“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Some Thoughts On The Pricing Of E-Books

I came across a Twitter comment during the week, which was retweeted by Mike Cane, from a woman who had drawn a line in the sand on the price of e-books. She was happy enough paying anything up to $5.99 for her e-books; beyond that, she just wasn’t prepared to go.
  Given that I recently upped the price of the e-book version of EIGHTBALL BOOGIE to $7.99, as part of my ongoing experiment in e-publishing, I found her attitude fascinating.
  I should probably give you some context to this ‘experiment’, by the way. I first e-published EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, after buying out the rights from the publisher, at $1.99. It sold pretty well at that price, and I even got a royalty cheque from Amazon after six months. Around about then, I bumped up the price to $3.99, just to see how sales would fare. Not very well, as it turned out. The book still sold, but in nowhere near the same numbers. And so, being a perverse sod at the best of times, last month I bumped the price up to $7.99. Sales, as you can probably guess, fell off a cliff. I think I’ve sold three copies since the price went to $7.99.
  I should also say that, given that I work full-time, and write in my spare time, I don’t have a lot of time left over for promoting the e-version of EIGHTBALL. And the last couple of months, while the book has been retailing for $7.99, have been particularly busy. Perhaps sales might have been a little better had I invested a little more time in reminding people that EIGHTBALL is there. We’ll never know.
  I should also say, before going any further, that different writers have different reasons for publishing e-books. Some are e-only writers, and are bent on earning a living from their writing. Some, like myself, are part-time writers who publish (some of) their backlist at a discount price in the hope of drumming up some word-of-mouth and momentum on their writing careers. Others are full-time writers earning a living writing conventional books, whose publishers also offer their books in e-format. And on it goes.
  The point being, ‘writers’ are not a monolithic bunch who all earn the same amount of money from their writing. The same applies to publishers, some of which belong to vast corporations, while others are of the small but perfectly formed variety, struggling to make ends meet and publish interesting books. Many others inhabit the middle-ground between those extremes.
  And yet, there is a growing number of readers who insist that the price of an e-book should be this and no more.
  Now, I do appreciate that the middle of one of the worst recessions / depressions in living memory is a very bad time to be arguing the case for raising the price of anything, and particularly a luxury item such as a book. Some people, of course, would argue that a book is not an luxury, but an essential, but that’s a debate for another day. The bottom line is that, for most people, the money they spend on books comes out of their disposable income, which to all intents and purposes makes it a luxury item.
  I can also appreciate the main argument some readers put forward for cheaper e-books. If, say, Lee Child’s latest thriller is retailing at $18.99 as a conventional book because of his publisher’s costs when it comes to printing, distribution, etc., then the e-format should be considerably cheaper, given that there are no printing and distribution costs.
  Having said that, and without pretending to know how Lee Child’s publishers work, it’s also true that the conventional and e-version copies of Lee Child’s latest book comes at the end of a long chain of events, most of which cost quite a bit of money, given that the services involved are provided by skilled professionals, not least of whom is Lee Child himself.
  Ah, say the e-readers, but why not cut out all those pesky middle-men? Why doesn’t Lee Child just write his book and upload it directly as an e-book? He already has the brand, and even if he’s selling his book at a reduced price, he’s taking home all the profit, which means that readers and writer both profit.
  That’s fine in theory, but again, and without pretending to know anything about Lee Child, it presumes that Lee Child is a skilled editor and designer, typesetter, marketing specialist, etc.
  Ah, say the e-readers, but the costs of such skilled professionals are one-offs. If Lee was to out-source all the requirements he isn’t capable of providing himself, and write a couple of cheques, he’s home and hosed. Apart from the fee he pays to the various e-publishers, he’s taking home all the profit.
  Again, in theory, this is very true. Unfortunately for most writers, they’re not Lee Child. They don’t have his brand. They don’t have his financial resources. Neither do they have his gift for writing a cracking thriller, but that, again, is a conversation for another day.
  Simply put, and like the vast majority of writers, I’m not in Lee Child’s league. If publishing exists as a pyramid structure, with a lucky (and very hard-working) few at the apex, then I’m down in the dirt scrabbling for purchase on the steep incline.
  When it came to e-publishing EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, I was in a better position than most. The book had already been published, and I was in possession of a pdf that was already type-set to a professional standard. The book also benefited from some blurbs that had been provided for the conventional version. I did, however, commission a new cover for the book, which means that despite receiving that royalty cheque from Amazon (it was for $100), I’m still in the hole, eight months later, to the tune of over $200.
  Given the cost of living here in Ireland, and that I’m a husband and father with all the responsibilities that entails, I would need to sell roughly 35,000 copies of EIGHTBALL BOOGIE per year, at its original price of $1.99, in order to avoid seeing my daughter live in a cardboard box. Even at $3.99, I’d need to sell 25,000 copies. That’s a hell of a lot of books to sell in order to break even. And at $7.99, I’d still need to sell 8,000 copies, or thereabouts, to achieve the same.
  Go ahead and ask the vast majority of writers how they’d feel about selling 8,000 copies of their book per year. But do me a favour and have an oxygen mask handy. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any untimely strokes.
  There are a number of aspects to the e-pricing debate that seem a little odd to me. The first is that e-publishing was originally trumpeted as a means of bringing reader and writer closer together, because writers could by-pass the whited sepulchres of the traditional publishing houses and connect directly with their readers, via the intertwined electronic miracles of e-readers and the Web. Instead, it appears that many readers are taking the hump with writers because they won’t play ball and give them quality books cheaply, while writers are taking the hump because readers want quality books on the cheap.
  This clash may be a consequence of many e-reading fans being early adopters, the kind of Web-savvy people who jumped on the idea of combining the potential of the internet with their love of reading, and see e-books as the idea synthesis. Being Web-savvy, of course, they don’t expect to pay very much for the digital content they read; indeed, they seem a little bit shocked they’re expected to pay anything at all.
  The other odd thing, from a personal point of view, is exemplified by the drop-off in sales for EIGHTBALL BOOGIE once its price started to go up. The e-book fan (or anyone with even the vaguest grasp of economics) will very probably be screaming right now at the screen a variation on, ‘It’s the economy, stooopid.’
  I understand that. I really do. But from my point of view, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE is the same book regardless of whether it’s $1.99 or $7.99: it’s not a quarter as interesting, or funny, or thrilling, at the cheaper price, and it doesn’t come in at 25,000 words rather than 85,000 words.
  It’s not my place, by the way, to say that EIGHTBALL is interesting, funny or thrilling. I’m just saying that whatever qualities the book had at the $1.99 price, those qualities remain the same regardless of whether I charge $7.99 or give the book away for free.
  I suppose my central concern, when it all boils down, is that fans of e-books are confusing cost and value. That’s not to say that very good books aren’t being sold for $1.99, or $0.99, or even being given away free. But it’s patently self-limiting for a reader to impose an arbitrary price of (say) $4.99 on a book, and state that he or she refuses to pay any more, regardless of the quality of that book.
  This becomes especially resonant, I think, when we move away from the realms of fiction, and particularly genre fiction, to talk about the kinds of books that require serious research, which in turn requires investment. But that, again, may be a debate for another day.
  For now it seems that many authors are happily collaborating in a race to the bottom on price. The mantra is very much quantity over quality, to the extent that many writers, in a desperate bid to get noticed and put one foot on the bottom rung of the slippery ladder, are now giving away their books for free.
  There’s a certain kind of logic to this, although it only exists inside the e-publishing bubble, which appears determined to eat itself. Because once you give away one book for free, the expectation is that all your books will come at no cost, an expectation that derives from an entirely understandable mentality that runs, ‘Well, if you don’t value your work, why should I?’
  Ultimately, and pursuing the deranged logic that characterises the e-publishing frenzy on lower and lower pricing to its bitter end, can it be very long before e-fans are demanding that writers pay them - not very much; perhaps as little as $0.99 per book - for the privilege of reading their books?