Wednesday, 12 January 2011

E-books, pricing and the end of the world as we know it?

Like everybody else involved with writing and publishing, the subject of e-books has been on my mind. Kindle was the best selling Christmas product on Amazon and more and more people I know seem to be buying e-readers of one sort or another. It's not something I plan to do myself. Mainly because I like proper books. A book for me is a treasure, to be kept for a lifetime and cherished, picked up and read at leisure. Some of them are works of art. It gives me pleasure to own books. I don't see owning a computer file on Kindle ever coming close to that feeling.

On the other hand, books, all kinds of books, are my future, so there's no way I'm going to be able to ignore what's happening.

It was brought home to me when I got my last review for Hero of Rome on Amazon. The reviewer loved the book, but he gave it only four stars because he thought the price was too high on Kindle. Just to ram the point home he got it out of the library instead and tagged it as a lost sale.

I took a look at the comments after some learned American was pontificating on his blog the other day about the future of publishing and if writers could ever be good publishers. His answer seemed to be a resounding No. It seemed a fair question to ask, and a reasonable answer, but just about every comment was on the subject of rip-off pricing of e-books.

Hero of Rome retails at £9.30 on Kindle. Caligula and Claudius just below a fiver. Now, you could argue, fairly, that the price differential is justified because Hero is pretty new and the others have been out for a couple of years. What's more difficult to justify is the differential between the e-book and the print version. A huge amount of investment goes into the printed edition (printing costs, cover design, paper etc.) whereas, and please don't quote me on this, as I understand it an e-book is about a 1MB file that is uploaded and needs a bit of editing. Then again, I doubt that the publishers make much of a profit from each copy of the print version, so there's also an argument that they're perfectly entitled to make a bit more on the electronic version.

The e-book anarchist movement seems to be of the opinion that no e-book should cost more than £1, and you'll find that most of those in the Kindle top 20 are in that price range, many of them by self-published authors who are doing a great job of marketing their books and are getting the lion's share of the price back in profit. That's fine and I don't grudge any writer a penny of what they earn. What worries me is that if Corgi or Bantam are forced to reduce the prices of my books to £1 or less and e-books take over the world, they won't make a profit, there'll be no decent advances, which are already few and far between, and fewer high quality, properly edited, really good books. - oh, and I won't make a living.

So what's the answer? Some sort of compromise probably. But the honest one is that I've no idea. The problem is that neither has anyone else.


Gregory House said...

To Doug, the ebook wave is a difficult phenomena to judge, it can depend on many different factors distance, availability, pricing and region. For instance for the previous five years I had refused point blank to deal with the growing number of e book devices, feeling they were mainly short term gadgets. However half way through this last year my wife purchased a Kindle. On its arrival I did indeed look at it with a great deal of scepticism and then ‘we’ began to use it and soon realised its cost benefit and versatility. Here in the Antipodes a standard new paper back is $A 22. to $A32. while hardbacks start at the $A50. For general fiction or older novels and general works the e book price is more than competitive. For the physical books we used to agonize over their affordability. Now we still purchase them, but are more discriminating and usually use Amazon or Better world books. As for self publishing after three years solid effort at trying to find an agent or publisher I am now about to use Smashwords and put my work out digitally since the ‘tyranny of distance’ weighs against me. However for those following this path story quality and serious editing as well as well thought out publicity are the only keys to success. Hope this helps as a perspective from elsewhere.

Ellen Arnison said...

Like you Doug, I've resisted the e-book phenomena. Can you imagine a future where no one has colourful, comforting and overfilled bookshelves?
Now though I find myself considering a Kindle for my husband's birthday present and I fear I'm about to bow to what might be inevitable.
Surely, though, the reader will know what they like and pay for it. Some self-published books are probably fantastic, but others may not be perhaps not 'properly' published because they just aren't good enough.

Doug said...

Thanks for that Gregory. I know that a recent study done in the States (albeit on only two publishing houses) found that actual book sales had increased slightly as a result of e-book exposure. So it's possible that people will read an e-book and think 'I've got to own that'.

Good luck with the writing. Might be worth taking a look at my friend Lexi Revellian's blog

She self-published published her book Remix and it's been sitting high in the Kindle charts for quite a while.

It's difficult not to be drawn in Ellen. Martin Kielty did a blog on the publishing possibilities of the i-Pad and some of the things he showed were amazing. I've been chatting to my agent about ideas for the next generation of e-books, but something tells me the technologists will lead and the writers will follow.

Gregory House said...

Thanks for that link Doug, I had a very long peruse of her blog very very interesting. While I certainly do not begrudge the efforts of good agents to help writers and promote good quality work. Unfortunatly access to such sterling people is around here in the uttermost colonies extremely limited. Therefore I will lauch my own work very soon on Smashwords and thanks to Lexi's advice on Kindle

Rob Suttles said...


Just wanted to provide a perspective from a younger reader who just finished and loved Claudius. E-books, at least from my experience have greatly improved my access and interest in reading. I use the kindle software on my i-pad and have fallen in love with reading because of the instant access to things that might interest me.

I stumbled across your works on Amazon in my search for a good book on Roman campaigning from the soldier's perspective. Without the ability to find Claudius quickly and in the e-format, I most likely would not have read it. The slightly cheaper price point and instant access are also big bonuses to me. With that said, I did feel the price ($9.99 here in the U.S.) was a little bit high for an e-title.

Also, I see fewer people of my generation being interested in book collecting. In an e-format I have it in my amazon account or on my i-pad whenever I want to go back and read it again.

Just adding a different perspective. I do realize that I'm over a month late to this topic, but I just recently found your blog after reading Claudius.


Rob Suttles

Doug said...

Thanks for that Rob, glad you did find it. I'm learning about e-books all the time and only now beginning to understand their potential and how they're going to affect writers and publishers. I realise it could actually make a big difference to me in the States because distribution and availability are a huge issue when you don't have a US-based publisher. At least Kindle gives everyone the opportunity of instant access, although I agree that price is always probably going to be a potential problem.