I briefly hopped on to a conversation Damien Walter, Hugh Howey & Charles Stross had via Twitter about ebook pricing. Mr. Howey began with the topic: “E-books should cost less than paperbacks.” Part of this conversation related to handing on to ebook rights when working with publishers, but that’s another story. Mr. Stross has blogged that ebook costs aren’t much less than print costs: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/02/cmap-2-how-books-are-made.html. You see similar arguments elsewhere such as this NY Times article Math of Publishing Meets the E-Book where: “…that leaves the publisher with something ranging from $4.56 to $5.54 [as opposed to around 4.05 for hardbound] , before paying overhead costs or writing off unearned advances. At a glance, it appears the e-book is more profitable. But publishers point out that e-books still represent a small sliver of total sales, from 3 to 5 percent. If e-book sales start to replace some hardcover sales, the publishers say, they will still have many of the fixed costs associated with print editions, like warehouse space, but they will be spread among fewer print copies.”
It goes on to argue that if you want to keep physical bookstores open, then by keeping the ebook price up, we can slow down the digital juggernaut.
There are a number of assumptions that stand shifting sand in these arguments: We can artificially prop up beloved institutions and traditions and people will pay for it and no one in the market will disrupt this tenuous equilibrium. The entire apparatus of publishing world is needed to get a book in our hands and, thus, will always be part of the “fixed” cost. We will pay what publishers what they want. Before we look at each of these, let’s not forget that we’re one set of media in a sea of media, book publishing’s biggest challenge is having people read at all.
We dream if we think that we can artificially prop up beloved institutions. I love bookstores. I love to hang out in bookstores. From Albion (now Amherst Books) in Amherst, MA to the Happy Bookseller in Columbia, SC, I’ve spent many hours and too much money in independent bookstores. I’ve spent plenty of time and money in Barnes and Noble as well (Ironically this former big-box bad boy for crowding out the local guy is now seen as the last great hope for bookstores). Artificial propping never works. Yes, we’ll miss strolling in and checking out book covers, joining reading groups or authors coming in to sign books and meet their fans. We’re creative; we’ll have to find other ways to do what adds value. I’m nostalgic about “real” mail as well but email and other electronic forms of communication outnumber real letters a baziillion to 1 (the controlled scientific study by which I gathered this ratio is available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com.) I don’t see book stores lasting the decade. I know that’s sheer sacrilege and I would love to be wrong. As much as I love bookstores, I rarely go in one now. I have other things to do, like read.
Much of publishers cost will continue – editors, cover artists, marketers and many others add value with what they do to the ebook as well as a print book. Yes, even marketers or we would never know about many of these lovely books. Warehouses, trucks and printers do not add value to me. Moreover, if I’m not going to a bookstore, then it doesn’t add value either. So the fixed overhead will not be fixed when companies have to shed warehouses and trucks. So, I would argue that when the dust settles, the cost of an ebook will be considerably less than a print book and people are less than willing to pay for services of no perceived value. Ask the movie, music or print film industries how well protecting old models work for them. It is going to move on and trying to protect the old model will not help. Manage the transition and look to add value in others such as Amazon’s Whispersync for Voice that allows me to pick up on an ebook where I left off on an audiobook. Other creative moves: audiobooks with an author interview, serialized books with chapters downloaded, or deluxe content for different versions. Authors already hustle physically with book signings and interviews as well as virtually via twitter, facebook and webpages, surely these creative geniuses will continue to find ways to push their books. A G+ hangout session here, a meetup organized virtually and the cons such as one of the ComicCons, WorldCon or ConCarolinas. There are other advantages for the author as well such a NetGalley allowing a broader mechanism for feedback.
Publishers hope that I will pay at least paperback costs if not more. It’s extraordinarily unlikely I will buy a book whose ebook price is the same as or more than a paperback book. I’m not saying I’ll by the paperback instead of the ebook; I won’t buy the book at all. You see, as much as I love “real” books, I rarely buy them and I will not buy ebooks for the same price or more. I saw a book today that had my interest; I was actively looking for it. The Kindle version is $9.00 and the paperback is $8.89. Now, what are the economics of a completely lost sale. So, the author has the word out, has someone looking at her title on the virtual shelf, I have the virtual wallet out and it all stops because someone was trying to protect the model.
By the way, this all is under the assumption that people will continue to move to digital as they have in camera, movies and music. I can’t speak for the world, but I will buy ebooks for all of the obvious reasons – I’ve moved within the last year – not all my books came with me. My shelves and house can only hold so much. I can search an ebook (better than an index). I can look up words with the touch of a finger or find out more about a character (XRay on Kindle). I can save notes to the cloud and incorporate them into papers later with the related quote. (More on researching and ebooks here.) I can read at the dentist, barber shop and between heats at the swim meet. I can get a book I need (or want) quickly. Oh, and they cost less. I’m sorry for the salesman, warehouse manager, dispatch operator and truck driver who will have to find work elsewhere. Let’s plan now rather than hold out false hope and help them in the transition.
Betting on old models is a sucker’s bet – ask Kodak, Polaroid, Blockbuster and a myriad of others. “Do it badly; do it slowly; do it fearfully; do it any way you have to, but do it.” This applies to people as well.
― Steve Chandler, Reinventing Yourself: How to Become the Person You’ve Always Wanted to Be