Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Book Pricing Conundrum - Lucy Coats

This is what I read in The Bookseller this morning:

"Authors have admitted they welcome the “huge boost” in sales when their e-books are sold at rock-bottom prices, despite concern over the long-term impact.It is believed individual authors have earned in the hundreds of thousands from books included in the long-running 20p promotion on Sony and Amazon."

I should say immediately that I have no books out on Amazon's Kindle or Sony's e-reader, so I have no personal experience of this phenomenon to draw on, but that's quite a statement, isn't it? Admit it - what did you focus on first? The 'long-term impact' or the 'hundreds of thousands'? Did a small part of you wonder for a moment how much you could earn if YOU had a book chosen for the 20p programme?  I certainly did.  But then I began to think about those long term consequences if you are lucky enough to be, as I am currently, traditionally published.

In the same article, Terence Blacker, whose latest book was included in the Amazon 99p Daily Deal promotion, says that while his book sold thousands and went to the top of the fantasy chart, 'at that price people are paying 20p for every year I worked on the book."

Peter James, crime writer extraordinaire, worries about the effect on the indy (and chain) booksellers in the high street, who are already beleagured and battered by the Amazon juggernaut.  He says "Booksellers on our high streets are already an endangered species and losing their bread and butter bestsellers sales to an online campaign they cannot compete with... makes life very much harder."  They're both absolutely right - but it seems to be an insoluble conundrum.

If you are an indie author, perhaps you could take the ethical approach, like Dan Holloway, who has removed all his e-books from Amazon and written about why on the Authors Electric blog. But that's not going to work for the traditionally published writer like me, who has no control over whether their books - either print or electronic -  are featured on Amazon or not.  The Amazon Kindle juggernaut is here to stay, it's ubiquitous, it's seductive to the average book buyer, and although there are other e-platforms like Sony, Kobo and Nook, we're going to have to live with the fact that most publishers do use the Amazon Kindle programme - because more readers have Kindles than any other form of e-book.

I didn't believe that the physical book was on the way out. Now I'm not so sure. I still hear people say that they love the feel and smell of print books.  I believe them.  I do too.  But we are in a bad recession.  Money matters. The price of things matters to the average consumer.

Just think about this for a moment. There's a paperback book Mr Average particularly wants to read.  Maybe he's seen a review, maybe it's an author he likes, maybe someone has recommended it. Let's say he passes his local indy bookseller on the way home from work. Inside, Mr Average is offered the physical paperback at the full price of, say, £9.99.  He can take it home there and then. But before he buys it, he has a little check on his smartphone.  Oh!  It's discounted to £4.95 on Amazon. But wait. It'll have to be delivered. He doesn't have Amazon Prime, so he'll have to wait at least 2 or 3 days AND pay postage. Damn! He wanted to read it on the train home. Then he looks at the Kindle or Sony price.  Whoopee! It's in the Daily Deal Slot - he can download it now for 20p. Cheap price, immediate gratification. Job done.

What does that mean for the author, though?  Well, for a bookshop sale, you get full royalty of (probably) between 5 and 10% of the cover price.  For an Amazon print sale, that drops to squigpence ha'penny per copy.  And for the Daily Deal? The current state of e-royalties is the subject of much debate and argument - but even if you do sell thousands of e-copies, it's still not very much on 20p, despite that claim above of 'hundreds of thousands' of pounds.

For me, writing is a job.  It is, agreed, a job I love and feel privileged to do every day (despite occasion rants about books not doing what I want them to and other authory gripes).  BUT, if I am lucky enough to have a book published, I do want to be fairly rewarded for my efforts, and that includes readers paying a reasonable price for my work.

So the thing I worry about most is what is currently happening to the perception of the value of a book. If e-books continue to be devalued like this, I think our Mr Average book buyer will begin to expect bargain prices across the board, and that means physical print books too.  That can't be good for authors in general, nor for publishers - and if it carries on, it's going to become unsustainable to produce a print book because no one will want to pay for what it costs to produce.  I hope I'm wrong, I really do.  Even though more e-book 'units' will be sold (and if that means people are reading more, then that's the one bit of good), from this (currently) tax-paying author's point of view, it looks as if there's going to be only one major winner.  They don't (currently) pay taxes in the UK, despite making huge profits here, and I think that's wrong (but that's a whole other can of bookworms).

I wish I knew how to fight against the book becoming just another unit of fodder for the bargain basement, but I don't.  Do you?


catdownunder said...

One of the greatest pleasures in life is browsing in a physical bookshop or library - picking up a book, turning the pages, feeling the smoothness of the paper under your fingers. E-books may have a place but they will never replace the tactile experience of "book" - and what happens when your magical electronic equipment breaks down?
There has to be a place for both but I think there will have to be legislation to prevent the sale of books for 20p. That has to come from us through our elected politicians in the end - and it is going to take a lot of work. I just hope we are up for the job!

Joan Lennon said...

I haven't a clue how it's to be fixed, but thank you for laying this mess out so clearly.

JO said...

I'm with you on this, Lucy - I insist on keeping my ebooks priced far higher than 20p - believing that they are worth far more than that. I'm sure I'd sell more if they were cheaper - but hey ho, that's my choice.

I know someone who makes a point of only buying v cheap books - 20p or less - on the basis that if she doesn't like them she hasn't lost much. While i look to pay more, as I want to read writers who think like I do!

But as long as there is a free market in ebooks the prices will continue to be pushed down. It seems unlikely that any international body will ever have enough clout - or enough concern about this system - to challenge this. We live in a world where the market rules.

Which leaves it to writers to cling onto any principles they may have. And to readers to select books according to quality and not price. And to newspapers, magazines, etc to review as many sensibly-priced books as possible. And to schools to help children discover books of all genres, and hopefully cherish them enough to keep prices higher. We can dream.

And the very best of luck to Dan Holloway.

Stroppy Author said...

Sadly, I don't see anyone legislating against 20p books, catdownunder - it's not a vote-winner, is it? There are more readers than writers...

Lucy, I agree with you but feel there are a few reasons not to despair yet (unless they also allow resale of said e-books without a cut for author/publisher). We could all buy cheap crappy food from value ranges, but we don't. Perhaps paper books will become more of a premium item that, after the initial excitement of showing off about having a Kindle or an iPad, people will like to be seen with.

Also, when books are cheap I buy mpre. I buy books I wouldn't have bought at all. I might not ever read them, but they're useful to have around in case I'm stuck somewhere (like waiting in the Apple Store yesterday!) with nothing to do. If there is a book I specifically want, I order if from Foyles online (not Amazon) unless I happen to be in town and can go to the bookshop. So I wonder how many of the 20p books are actually bought by people who would never have bought the book at all? I don't expect people wait to see if the book they want is on a 20p deal in a few months. Thought I suppose there might be collateral damage - that people might not buy other books they would have bought because they already have enough to read? Not sure.

(But we know *plenty* of people who have rushed to plug their self-published e-books on Amazon at low prices or nothing 'to get sales/readers'. That's not something that started with commercial publishers.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Lucy, while I completely agree that under-pricing leads to undervaluing and that that is a a bad thing in lots of ways, I still don't think you need to worry about the other aspects, viz the move away from physical books leading to disappearance of print books.

Your para beginning, "Just think about this for a moment. ...." BUT, how likely is it that the actual book he was desperate to read, (though not so desperate that he wouldn't just buy it in the bookshop or even on Amazon) is going to be the book in the daily deal? I agree that many people are drawn by price, but there are a whole load of readers who read because they want to read particular books and as long as they can afford them or borrow free from a library, they will. The 20p promotion is a good way to let people try things, but once desire has been created, people will pay a reasonable price.

I think if books are attractive enough and good enough and not TOO expensive, people will still buy them. The "you get what you pay for" theory, while by no means fool-proof, is powerful and very often true. Publishers are currently working hard and often very successfully to make books more attractive and desirable. Many publishers do a fantastic job from acquisition to production and then publicity. I've recently been drawn inexorably towards new books because of the elegant and genuine praise of them pre-publication, in all sorts of arenas. They are beautiful books, written and designed and edited beautifully.

By the way, I'm a Kindle owner but I enjoy reading on the Kindle far less than i did at first. I welcomed ebooks with open arms but now them only if I have to, for various functional reasons; they are not my vehicle of choice.

Sorry, I'm rambling and I'm also using anecdote/personal experience. I'm just saying, I don't think you need to worry too much about books! (Libraries, yes...) But I do agree that we need to be very careful what we give away too cheaply.

Thought-provoking post!

Nicola Morgan said...

Stroppy and I are channelling...

Linda Strachan said...

Great post Lucy we need discussion about this because people will do what they want anyway but having informed discussion raises all sorts of issues that they may not have thought of.
I got a kindle recently and I do enjoy using it for lots of different reasons and I have bought cheap books I would not have paid more for. I also bought one that I had already read (part of a series I enjoyed and had previously borrowed from the library.) It reminded me how much I enjoyed it and I think I will be buying the paper copy of those in the series I don't actually own already.
I have been examining how I use the kindle. It has not decreased the pile of books bought recently to read in paper copies, but I have read quite a number of samples of books on the kindle, some of which I will not want to read, others I will want in paper copies, and some I might just buy if they come up as cheap books on the kindle.
I am not particularly keen to pay a lot for a book on my kindle because I would rather have the paper copy if I am paying more.
Not sure why that makes sense to me, but it does!
I was on the train the other day and I took a book with me rather than my kindle, but it was a slim copy - not heavy book!

I do think it is like when videos first came out and everyone said we would no longer be going to the cinema to see films. I think it will even out and people will use the kindle as an addition to and not instead of paper copies, but as to pricing, who knows where that is going.

julia jones said...

Enjoyed this post and have shared it across onto the authors electric sites. Many independently publishing e-authors have been quietly raising the price of their products from the 99p levels of the early days and feel at least as threatened by the 20p promotions as trad published authors. Free promotions are not now seen as a route to success though some authors use them skilfully to promote their range of titles. The other development now in the world of indie authors is using Amazon's createspace technology to produce paper versions of e-titles. The quality of these is not unacceptable but of course they are only available through Amazon and there is little scope for a trade discount. I'm an independent writer publisher who publishes primarily on paper and sells through bookshops as well as Amazon. As an ex-bookseller I'm happy to say that my print sales still far exceed the electronic versions.

Dan Holloway said...

Lucy, thank you for linking to my post.

I would say a couple of things, because my post was about traditional publishing as much as self-publishing. I agree, traditionally published authors are somewhat at the mercy of publishers on this - but publishers do have choices, and we're already seeing small publishers ahve considerable critical and commercial success by positioning themselves to stand for quality and a host of other values - Peirene, for example, with their beautiful subscription packages, And Other Stories, whose exquisite books are sourced through reader collectives, Bluemoose promoting "non-metropolitan voices", Melville House almost single-handedly rebranding the novella, McSweeney's pusing the limits of what books can be. I think this is a trend that will continue (i've argues elsewhere that large trends tend to trigger smaller but significant oppositional trends, and I think this focus on quality, and on values is a natural reaction to the downward drive of ebooks).

I would add as a coda to this that it's not quite true that authors are simply flotsam. For years, those authors who wrote difficult to place, slightly awkward and non-standard books (the kind of thing now being championed by small presses) were told they had a simple choice - carry on doing it exactly as they wanted and carry on being un- or self-published or change and write what publishers wanted. It would be disingenuous, given there are small presses championing quality values, to claim that authors don't have the exact same option of changing what they write to appeal to them (though, as one of those who chose not to write for teh mainstream, I quite understand why people wouldn't want to change what they write - just that just as I was always told I was making a choice, so, in a way, are authors who stick to writing for the bg houses ).

My second point and I think the most fundamental point is about your comment:
"I do want to be fairly rewarded for my efforts, and that includes readers paying a reasonable price for my work."
Ignoring some of the usual points about what "fairly rewarded" means, I think it would be really good to start having an open and honest debate about whether there really is a necessary connection between the reward given to writers and the price paid by readers. It's so much taken for granted that there is that most times I mention it to people they look at me liek I'm stupid or have somehow missed the point, but I genuinely think it's possioble to go back to first principles and look again from scratch at the way writers are paid - there is a very interesting session on this at this year's Oxford Literary Festival that I think will raise some eyebrows (http://oxfordliteraryfestival.org/literature-events-2013/Tuesday-19/writing-and-publishing-on-line-a-new-age-for-fiction-and-poetry)

Lucy Coats said...

Hooray! This is exactly what I hoped would happen - a lively and informed discussion on the topic. Thank you all so much for joining in.

Crabbit - I think people will PROBABLY pay a reasonable price for print. My example of Mr Average was possibly a little disingenuous, but people do definitely shop around for the best prices - that's what all those comparison websites are for, and it's quite usual nowadays for shoppers to use a physical shop to examine a product, and then buy it more cheaply online. Because of the Amazon discount deals, books, however much we think they are different and special, are now seen as price-sensitive units, and 'the cheaper the better' mantra is still king of the consumer arena (except, currently, in the ready meal beef arena!).

It's interesting that Linda said she downloaded a book from a series she'd already read - and will now probably buy the series in print. On the e-book front, there is strong evidence that readers, if they like a newly discovered author, will want to read more of them, and will therefore be tempted to download a sequel immediately. I hope that some at least may decide that, like Linda, they'd rather have the books in print form and pay for that.

Lucy Coats said...

Dan - thank you. You make some very good points and I wish I could go to that OLF session and hear what they have to say - I agree, it will be very interesting. I'd like to know a bit more about what you mean by 'going back to first principles' when it comes to the correlation between reward for writing and price paid by readers. Personally, I'm not going to write for love. I have a family to support and I need to earn from my writing. I know others here will feel the same way. Could you explain what you are suggesting about looking at it again from scratch, please? If there's another model which you think might work, it would be good to hear about it.

Chris Longmuir said...

I've followed this discussion with interest, but the one thing that hasn't been mentioned is the fact that it is the traditional publishers who are putting up the 20p books. I had a quick check and I notice Ken Follett's Winter of the World is there just now, and I'm sure some books by Peter James have also been there. At the Harrogate Conference last year Peter said the author had no say in whether there books were offered at 20p, it was the publishers' decision. The lowest price an indie author can offer a book is 77p, or if they are part of the Select programme they have several free days, but the 20p book is not an option available to them.

Chris Longmuir said...

Oops, there's a typo in the last post - sorry! There should be their, comes from typing faster than my brain can think!

Lucy Coats said...

Sorry, Chris. I should have made that clearer in the piece. Yes, it's the publishers and Amazon who 'choose' the authors to go in the 20p promotions. The authors themselves have no say in it. I think my point about readers enjoying an author they've downloaded cheaply and then buying more books by them at a 'normal' price is what the publishers hope will apply here. It's all about volume of sales. I can see the logic, but my worries still apply!

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Lucy,

I meant simply asking the question whether the only way for writers to be paid for their work is by readers paying for their books as they do now. I don't have an answer but I think it's a question we don't think to ask because we have a model of "how it's done" so firmly in our heads. Philippe Aigirain, who's one of the panellists in Oxford, offers teh suggestion of legalising file-sharing and paying writers through collective licensing where everyone pays a small monthly amount for access to high speed broadband and out of that money content creators are paid per download. There are huge flaws in that but it's at least asking the question.

Lucy Coats said...

Thanks again, Dan. I see what you mean - we are pretty entrenched in the current system, and you're right - no one does question that because it is such a 'normal' equation. As you say, there are flaws in Phillipe's suggestion - and, of course, it would only work for downloadable material, not for print. I'm going to go away and cogitate now - much food for thought, and, I think, many more questions to answer.

Savita Kalhan said...

Very interesting post, Lucy, and as you say, much food for thought. It would be interesting to see the volume of sales of other books by an author who has had a book on the 20p list - traditional print editions and as ebooks.
I occasionally buy books for my kindle, which I have to say I love, but I buy far more proper printed books (yes, my house is groaning under the weight of them!). The kindle is reserved for books that I know no one else in my family will read. I also download sample chapters of books, which is uesful as a writer.
My teenager has an iPad, but never reads ebooks on it - it's all about bookshops and printed books. The same goes for almost all his friends, girls and boys alike. Or they use the library...
I'm sure all that will change eventually, but it hasn't got there yet.
Young adults, however, do buy more ebooks than teens.

Lily said...

A storyville documentary on the google books project (on the BBC last night) looked at some of these broader questions raised here - who does knowledge in books belong to and who should pay for it? Where are the limits of the public domain? Is the idea of copyright and royalties still workable in the digital age? It's on iplayer and well worth watching.

Stroppy makes the point that no one's going to legislate against 20p deals because there are more readers than writers. But I'm inclined to think no one's going to legislate because there are so many writers all competing for sales. There is so much material being produced and made available through digital means. Of course it is devalued as a result.

Nick Green said...

Sadly I think it does mean the end of the paper book, in the long term. They will linger on in a niche market of gift books and illustration-heavy books, much like vinyl records have done, but the mass market of fiction will move almost totally to ebook format. Publishers too will become very different beasts; they will still exist, but will consist of only a handful of Editors and sub-editors arbitrating over quality and the content of lists - they will be the badges of credibility that will help authors to stand out in a world where self-publishers seem almost to outnumber readers.

I give the paperback 20 more years at most. I almost said 10.

Stroppy Author said...

Nick, there is a *huge* difference between the book/e-book and the LP/download pairs. All the methods of accessing music and videos require electronic or electrical equipment. You can't look at record and hear the music. A paper book is the only delivery method in any of this debate which requires no technology on the part of the end-user. All you need is daylight (or electric/candle-light). When one technological delivery method supersedes another it is because it offers something superior. In the book/e-book arena, it only offers something different.

Penny Dolan said...

I am not sure where we are going with this at all, except that it feels most ominous. The free or low price offers feel a false and dangerous trail to follow but I am not sure what can be done about it.

I am happy to read "series" books on my kindle when I need an escapist fix. I recently enjoyed several Donna Leon's while stressed by other things.

However I do find e-books poor vehicles for any reading that requires a sense of study or concentration or subtle pleasure and have begun buying books in preference to e-books when the book "matters".

I also don't like the fact that I can't pass on or share a book even if that is being made possible.

Lucy Coats said...

I thought what Philip Jones of Futurebook had to say in the digital bit of the Bookseller today was very measured, and certainly relevant to this discussion, so am quoting him liberally below:

"A black and white view of the future is actually fairly simple to imagine, which is perhaps why many pioneers come across as zealots. Books will be digital, and those books that are not digital will simply no longer get put in motion. The old ways must bend to the new. Digitalists can then spend their time arguing over enhancements, subscriptions models, DRM, free, and social. Those library users who still want access to published content can simply use the web; or download free e-books from Google's giant 'brain'.

But in debating the future we should try not to take polarised positions, simply because they do not reflect the world as it is. A muddle.

It is likely that a much trickier future will emerge than the one imagined, if it hasn't already. Digital will need to find space along with physical (and yes, vice versa). Business models will need to make sense of both. We will need to supply reading material in lots of different ways, some of them using concepts and materials from the Victorian age. Some things will fall away for sure, but not all things, and there is scant evidence that one of those things that needs to disappear is the library.

Digital changes everything, of course, but it need not kill everything."

The world is indeed a muddle, but we will get through it somehow!

julia jones said...

Connected, though, not the same, is the question of the traditionally published author's royalty level on an e-publication. Not a problem for the independent author who will typically be getting 70% on a properly priced book, though paying all his or her own costs. But the traditionally published author is expected to take 20% on an e-book which has NOT cost the publisher very much in the way of production. Chris Longmuir wrote about this in her AK blog today http://www.authorselectric.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/ebooks-are-authors-being-ripped-off.html

julia jones said...

(sorry AE, not AK = Authors Electric. The light's fading and I'm too lazy to get up from desk and flick the switch. Will now LEAVE the desk and deal with the animals while there's still a glimmer outside.)

Lucy Coats said...

Thanks for that link, Julia. What Chris says is spot on - I've commented on her AE post, but I will say here that the whole e-royalty for traditionally published authors is a mess, and needs sorting fast, or there will be a lot of resentment around (well, there already is!).

Susan Price said...

I have to say I love reading on my Kindle. I am reading a paper book at the moment, but only because I couldn't get the book on Kindle, and I'm finding the smallness of the print and the stiffness of the book's spine infuriating.
I find the Kindle preferable for research reading - easier to mark places and find them again, and easier to find the book I want!
That said, I do think the immediate future is pretty gloomy.
Every revolution crushed somebody. The Ind Rev resulted in thousands of skilled, independent handloom weavers being ruined.
I think, eventually, the industry will sort itself out, when they realise that killing the goose that lays the shiniest golden eggs is bad business. How long that will take, and how many writing careers will go to the wall before it happens, is anyone's guess.
Personally, I see the 21st Century equivalent of the Workhouse looming before me...So it goes.

Pauline Fisk said...

'So the thing I worry about most is what is currently happening to the perception of the value of a book.' I can't agree more. Not just as an author [I too earn my living as a writer, or not as the case may be] but as a reader. It's not good for my reading self to see books as cheap fodder rather than the inestimable treasures that they really are. What we need is a campaign to shout about the true value of a book and the powerful and lasting impact it has on a person's life. No artist would expect to give away their life's work for a few pence. Readers shouldn't expect to buy a writer's life's work for a few pence. Dan Holloway's idea of going back to first principles and thinking about how writers are paid is an interesting one, and timely too. Gggrrrr. These 20p jokers make me so FURIOUS. And as my Project Gutenberg piece said, earlier this month, so do the free giveaways too.

Paeony Lewis said...

I use the Kindle Android app on my smartphone to search and buy ebooks from Amazon. Using the this app and having a small screen means I get less information on potential books and what really stands out when searching is the number of reviews and stars (you can search by minimum number of stars). I suspect traditional publishers may be trying to increase the number of readers, and therefore reviews and stars, by offering 20p books.

I won't buy ebook novels at paperback prices unless it's by a favourite author. However, I have been buying lots more books than I would normally buy, simply because very cheap ebooks mean I'm willing to experiment more.

By the way, I still won't buy ebooks of illustrated books, non fiction and reference books, and poetry books.

Dan Holloway said...

I don't know if you saw this, Lucy? Another interesting idea to throw in the mix

Lucy Coats said...

Another excellent link, Dan - and, again, food for thought. If this pay-as-you-read model does work and become the norm (though I can't see it happening on a large scale for a while, if ever), then perhaps we will return to a Dickensian world where the chapter-end cliffhanger is what has to be mastered by every author. I suppose in a way this is what is happening on the WattPad site, where (as I understand it) authors will only publish the next chapter of their book if enough people have liked/read the previous one.

adele said...

Fascinating thread to which I come late and to which I don't have anything intelligent to add! I am quite quite sure of one thing though: the printed book WILL survive whatever is thrown at it. In some form or other. It's simply too well designed and too fit for purpose and too BEAUTIFUL as well as useful to disappear. As for the payment for ebooks, 20 p books on Kindle and the like: I KNOW NOTHING!!

Katherine Roberts said...

I made a list of the top 20 Kindle titles today, and most of them are on the 20p promotion (which is only available to traditional publishers, as others here have noted). How the author makes "hundreds of thousands" is unclear, since out of 20p there can't be much royalty left once publishers, agents, and amazon have had their cut!

I price my backlist ebooks at £2-99. I think low prices are fine for promotions, but should be used sparingly to avoid cheapening the content. Trouble is, once one publisher does it...

Katherine Roberts said...

...and having just read some of the other comments above, I think there is a danger in pricing low to attract readers who might not otherwise read that kind of book. They might hate it and review accordingly! I've downloaded a few 20p mistakes already, so now I won't download even at that price until I've read the sample.