Saturday, August 6, 2011

I write stories, not books

Reading this article in the guardian.co.uk yesterday got me thinking more about the publishing business and the price of ebooks and a whole lot of other random things. I noticed in the comments that a lot of people who read the article were misinformed about ebooks and digital publishing. Many of the comments on the article turned to the ebook vs print book debate, about the loss of the “richly sensual experience” that reading a print book is, etc. etc. I’m so over that debate, so I skipped over those comments.

I tried to talk to my husband last about it last night, but like many people not involved in the publishing industry there were weird things about it that he also didn’t get. Like when I talked about the price of ebooks and how so many people think they should be so much cheaper than print books, he was all in agreement because you know, it costs nothing to produce an ebook.  

Wrong.

I also thought about how maybe I’m different than many readers (and certainly many of the commenters on the guardian article who clearly aren’t talking about genre fiction books). 

Before I purchased my Sony reader, I made regular trips to the bookstore and often dropped a hundred bucks at a time. I thought nothing of shelling out $18 for a trade paperback by one of my favourite authors. That was the price they were and that’s what I had to pay if I wanted to read them. However, I rarely bought hardback books because of the price. When a book by a favourite author came out in hardback, I’d put my name on the waiting list for it at the library and wait out whether my name came up before the paperback version of the book came out.  

Another way I may be different is that I rarely sold my books to used book stores. I keep many of them, but I’m not sure why because I also rarely reread them. I have donated ones that I don’t want to keep to charities. I’ve also shared books with friends, my mom, my aunt but most often we have different tastes in books/authors.  

So having a “physical” book to keep or sell wasn’t something I missed when I got my Sony reader. Also I was thrilled to discover I could buy those $18 books for $9.99. Sometimes even less. And since I was published with smaller digital publishers, I started devouring their books at usually about $5 a pop.  

What are you getting when you buy a book? The guardian article talks about what costs going into producing a hardcover book and claim that it costs a publisher about $3.00 print and distribute a hardcover book, which might then be priced at $30 in the bookstore. Apparently there’s not much difference in costs between a hardcover book and a paperback book, but publishers produce those “premium” editions because there are people who want to buy them.

The article says “Most people instinctively feel that ebooks should be substantially cheaper than paper books, because an ebook is not physically "made": there are no printing costs. But if, says (author Robert) Levine, the real value of a book resides in the "text itself", then the delivery method shouldn't much matter. The fixed costs – acquiring, editing, marketing – remain unchanged.” 

This is very true. Here I also have to mention that many commenters on the article (and my own husband) seemed unaware of the amount of work (and expense) involved in formatting books into digital formats. You are not reading a Word document on your Kindle. With some readers, you’re reading a PDF. Other readers use other formats. When my digital publishers produce ebooks, they have to produce them in numerous formats so that most any customer can purchase that book and read it on whatever reader they happen to have. This is not easy or cheap and often gets overlooked in discussions about pricing of ebooks.

But even so, whether you buy a hardcover book that you can hold in your hands, or a digital book that you load on your reader, what are you really paying for? In the article, “Levine points out, what you're really paying for when you buy a book is something different. You are buying the "text itself". And why is that so expensive? Because the publisher will, in many cases, have paid the author a considerable sum for the right to sell it.”

Yes, the author gets paid something to write the book. Whatever kind of book it is you can be sure a lot of work and that includes blood, sweat and tears often literally, has gone into producing that “story”. And yet  I’ve seen fellow authors say they would never pay more than $3-4 for an ebook.  

Really? 

I can’t believe some authors think their work is worth that little.  

Well, maybe a short novel or novella. But a full length novel? Really? 

The guardian article points out how much Amazon has influenced this line of thinking, with their free reads, .99 books and the 2.99 price point that many self-published authors go to. They also deeply discount prices on other books. “When they first started selling ebooks, publishers argued that they should cost pretty much the same as physical books, and tried to set prices accordingly. Amazon, though, has always been in the business of driving prices down, and sought to sell them as cheaply as possible in order to gain as large as possible a share of the ebook market. In their efforts to drive prices down, Amazon has been hugely assisted (Levine points out) by the fact that they also manufacture the most popular ebook reader. Because Amazon makes big profits from its Kindle, it doesn't need to bother about making profits from its ebook sales. Indeed, if it sells ebooks at a loss, it may still be better off overall, because this will drive up sales of its Kindle.” 

One commenter made what I thought was a very salient point: “… as a writer I keep on having to say I don't write books, I write stories.”

Yes! This! I write stories. My publishers produce books! In different formats! And to me, the value is in the story that I’ve written, not the format that it’s produced in. I don't know what the right price for an ebook is, or even a print book I suppose. The market will decide that, but in the end it has to be enough for the bookseller to make money so they'll keep selling books, for the publisher to make money so they'll keep publishing books, and for the author to make money so she'll keep writing books.



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