[publishing] The Kindle $9.99 boycott vs Green

I received an email recently from a reader saying, in part:

I recently was browsing Amazon for new books when I saw your title Green after reading the blurb I quickly added it to my wish list to down load later. I am dismayed however to find that the digital version is priced well over the $9.99 most publishers price digital books at. I just thought you should know that almost all Kindle users honor the $9.99 boycott of digital books. With no publishing costs I am not sure how some publishers price digital versions but I suspect that the digital market is not fully understood by “dead tree publishers.” They also may be testing the waters to determine what the consumer will pay. Green looked like a wonderful book but with the user tag “9 99 boycott” most kindle users will just skip it by.

I’d never heard of the $9.99 boycott, but then I’m not a Kindle user. (Though I do read books on the Kindle app on my iPhone.) Here’s what I sent in response:

Unfortunately, like most authors I have absolutely no control over pricing, on Amazon or in the print channels. The $9.99 boycott may send a message to my publisher, but the people it hurts most is authors like me. This damage is done both directly by depressing the sales of the book (ie, reducing potential royalties), and indirectly by making the publisher less likely to buy future books from me as a result of the depressed sales.

While I very much appreciate — and agree with — your perspective, I do hope you and the other boycotters realize your largest impact is on the authors themselves, who have no control whatsoever over the situation. The boycott will mostly reinforce the presence of discounted bestsellers, and further marginalize newer voices. I certainly hope that as a book lover, that’s not your goal, but it’s definitely your outcome.

The law of unintended consequences comes to get us all, one way or another.

I can unpack this in a number of directions, and probably will in a future post, but for now I’m interested in your thoughts on this. What do you think of the $9.99 boycott? Do you see a relationship between the price of books and an author’s income, and how much do you think it matters? What else does this suggest to you?

39 thoughts on “[publishing] The Kindle $9.99 boycott vs Green

  1. Michael M Jones says:

    This is the first I’ve heard of it also.
    Frankly, I think that 9.99 or thereabouts is a reasonable price for ebooks. I certainly have no desire to pay as much for an ebook as I would a dead tree version, especially if I already own said hardcopy.

    That said, I also agree with you that boycotting a book sends the wrong message. A much better campaign would be to write the publisher… enough letters and communications from people stating their intention to buy books below a certain price and refusal to buy above that price would demonstrate an interest in the author, not the disinterest suggested by low sales.

    Or… er, somethng. That’s my immediate thought.

    1. Andy says:

      Maybe more authors should consider publishing directly in e-format and eliminate the dead tree publisher’s altogether. I understand the $9.99 boycott can hurt the authors, but it does also hurt the publishers and sends a message. In the current business format the publisher’s have all the control. Let’s put it back in the hands of the author’s where it belongs

  2. I find I tend to buy under the ten dollar mark on epubs, though I have no problem spending far more than that on a “dead tree” book. I don’t see the point of having a download for ten when for less I can get a paperback, or for not all that much more I can get the hardback–especially with authors I enjoy and work I am fairly certain I’ll want to keep.

    I like epub purchases to be a bit lower because it gives me freedom to try new people without taking a hit. Just recently I actually tried a new-to-me author’s older book for free, and as a result, bought their new book for Amazon-full price; I’ll probably keep buying him.

  3. As someone who buys books I love the idea of a generally-accepted $9.99 price point for ebooks.

    As someone who’d like to see more than two large publishers–and a half-dozen bestselling authors–survive the next few years, I’m not so sure.

    I am indeed worried about high price points driving people to piracy. I’m also worried about catastrophic revenue drops putting most of the industry out of business. What would follow that won’t be a heroic age of indie bliss. What would follow that will be monopoly and tyranny.

    I’m not complaining. The reason they pay us to worry about this stuff is that–you know something?–this stuff is hard.

  4. Two thoughts on this:

    1) I think the 9.99 boycott is misguided for the reason you state. I understand very well the mentality that a “dead tree” book is “something” that people pay for without argument because it’s a material object while an ebook seems to be regarded (even by many fans of the medium) as something that costs “nothing” and should therefore be free or very cheap, which brings me to…

    2) Amazon gets way more than what I would consider a reasonable share of that sale price on Kindle books. I am a small publisher myself and place Kindle versions on Amazon. I do this solely as a service for readers who want that option, not to make money. Because there is no money to made unless you sell LOTS and LOTS of Kindle copies. Amazon keeps most of the money for doing little more than showing it on a web page. Your publisher, Jay, probably does sell a lot of copies of its books that way and probably makes some money from them. But if the 9.99 boycotters don’t buy the titles, then they will make less and less, which goes back to your original point.

    Personally, I think the devices like Kindle and all these proprietary and mutually incompatible formats are a pain in the ass and will continue to be until things change in a way that readers can have what they want and the authors and publishers can see a fair share of the sale. You wrote the book. Your editor and publisher did the work of getting it into the world. What did Amazon do by offering a Kindle edition? Little to nothing as far as I can tell, but that’s the way things are currently.

  5. Dawno says:

    I don’t have a Kindle but if I did I’d absolutely not join that boycott for exactly the reason you mention – it punishes the author and won’t make the publisher do anything different. I assume they have a formula they have to use and it’s all about keeping them in business so you can keep writing more fabulous books like Green and Escapement and Mainspring and when does the next one come out anyway??!! 🙂

    I buy e-books all the time – usually because I just read about something and “want it NOW” takes over, and while I’m often surprised at how much some books will cost, it’s worth it to me for the convenience.

    Am I’m one of the rare, informed purchasers who cares about the authors and the state of the publishing business? I hope not.

    1. Jay says:

      Am I’m one of the rare, informed purchasers who cares about the authors and the state of the publishing business? I hope not.

      I’m not sure that most book buyers know or care about the publishing business. I’m not even sure they should. But there’s an idea out there that authors make lots of money, which is ludicrous. A few authors do, but the rest of us toil in economic obscurity, with day jobs to keep a roof over our heads so we can spend evenings and weekends writing. I do wish more book buyers understood that.

  6. Steven Klotz says:

    I’ve linked to info on the boycott from my blog. I think it was on a post about orbit’s $1 eBook experiment.

    My understanding about the kindle pricing is that amazon actually takes a hit to mark certain kindle books (that are otherwise still in hardcover) down to 9.99 as marketing for the kindle. This is great for amazon but sets up a horribly skewed playing field for any book they don’t discount as heavily. I’d suspect (and may have read at some point) that on top of this discounting there are different agreements with the publishers for kindle vs hardcover sales.

    My personal take is 2 fold. (1) I think the boycott is counterproductive as the pricing is artificial at this point and people that have no control over the price point are being adversely affected by it. (2) The price point for eBooks in general and that price point’s overall effect on print sales is a complicated issue.

    One experiment that I’d like to see would be an eBook price that starts HIGHER than the physical book but is available slightly earlier. The price would decay over the run of the hardcover to the 9.99 people seem to be wanting.

  7. Steven Klotz says:

    And as a reference for the discussion, Green’s harcover sells for $19.67 on amazon vs the kindle price of $14.82

  8. Michele Lee says:

    Personally I’m completely uncomfortable paying $9.99 for an ebook when I can get a paperback for $7.99. $9.99 when only the hardback is out is a deal, but after the mmpb release it’s silly.

  9. “Personally I’m completely uncomfortable paying $9.99 for an ebook when I can get a paperback for $7.99. $9.99 when only the hardback is out is a deal, but after the mmpb release it’s silly.”

    Totally agree with this.

    We are aware, right, that when it comes to the Kindle program, it’s Amazon that sets the prices, not the publishers? At least, that’s what I was told when I noted that the Kindle edition of Jo Walton’s FARTHING is several dollars more expensive than the perfectly-in-print mass-market paperback edition.

  10. Unfocused Me says:

    Is there any hard data on the difference in income to the author? If a Kindle book sells 1000 copies at $15 vs. 1500 copies at $10, and the marginal cost for each additional book is zero, don’t the publisher and author do equally well under both scenarios? And aren’t they both better off getting the book in front of more readers?

    I don’t have a strong position on the boycott, and I’m not in the industry, but it seems to me that people are going to have a price point for Kindle books beyond which they’re not going to go. It will be different for everyone, but the market will set a price over time. What the boycotters are trying to do is tell the industry sooner what that market price is likely to be (or what they’d like it to be). If there are only a few boycotters, it won’t have any effect; if there are a lot, I’d expect the industry to pick up on the information.

    On the merits of the boycott, considering the restrictions on use of Kindle books and Amazon’s recent demonstration that Kindle users are more renters than owners of the books they buy, it seems that a significant discount from the price of a paper book is not unreasonable.

    1. Jay says:

      The income basis from Kindle vs hardcopy books doesn’t break out nearly so simply. Also, for most authors, ebook sales represent something between 0% and perhaps 5% of sales. In a lot of respects, the question is moot right now because the net effect is so small. But right now is when a lot of standards and practices are coming into place which will be *hugely* important in years to come.

  11. Sue D'onym says:

    Through a weird contractual quirk, I ended up with the electronic rights to a novel I wrote that appeared in paperback from a small press. So, for Kindle purposes, I am the publisher.

    A couple of things: Amazon gets 2/3 of the price and the publisher gets the rest. So the author’s cut comes out of that $3.33 on a $9.99 book. The publisher sets the price. I set mine at 3 bucks so that my cut for electronic sales is about the same as my cut for hard copies. Amazon reserves the right to cut your price, but they will still pay you your cut of the price you set. So if you set it at 15 bucks, you’ll still get 5 bucks per book sold even if Amazon decides to cut the price to 10.

    Here’s the thing, though. I put the electronic edition of my book together at no cost to me except the time I spent getting the formatting right.

    Yes, editors and designers, etc. have to get paid, but there are huge savings in electronic editions. There’s no book to ship, no returns, no printer to pay–in short, it’s pretty unconscionable for publishers to charge the same price for a digital file that they do for an actual book. They need to pass these savings along.

  12. Kathleen Retz says:

    I, too, was unaware there was a Kindle boycott going on. Of course, I don’t have a Kindle (or the Sony version of the ebook reader) for that matter.

    I have played with both (thank you Dave Howell), but don’t really care for either version. They each had good and bad points that sorta made seen overpriced to me.

    Than again, I tend to use the library for EVERYTHING, so I hardly buy books any more. I no longer have room to store them! (Sorry, Jay!) I really can’t afford my reading habit, so thank the maker King County, Washington, has a really–incredibly–awesome library system!

    But, if I were to invest in ebooks, I would not participate in a boycott. Rather, I’d see if there were an alternate source of the Kindle version rather than Amazon. Jay is completely correct in saying the author loses in this game. Same as he does when a book goes to the bargain table or the paperback version is sold with a stripped cover. Even when people sell the galley, advance copy, non-proofed versions of books they received free for either reviews or potential sales. I used to work for Doubleday Book Shoppe before they got bought by Barnes & Noble and I received many advance copies of books from the publishers and editors. They knew I would read them and really talk them up to my customers. But they’re not supposed to be sold.

    Okay, I’m getting off my soap box now. Sorry ’bout that.

    1. Jay says:

      For the record, I *love* libraries, and heartily approve of people getting my books there. Library sales still count, and if people get my books there for free and like them, they’re more likely to pay cash money for their own copies in the future.

  13. I don’t use a Kindle. I show my support of favorite authors by buying their hardback, first edition books.

    In the case of Green, I was not disappointed. As long as Mr. Lake keeps writing fantastic fiction, I will buy him in hardback.

    If enough people don’t buy the Kindle version, maybe someone will get the message.

    1. Jay says:

      Thank you for the kind words, sir.

  14. tetar says:

    I used to buy books all the time. Could afford them. Can’t anymore. Mostly I wait for remaindered stock or, at worst, reduced price trade paperbacks, which seem to be about the best bargain given the high cost of mass market paper backs now. And ten bucks for an ebook I can get cheaper elsewhere? No thanks. Unintended consequences cut both ways; publishers and pricing are forcing us readers and buyers of books — and I own upwards of 25,000 volumes, alas — simply to stop.

    I will also read some trendy books borrowed from the library.

    What I’d like is to see a reasonable price and stable storage platform for digital books. No more storage problems would be a blessing. But equating an ebook with any kind of hardcopy? Just don’t see it. It’s not the same as music, either, so that parallel doesn’t cut it.

    I do not know what to suggest, but it looks like a bloodbath’s coming.

  15. Drake says:

    Jay,

    Ask yourself, “Why aren’t I self publishing digitally?” What ARE your royalties per book? I hear its becoming easier for some authors to retain digital publication rights. Why not sell digital copies at your ‘dead-tree’ royalty rate?

    I understand that publishers lump the promotional costs, tour, printing, etc all together and give price points based on this, but it really is obtuse for them to make people pay so much for a few bits. I’d be cool with author royalty + promotion costs based on printed books + projected downloabut for now I’m interested in your thoughts on this. What do you think of the $9.99 boycott? Do you see a relationship between the price of books and an author’s income, and how much do you think it matters? What else does this suggest to you?ds. Its not hard to calculate, its extremely easy to track online book sales.

    Hell, I’d even pay extra for a no-drm copy.

    But really, there are proactive steps you can take as an author.

    Drake.

    1. Jay says:

      I hear its becoming easier for some authors to retain digital publication rights.

      Quite the opposite, actually, at least in trade publishing (ie, the big New York houses). I’ve made the effort in my last two contract negotiations, and that’s a non-negotiable point for them, at least for authors at my modest level.

  16. Meran says:

    I agree with tetar for much of this discussion… I also own many books (6025 at last count) and reread many or use them as reference… When I first heard of digital book readers, I thought I might want one; that is, until I was reading in my bath and almost dropped my book in the water. A loss of a book is replaceable; a loss of a e-reader would be costly!
    I’ll never own one now. I also never buy from amazon; in the past, when I had, it was always a bad experience (for reasons I won’t go into)…
    Buying an electronic version of a book, which can be pulled back off my reader after purchase just thrills me negatively. I prefer paying the author for his/her efforts, not furthering amazon’s (or the like) large coffers. If I have to wait for the more affordable PB, I can handle that. About the boycott: well, people boycott everything anymore. They should pick more appropriate venues, honestly, such as health care, education issues, fill in the blank here.
    Sorry if I sound harsh; that is not my intent. More people should read and handing a book off is much easier than handing them your kindle, you know?

  17. James Jeffried says:

    An interesting discussion on how publishers look at the pricing of eBooks http://tinyurl.com/SFXeBook.

    Personally, I’d like to see them a buck or two below the pb price.

  18. John Chu says:

    No one has commented on the notion that an ebook has “no publishing costs.” It seems to me that an ebook has all the same publishing costs as a dead tree book except for the actual printing, shipping and warehousing. Are costs associated with the physical object significant relative to the total cost?

    Also, it seems there are two main reasons why people are willing to pay more for a book: quality of construction and timeliness. The latter doesn’t have anything to do with publishing costs or lack thereof. I’d like to see Amazon try Steven Klotz’s experiment. That simulates the effect that the MMPB has on the consumer when it comes out after the hardcover (except maybe the ebook price ought to decay below that of the MMPB).

    The only reason I can think of for why the ebook might cost more than a dead tree edition is if Amazon thinks that the lack of the physical object may make it more valuable to someone. e.g., a friend of mine bought an ebook reader because he was sick of the sheer number of books he brought him every time he travelled. (Travel is an inevitable part of his job.) Carrying all of his travel reading within an ebook reader has made travel much more convenient for him. I haven’t asked him, but he might consider that convenience something worth paying for. In that case, he might shell out a little extra to buy the ebook instead of the book.

    (Likewise, every once in a while Amazon offers MP3 albums that are more expensive than their corresponding CDs. I can only think either their pricing algorithms are screwed up, or they think the convenience of not having to rip the CD is worth extra money.)

    Based on the comments here though, it seems that for most people an ebook is worth less than a dead tree book. It has no intrinsic advantages that people are willing to pay for. Its very ebook-ness must have negative worth if people are only willing to buy it in the case where it costs less than any dead tree edition of the book. Until ebooks are things that people want for their own sake (as opposed to representing a lower price point), it’s hard to imagine ebooks as the future.

  19. CJ says:

    The part of the boycott I simply do not understand is that if price really is the motivating factor behind not getting a certain eBook, why even get the Kindle in the first place? If you purchased the Kindle because it would be easier for you during commuting/travel/late night reading, then the cost is the cost of that ease.

    Cost really is an issue for me and I desided I could buy a lot of books for the price of a Kindle, especially since I buy most of my reading material in mmpb.

  20. If publishers looked at market dynamics data for individual books the boycott might have a chance. As I understand the publishing side of this (my limited understanding to be sure), they don’t. Publishers only use individual previous sales figures to determine if they buy the next book by an author or how such a book should be packaged. They may approach market dynamics in an aggregate form, but in that case all the boycott will succeed in doing is giving the publisher the impression that this Kindle thing is a high risk venture (more so than hard copy which is already a risky proposition). The publishers will then withdraw support as the eBook market is small to begin with. So with the way the publishing business is today, all this boycott can hope to do is kill the ebook business.

  21. John Markley says:

    I find the terminology from the original e-mail odd. How is not buying something that you think costs too much a “boycott?” By that standard, I’ve been boycotting Ferrari, Middleton Irish whiskey, and premium cable television for years.

  22. Dawn B. says:

    Let me say first that if Publishers in the book industry act at all like publishers in the Video Games industry, then they do pay attention to price point sensivity. And a boycott (if known) does affect them. So while it hurts the author, I don’t believe it to be true that it doesn’t hurt the publisher.

    That said, I do think that there is some weirdness going on from the Monopoly Amazon has (or seems to have) over the Kindle version of eBooks. This thread has differing reports on the price setting. Per Patrick Amazon sets it, per a self-publisher the Publisher sets it. I suspect that the Publisher gets to set the wholesale and that Amazon has a standard markup as the retailer/distributor. This is similar to what we experienced with a recent digital program for Video Games.

    The author gets paid, likely, out of a contract negotiated rate either on the Wholesale or the Retail. Depends on contract, yada yada.

    What this really says to me is that publishers need to be able to have the ability to do a price change. When only the hardbound is out, I think having the eBook version out at a specific price point that is lower makes sense. When the Mass Market comes out, the price should be dropped below that of the Mass Market.

    It is hard to track, I’ll admit, especially with a lot of books.

  23. I’ve considered buying more titles for my iPhone Kindle app, but the thing that concerns me the most is that I am not actually “buying” the eBook. I’m leasing it. I can buy a used copy of a book, that I own. I can buy an eBook from another on-line eBook retailer. On my iPhone Kindle App, I am not the owner of what I purchase.

    9.99 is high, to me, for something that could be taken away from me on a whim, whenever rights-owners decide it has to happen.

    I also would rather pay less for an eBook than for a mass market paperback. As a writer, I made sure my eBook publisher (Apex) offered eBooks below what a mass market would hypothetically cost, even if it impacts my pocketbook.

    At the end of the day, we provide a service to readers. They do not owe us money. They do not owe us a living. Serving the reader ought to be the focus of eBooks, in my humble opinion.

  24. Aynjel Kaye says:

    Oddly, this is the first I’ve heard of the Kindle 9.99 boycott, too.

    It probably won’t strike you as odd that I *do* see the relationship between sale price of a book and author income (it’s why I constantly struggle with my desire to spend less money on books while at the same time not wanting to have that negative impact to the author).

    It doesn’t strike me as odd that people would see the price of an electronic book and expect it to be less than the print version. Many people probably assume that there is no cost to produce the item (wrong, there’s still layout, editing, copy editing, cover art, etc) because there is no tangible item being produced, therefore, they should get their non-tangible item at a lower price.

    This is another thing that I struggle with. My Kindle is more for convience sake. I want to be able to snag a book whenever/wherever, and I’m out of shelf space so unless it is a book that I desperately want a hardcover/TPB/MMPB of (mostly these books that get my precious shelf space are either by authors I know, authors whose work I absolutely love, or a combination of the above), I’m going to get it on my Kindle.

    But the authors who write the books that fall below my Golden Shelf Space standard aren’t any less deserving of payment for work done, even if I don’t have a Physical Thing(tm) to show for my purchase. I think the only time I’ve balked at a Kindle book price is when I’d’ve balked at paying the same amount for a real-space copy of the book.

    Realistically, however, I don’t want to pay “hardcover price” for a book that I wouldn’t buy in hardcover if there is a MMPB or TPB out at a reduced price. If there is only a hardcover available when I desperately feel the need to read the book I’m staring at, however, then I’ll spend “hardcover price” for it on my Kindle.

    I’m probably not your standard reader/buyer, though. -.-

  25. I’m conflicted.

    On one side the boycott hurts the authors, on the other anything above $9.99 for an eletronic copy of a DRM infested book is getting ridiculous.

    Publishers need to understand that the eletronic book market is not the physical book market and its not the music market. It’s somewhere in between. Without the paper,printing,shipping,warehousing fees the prices should be substantially lower and still be able to pay everyone the same ammount. In addition, while some people read only electronically, there are a lot of people who can’t,don’t or won’t. The electronic books are going to be like samples for these people, allowing them to read a few chapters and convincing them to buy a physical copy or not. It’s not like music where the digital file sounds the same whether it comes from a cd or an mp3.

    I’m not sure what the price should be but it shouldn’t be above 9.99 (especially with DRM).

  26. I can’t say I’m really “for” the $9.99 price point. I typically do not buy hardcovers b/c of the price. I don’t own a Kindle, but I don’t think I’d be willing to pay $10 for an e-book, not when paperbacks are less. Better yet, I love buying used books. I know that does you no good whatsoever, but then Cory Doctorow gives all of his books away for free (they’re made available for download at the same time the publisher is releasing the hard or paperback versions), and that doesn’t seem to be affecting his margins too badly.

  27. Ben White says:

    I’ll admit I’ll probably never buy even a $9.99 ebook. If I can wait and get a mass market for cheaper later on, then I’ll almost always wait. Why? Because at the end of the day, tangible things matter to me. I’d pay 5 for an ebook. Although I don’t advocate it, what other form other than a boycott would work? If a publisher sees disproportionate ebook to regular print sales ratio based on pricepoint, they might be inclined to act accordingly. A boycott and an email might do something. Just an email (with a purchase) certainly would not. If I tell my cable company I don’t like paying as much as I do but don’t do anything about it, they’re not going to lower my subscription fees.

    I think publishers need to be selling ebook formats directly to consumers and ebook formats need to be interchangeable. Having a middle man (Amazon) is absolutely silly in the 21st century for electronic works transfer. Otherwise, I’ll keep on going to half price books precisely because the price points aren’t there for electronic publishing to make it worth my time, and I honestly don’t have the funds to pay for more than a handful of trade paperback book editions.

  28. nikki says:

    i think as the author saying you have no control is a co out. u have the option of telling your publisher that after your contract end you will be going to another publisher,

    1. Jay says:

      Hi, Nikki –

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, in principle I do have the option of switching publishers, but it’s not nearly as easy as you think, and I would probably lose both income and readers if I tried.

      That would be like quitting my job when I didn’t have another job lined up, basically. I explain in detail here, if you’re curious why:

      https://dev.clockpunkclients.com/jaylake/2010/02/04/writingpublishing-what-my-publisher-does-for-me-and-why-i-wont-just-quit#cutid4

      Best,

      Jay

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