send you the next installment if you get antsy):

And, as for the question of why some people might prefer to have this short-burst format on their phones to having the whole book to read when they want, Love produced a compelling rationale:

California-based steampunk author Aaron Sikes knows the type reader we’re talking about:

Author Dina Santorelli questioned the deeper motivation:

While Love was interested in nipping that “no time to read” complaint in in the bud:

Kevin Eagan at Critical Margins was impressed with Rooster’s ability to get the work of newer writers onto the phones of avid readers:

Love is serving as editorial director at Rooster, meaning that she’s the one doing the curation, deciding which novels, established and new, are offered in each round to the startups subscribers. She explained to Ricardo Fayet in Paris that the team realizes their success may lie in the selection of works.

And she told Sikes that a choice of genres is coming to the service in the future:

And in terms of what happens when writers begin to think in serial format about their work:

When Fayet wanted to know what might stop copycats and competitors from jumping onto Rooster’s model, author Carol Buchanan had the answer:

And all in all, we had some great round-robin convo going:

And, as it turned out, I saw the potential for a very wide-range “Big Read,” as the National Endowment for the Arts’ program is called, while Christina Frey and Carla Douglas were asking about social reading elements.

All in all, the discussion’s reception to the Rooster concept was positive. With those of us on the non-Apple side of things just waiting for our turn:

Join us Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern, 3 p.m. London time, 4 p.m. Berlin, 8 a.m. Los Angeles, for another live debate, we’ll be glad to see you hash it #EtherIssue with us.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+

Main image – iStockphoto: isaxar

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  1. Posted March 19, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    The problem the way I see it is that even if I price an ebook at a “normal” level, Amazon has already trained most readers to expect the title to be sold for $2.99 or less, and what price above that is possible if they won’t buy it? It is Amazon which is to blame for using the books as loss leaders for the sales of other products, deep discounting of prices below margin and in other ways cheapening the value of the books, regardless of topic, number of pages or words, or the cultural impact of the content. In order for Kobo to be viable in the fact of KDP Select’s erosive program, it would have to offer the books for free in perpetuity. Amazon has succeeded in destroying any chance for anyone to profit from this business, and secured a place in history as the company which destroyed the very economy it depends on. Any author hoping for a chance to be read in this environment is in competition with freebies, and will never enjoy the fruits of his/her labors as long as Amazon continues its downward pricing spiral.

    • Porter Anderson
      Posted March 23, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Hello, Theresa,

      And thank you for your comment.

      Interestingly, there are many authors who will say that without Amazon facilitating self-publishing as a viable, genuine alternative for publication, most writers would never have had a chance to be published at all. There are many authors, both self-publishing and traditionally published, who will tell you that they have sold more books through Amazon, print and/or digital, than they have sold or could have sold anywhere else.

      It might be prudent to remember that Amazon’s general, original default price for ebooks was $9.99. And that is a price that many publishers–not Amazon, publishers–still claim is too low and for which they created agency pricing arrangements, which now have cost fines and public esteem. At the moment, it is Kobo, not Amazon, that makes it possible for authors to offer their ebooks free of any charge on an unlimited basis.

      If you are an author, I would encourage you to sell your own books well above $2.99 out of respect for your own effort. And as we have discussed in this article and in our #EtherIssue live session, it does appear that ebook pricing overall may be rising considerably past $2.99, which is promising. As I asked in one of my questions here, what was wrong with $9.99?

      You write that “Amazon has already trained most readers to expect the title to be sold for $2.99 or less.” However, I see a great, great many ebooks on Amazon priced much higher than $2.99 and I’m glad for it.

      You also write, “Amazon has succeeded in destroying any chance for anyone to profit from this business.” You might want to ask authors Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, CJ Lyons, HM Ward, Jasinda Wilder, Candice Hern, Stephanie Bond, Emily Bold, Oliver Potzsch, Tina Folsom, Liliana Hart, David Gaughran, Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, James Scott Bell, and many, many, many other writers, both self-publishing and traditional, how they feel about Amazon’s effects on their profitability.

      I hope you’ll want to join in on some of our #EtherIssue live Twitter discussions on Wednesdays, produced by Publishing Perspectives here. We have a growing number of readers and chatters who are able to take on the most sensitive and difficult issues without rancor and with a lot of attention to fairness. You’d be very welcome.

      All the best with your work and thank you again,

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  2. Posted March 19, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Ah, the race to the bottom. Naturally, products should get cheaper because authors need less money to work and live. The ideal economy is when everything is free and everyone lives on air–it is not like an ebook is a physical object. As everyone knows, creativity and talent is not worth the money. Unless, of course, you can make someone else a lot of money.

    The irony (and the comments above were sarcastic), is that self publishers complain that traditional publishers are the gatekeepers preventing them from drinking from the fountain. But the reality is the pricing structure and distributors that control pricing are now the gatekeepers and they are doing the same thing.

    I have heard a lot about not pricing too high from self publishers. But is $10 a lot of money? Is it that much different from $5? One cup of coffee rather than two? And know we are worried that people don’t have the time to read, so maybe it would be good they can only buy one book. I can’t count the number of SP authors say they price low otherwise people won’t “take a chance” on the book. How risky is $10? Don’t the middle class or rich people read? Funny world.

    I guess the counter argument is volume. But can every book be a bestseller? Is my only chance to support myself to sell millions of books? Are authors just Walmart suppliers of cheap goods?

    Wouldn’t it be nice if people actually valued the arts…

    • Porter Anderson
      Posted March 23, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Hi, William,

      Many thanks for your good comments here, and yes, I caught the sarcasm. You’re getting at many things I was working with as I wrote, and we heard quite a bit of this echoed in our good #EtherIssue discussion on Wednesday, as well.

      As I probably made clear in one of the questions I set up for the group in the above article, I always felt that the default price originally used rather widely by Amazon — $9.99 — was probably fairly good for an ebook, considering the pricing of paperbacks and hardcovers. I still feel that, as you say, the two-cup price of around $10 is where most authors deserve, surely, to be as a lowest price on the electronic edition of a book into which they have put months and years of their talent, skill, and effort. I will be very, very happy on the day that the primary “presumed price” for an ebook is $9.99 or better.

      And as for valuing the arts, especially in the United States, but also in many other parts of the world, seeing that become a reality requires, I think, a rise in cultural intelligence. This is something some nations are better at than others, some communities have more success with than others…many, many demographic, sociological, socio-economic, historical, political, and educational factors come into play. If you care about it, as I think you do, it’s something of a nightmarish issue, particularly as the distributional drive of the digital dynamic pumps ever more populist entertainment into channels that could be used for more serious work.

      We won’t win that one soon. But we can certainly enjoy the battle, and I hope you do.


      On Twitter: @Porter_Anderson

  3. Posted June 11, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    As much as I was hoping to self-publish with Kobo Writing Life – as I am a Kobo Touch owner – I’m still not happy with the Traditional Book Typesetting.

    In my line of work, I’ve learned various ways of producing documentation and manuscripts in three to four official languages.

    I’m not on Twitter – I’m not one to communicate what’s going on in my life every five minutes to the general internet audience at large – I’ve been told that makes you a Toxic Friend LOL!

    I’ve tried Facebook yonks ago until we were all (the whole family) hacked by various nasty entities using said social platform and then requested by Facebook to produce pieces of Official Paper regarding our identities in order to unlock our accounts – nightmare since they wanted US papers and none of us have those since we are not of that country…

    Google plus is similar in the way, that it asks you for (what I consider) very private mobile number information in order to create a simple Author Page on their sites. I went with the plain little old me page and found out that IF you do not have a book out there (print or digital) most people there are not interested in you.

    Google just like Facebook – it’s people wanting to send you (the acquaintance) a myriad of pictures (dirty ones included) on a regular basis – no one is really interested in getting to know the unknown future author/writer.

    So, I have my website – I find people who have had luck in their endeavours – I get in touch with them and hope for the best – as for prices for books – it’s ludicrous – a paperback/hardcover in US/Canada can set you back 6.99 to 15.99 for a fictional story – same goes in the UK – the most recent to mind – the Harry Potter/JK Rowling series and the Twilight Saga/Stephenie Meyers.

    I’m planning to asks about 6.00 (GBP) for a whole novel containing over 120 pages – I have 10 altogether – split about two novels (novel one – 4 parts / novel two – 6 parts).

    However, in the meantime, I need to make money and the stubborn employment world out there which is getting worse by the minute – don’t know you – so who cares about your experience and what’s in your CV – thank you very much. Doing the self-employment is a difficult thing on its own – but hey after nearly 20 years of writing these stories – I stand by them – they are NOT cookie-cutter stories even though they are about a subject that most of you will say: it’s been done already!

    Well, that’s where you’re wrong – it’s never been done like this – I swear to you – it will surprise you more than you expect – you’ll want to read it because it’s different, I’m different and my style is my own!

    I hope I hear from you – but since I’m considered nobody or wannabee! (I hate these words) I won’t hold my breath. But I have plans and they will be implemented as soon as health permits – being stuck in bed does not help the process – even though that I’m ill – I still offer my manuscript services along with my amazing 3D Book/e-Book covers all through a voluntary payment system.

    So, if you’ve read till here, thank you, very much appreciated and who knows when I open my email on a daily basis – I’ll see your reply or not!

    I rest my case your honour! My cup of B+ needs refreshing and I have a long day ahead of me and dawn comes shorter nowadays – so I’m off.

    CeDany BB

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