Porter's nonsense in italics, my common-sense replies in bold.
“The biggest issue is one that will be difficult for us to recover from…the degradation of our worth as creatives.”
Joe sez: Our worth as creatives is dependent upon reaching readers. This meme is so damned old I wrote about it back in 2010, The Value of Ebooks.
In that blog post I use real numbers to discuss author earnings, and came to this inescapable conclusion:
The value of an ebook is determined by the overall amount of money it earns, not the list price.
Obvious, right? But let's forge ahead through this...
That line is from a piece here at Writer Unboxed a year ago, in May 2015. Our colleague Heather Webb, in As Writers, What Are We Worth?, was anticipating a groan heard ’round the world.
Last month, when I led a round-table discussion at Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum, our topic was “Re-Thinking Ebook Sales and Understanding the Consumers.” But what drew the biggest response was book pricing.
We're in a world now that thinks it can write just as well as you can. It doesn't need your book. It can write its own. It can publish it. And it can lowball it on Amazon.
Joe sez: This nefarious scheme is called "capitalism" and is evidence of something called a "free market".
Once upon a time, publishing wasn't a free market. Not everyone with a book had an equal chance to reach readers. Amazon, and other ebook retailers, have democratized the process. Which means consumers now have more choices than every before. And many of those choices are priced according to the market, rather than according to the publishing cartel that controlled pricing with their quasi-monopoly.
“The consumer,” one of our publishers said, “is in perpetual confusion. No way to understand what a single book costs or how to value our authors’ work.” And at the influential publishing house Bastei Lübbe AG, executive board member Klaus Kluge is calling book prices “staggeringly low” in an interview with Sabine Schwiering Tert at Boersenblatt.net.
Joe sez: When technology cuts out middlemen, costs (and subsequently prices) drop.
Publishers didn't drop prices even when they no longer had to pay for shipping, printing, warehousing, distribution, and returns. They suddenly had more money because they didn't have to pay a myriad of middlemen for ebooks. And rather than share that extra income with authors, publishers kept it all for themselves.
So authors like me decided we didn't need publishers, and now publishers feel threatened. Boo-hoo.
In the UK in January, Penguin Random House CEO Tom Weldon told my Bookseller colleague Benedicte Page: “”One of the biggest challenges in 2016 will be e-book pricing: how do we maintain the value perception of our quality content and maximize revenues across all formats for both authors and publishers?”
Joe sez: Allow me to translate: "How do we get people to pay more for ebooks, because if we drop them too low then consumers will buy the ebook rather than the paper book, and paper books are where we have the distribution oligopoly."
A year later, Webb can see clearly now. Here’s what’s happening on a daily basis to authors’ work in the marketplace:
Heather Webb @msheatherwebb - It's awesome when people brag about how cheaply they got your novel for. NOT. They forget we make our living this way. AKA starvation diet
Joe sez: I'll fix that quote so it makes sense. "It's awesome when people brag about how cheaply they got your novel, because others will then seek it out and buy a copy. I wish every fan bragged about my cheap books."
Perhaps, for some odd reason, Heather would rather sell a $14.99 ebook and earn $2.32 in royalties from her publisher (after her agent's cut) than sell four books at $5.99 and earn $3.64.
Just saw a study done with Lemurs. Even Lemurs know $3.64 is more than $2.32.
When we chat about it, she tells me, “I’ve been noticing this group of readers who troll all the author Facebook pages and websites, Goodreads, etc, for giveaways and they never buy books. They don’t have to. Makes me a little nuts.”
Joe sez: Holy sense of entitlement, Batman! We also need to close all the libraries! Trolls are getting free books there, too! Reading for free is bad, bad, bad! Everyone must pay!
She’s not alone. If we triangulate our German associates’ concern for the “confusion” in the readership about what a book costs today with a nod to London’s PRH chief Weldon’s worry at the highest corporate level with Webb’s lament as she writes, “We can’t lose sight of what’s truly important,” then something bigger than “perma-free” and the per-page-view payouts of Kindle Unlimited comes into view.
Joe sez: What's truly important is the ability to reach readers, and maybe you can make few bucks in the process. More writers are doing this now than any other time in history. Perma-free and KU are tools authors can use to reach readers and make money. Maybe you should learn how to use them rather than waste time whining about how your cheese was moved.
Everybody’s a Critic. An Author, too.
What have we done to the idea of writing’s value? How fuzzy is this math going to get?
Joe sez: Hang on, it's about to get hysterically fuzzy...
That’s my provocation for you today. How are today’s pricing problems affecting what Webb characterized here last year as “our dignity, our value, and the viability of this industry”?
Joe sez: Oh-no, people aren't buying $14.99 books because they're reading cheap and free books instead! Someone help me pick up my dignity!
Books were always commodities of a kind, and buying second-hand romances by the grocery-bagful didn’t start yesterday.
But the Wall of Content, as I call it, is doing more than loom over us. Digital means never having to say you’re out of print. It also means you’re in competition—forever—with everything since Gutenberg.
Joe sez: Using that logic, we've always been in competition with everything since Gutenberg. Readers have always had millions of choices, many for free in libraries, or for cheap via used bookstores. Trying to get your book to stand out among the millions of other titles is NOT a new problem.
But this isn't competition. Bookselling isn't zero sum. Readers tend to read more than one book in their lifetimes. If we're both thriller writers, a thriller fan won't just read me or you. She'll read me and you.
With both the trade and the self-publishing sectors in rampant over-production as they are today, you’re facing a sheer rock face of competition for every glance your book might get, let alone a read, let alone a sale. Your price is in free-fall.
Joe sez: Porter, have you ever been in a bookstore? Notice how it's filled with thousands of books? Do you glance at every single one before making a selection?
There have ALWAYS been other books. But now, for the first time, the cost is coming down so it isn't prohibitive. Rather than $30 hardcovers, which is a luxury price, readers can get new titles for $4.99. And the $4.99 book is just as good as the $30 book.
Or do you enjoy paying more for comparable products? If so, I've got some $40 per roll toilet paper I'll sell you. It does the same thing as the $1 per roll toilet paper, but if you buy that cheap stuff my dignity will be in jeopardy. You don't want me on a starvation diet, do you?
And we can look to our cohorts in Hollywood for a little guidance here, too. You may not remember what the advent of Blockbuster video and then Netflix did to film. But those of us who watched those developments roll in know. Suddenly there were films everywhere, peopled with actors who are not quite the stars they look like speaking dialog that’s as wooden as they are, in strangely unsatisfying knockoffs of other films.
Joe sez: Translation: When you lose control over distribution, cheap knock-offs abound and eat your lunch.
I'm fine with you calling me cheap. Why should I care? Your lunch is delicious. I bet you really enjoyed it when it was still yours.
We can’t entirely blame independent authors for this gauzy focus on pricing in books. As the indie insurgence began to impact the trade a few years ago, authors who had never been able to get past the agents and editors, the dreaded gatekeepers, found that they could self-publish in our digital age. But self-selling was a different thing.
Joe sez: The amount of self-promotion I've done as an indie is 1/10 of what I did when I had trad contracts, and now I'm now I'm earning 50x as much money. Self-selling is much easier than being at the mercy of the painfully slow, eternally clueless, archaic, self-interested legacy publishing machine.
When you have no marketing department behind you, when you’re not even listed in a publisher’s catalog or recommended to a Barnes & Noble buyer—and no one’s ever heard of you in the world of books—the one way you might turn the head of a potential buyer cruising Amazon is offer a low price. Or no price. “For free” may be a grammatically deplorable phrase (“free of charge” or simply “free” is correct), but for a time, it had a happy ring among consumers who could stuff their e-readers with books by folks they’d never heard of: today a lot of those free slush-files still remain unread on those e-readers, which have been supplanted by tablets.
Joe sez: I sold nine novels to legacy publishers. Being listed in a publisher's catalog is about as effective a selling tool as putting your book cover on your car bumper and driving around the neighborhood. The only books that actually get marketing money are books that have giant advances. The other 99% of authors get zip. I remember asking various people at various publishers what the value of a book press release was, and no one could tell me. But they all spent time and money on those stupid press releases, laboring under the delusion that they were promoting that book.
As for TBR piles--does Porter think these are a new phenomenon brought about by the digital age? My paper to-be-read pile is bigger than the list on my Kindle (which I still prefer to read on over my tablet, and I'm not alone).
If the trade was aghast at Amazon’s institution of $9.99 as a viable price for the ebook version of a hardcover hit, it’s tempting to mutter “all is forgiven” now. I know many authors who’d love to get $9.99 for their ebooks. Free downloads by the hundreds might feel exhilarating, but your take-home pay? And while it’s popular to hunker down in the bloggoria and shoot the breeze about the “sweet spot” between $2.99 and $4.99, what frequently is not mentioned is frequency: how many of those things do you have to sell at $3.99—even if you’re getting 70 percent—to put together an income?
Joe sez: I've given away hundreds of thousands of ebooks, for free. And I've sold over two million. So I'm pretty pleased with my take-home pay. I also don't know any author who only gives away ebooks. It's a means to a sale, not its own exclusive behavior. If you see a deer licking salt do you think that's what it solely subsists on?
As for how many books you have to sell at $3.99 to put together an income, it's a metric fuckton better to earn $2.70 on a self-pubbed title (paid monthly, and you keep your rights) than it is earning $2.27 on a $14.99 ebook, which is what authors get paid after trad publishers and agents get their cuts.
Guess which pricing point will sell to more customers? You're the one who brought up frequency. Go on, guess.
Indie/hybrid icon J.A. Konrath, doing a terrific job last week at BookExpo America on a panel about authorship, might have surprised some of the fight-club followers of his blog posts when he said, “If you want to reach the most people possible, you sign with one of these big publishers…. [But] most of us don’t get that invitation to the big show.”
Joe sez: Notice I didn't say "If you want to make the most money, you sign with these big publishers."
Landing a huge publishing deal is like winning the lottery. We would all love to win the lottery. But spending all of your income on lottery tickets isn't a wise financial investment. Chances are you'll go broke long before you win.
The vast majority of authors will make more money by self-publishing. It is only the 1% of the 1% who get huge advances and gigantic marketing campaigns.
Very few authors would turn down a multi-million dollar pub deal, and very few are offered one.
But a whole lot of authors sell authors sell their rights to publishers forever in exchange for shitty royalties, bad treatment, and no chance at ever making what they could have as an indie.
My quote is about reaching readers with paper books. Signing with a publisher is the only way to do that. It is not my endorsement of publishing deals. If your goal is to reach people via brick and mortar bookstores, fine, but know what you're signing and what you're giving up.
And nobody forced the industry to follow the self-publishing sector in driving the car right on over the cliff.
Joe sez: Thankfully, a big pile of cash cushioned my car's fall.
For a time, a UK publisher staged a 20-pence promotion on some of the hottest titles of the year. Now, the bigs are in “new-agency” pricing contracts with Amazon that somehow have them charging high “this price set by the publisher” prices for ebooks at the very moment that the industry needs to energize its digital investments, not price them out of reach.
Joe sez: I agree with Porter here. The publishing industry should lower prices.
As painful as pricing issues may be in the marketplace and in authors’ efforts to put together a living, the real question, as Webb has suggested, is what happens in the public mind when pricing goes through the floor?
Joe sez: What happens is middlemen--and publishers are middlemen--are no longer viable.
"No way to understand what a single book costs or how to value our authors’ work.”
Joe sez: You know who understands the value of authors' efforts? Amazon. Amazon knows exactly the sweet spot for selling books. But rather than allow Amazon to price ebooks to sell, publishers would rather shoot themselves in the feet while whining how unfair it all is. Fail.
In the readership’s collective mind, the bottom has fallen out. The digital decoupling of price from assumptions of aesthetic and artistic value may, in the long run, prove second only to the Wall of Content, itself, for its impact on publishing’s new context.
Joe sez: Translation: Readers are figuring out you can get good books for cheap or free, and they're flocking to them. And along with lower prices, readers also love more choices. But neither of these things bode well for the Big 5.
This has happened in other industries, of course. In news, in music, in freelancing, as many of us discussed in a recent look at the Huffington Post’s use of writers it doesn’t pay.
Webb’s phrase was “degradation of our worth” as creative people. A difficult devaluation is under way.
Joe sez: No one owes you a living. Especially if you think people should pay $14.99 for an ebook when comps are priced at $3.99.
‘Tis bootless to exclaim, as Marshall McLuhan told us so long ago, “All media work us over completely.” We knew nothing of his genius then. Sadly, we do now.
Joe sez: First of all, I'm pretty sure McLuhan was recognized as a genius back in his time. Also, you're wrong.
Joe sez: The quote you used is about how media is needed to understand society, not about how media prices should be artificially inflated so middlemen can keep their expense accounts. It isn't about pricing, or devaluing, or anything at all to do with the points you're lamely trying to make.
Far beyond all those craft considerations of how to keep your protagonist dry when it rains, this question of how the world sees literature’s value (in every genre), writers’ value, writing’s value, is about as unfocused and queasy a quandary as you’ll find in publishing.
Joe sez: Pricing is extremely simple. You find the sweet spot between selling the most units and making the most profit. The only group that has pricing problems is the group that lost their paper distribution oligopoly to ebooks and can no longer force consumers to pay lockstep high prices because those readers now have a choice.
We’re in a world now that thinks it can write just as well as you can. It doesn’t need your book. It can write its own. It can publish it. And it can lowball it on Amazon, leaving your would-be readers clicking right past your beautiful books.
Joe sez: So maybe you should lower the price of your beautiful books.
Say what? You’re asking an outlandish $9.99 for the ebook it took you four years to write and thousands of dollars to produce responsibly?
Who do you think you are?
Joe sez: I have nothing against $9.99 ebooks. If you can command that price, go for it.
But publishers are charging $9.99 for titles which don't command that price. Readers will pay premiums for bestselling authors. But they won't pay a premium to take a chance on a new author.
Here's the solution for authors: don't sell your books to publishers who charge $9.99 until you get a giant advance.
Here's the solution for publishers: lower your ebook prices on authors who can't command those prices. There's a sweet spot. I bet, if you ask Amazon, they'll happily tell you what that sweet spot is.
Here's the solution for everyone who feels they are being devalued: go do something else. The world will never value your work as much as you do. Find a different career where your genius will be appreciated.
If you need me, I'll be here, with no expectations, but somehow still managing to eek out a living in the shadow of this daunting and scary Tower of Content...