[publishing] More on ebooks, pricing and licensing

As I observed recently [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ], The perennial “ebooks should be free, charging for them is theft” argument is now playing out at io9.com.

There is a fair amount of supportive commentary there, but also quite a bit of the usual arrogance, ignorance and acrimony about why ebooks should be free. It seems to boil down to the idea that the author/publisher is greedy and doesn’t deserve to be paid twice for the same content. This is closely coupled to the misconception that ebooks obviously don’t cost anything, and therefore charging for them is theft.

As I said before:

When you buy a print book, you aren’t buying the content, you’re buying the edition. Otherwise everybody who bought a hard cover would be entitled to a free paperback, a free audiobook and a free movie ticket if the book were filmed.

This is driving me more and more toward my nascent view that a book (in any format — print, audio, ebook, what have you) is a license, not a product. The story is the product. The format is a delivery channel. The ebook “debate” gets obscured by the long-running and rather sordid experience of the music industry, as well as the whole bit torrent culture of pirate video. I’m also increasingly coming to view “information wants to be free” as a pernicious meme, as it completely devalues the content Producer to the short-term benefit of the content Consumer.

In the long run, would I write even if I weren’t paid? Sure. I did for years before I was paid. But why should my writing, if it has value to readers, be free? The thing I always want to ask ebook activists is whether they’re comfortable with their work product being free, simply because I don’t think I should have to pay for it? Tom Tomorrow touches on this in his cartoon this week.

And you know what? I’m not going to sell t-shirts or something. I’m not even interested in doing format conversions to sell my backlist online. I’m a writer, damn it. My best and highest value is writing.

It’s insulting and demeaning to be called a liar and a thief by readers who don’t know anything about the processes of publishing, copyright law or professional ebook production, and yet are certain of both their facts and their moral high ground. It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect in full deployment.

I’ve always said the story belongs to the reader. I believe that in the bottom of my heart. Story is not an economic right, however. Buying a hardback then paying for an ebook is no different from buying a hardback then paying for a paperback or an audiobook. But there’s a growing culture online deeply invested in denying that, and they’re very happy to demonize authors as part of their denial.

Note, please, before you comment, that I am not making an argument for any particular price point on ebooks. I am also increasingly coming to favor the idea of bundle pricing, which is in line with my view of books as licenses rather than products. I think ebooks should be cheap, and possibly free if promotional considerations indicate. But that’s a decision for my publishers to make as part of their marketing process, not a natural law of information, nor an entitlement of the reader.

I think the hardest part of this discussion for me personally is getting people, especially the activists, to see how caught in the middle authors are. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been told I should just switch publishers, or force them to change my pricing. That kind of thinking is another example of the profound disinformation and ignorance about the process of publishing, and how it colors the passions of readers.

People want to read. I want them to read. Writing is work, just like plumbing, law, medicine, retail, bus driving, teaching or anything else. Like any work, it should be compensated according to its value. When you want your ebook for free, you’re devaluing writing to nothing.

9 thoughts on “[publishing] More on ebooks, pricing and licensing

  1. Cora says:

    I don’t mind e-books as a form of delivery for those that want them. But it seems to me as if the growth of e-books has led to a deeply unpleasant sense of entitlement among a certain segment of the readership. These people demand books now and in the format they prefer and they’re perfectly happy to attack authors with one-star reviews and boycott threats when they don’t get what they want. Plus, it also seems as if books and authors are interchangeable to them, e.g. the whole “If I can’t get that book for my Kindle now for the price I want, then I’ll simply read something else.” attitude.

    I’m not saying that all e-book readers are like this, but a vocal minority is and Amazon is encouraging this behaviour.

    I also wonder whether this entitlement attitude is linked to the rise of cases where readers attack authors about books that took longer than expected to write, e.g. the vehement criticisms of George R.R. Martin and Lisa Valdez. Often these attacks are also coupled with boycott threats, i.e. “I would have bought and read this books five years ago, but now I no longer want it.”

    Whatever happened to being patient? There are books I am waiting for, books I would really like to read but can’t, e.g. because a publisher has cancelled a series, books that are not yet available in the format I prefer (e.g. I’m waiting for the paperback edition of Green), books that are e-book only, etc… But I don’t go around attacking the authors and punishing them with one-star reviews.

  2. JulieB says:

    There’s a sort of corollary to this that I’m seeing. Writing freelance used to be my bread and butter. Thanks to the economy my once regular work has dried up. I’m not whining; this always happens when the economy takes a nosedive. I’ve bounced back. What makes it different is that, thanks to all the content spam sites and the writers willing to work for them for next to nothing, my business isn’t going to bounce back as it has before. I’m looking into other income streams and working to improve my skills in other areas. The really scary thing is that I’ve pitched to companies that pay their employees darn good money and balk at what I charge because they know they can go to Craigslist and get someone to write their content or ad copy for five bucks. They get what they pay for.

    I have expenses, and I have bills. And darn it, I pay my taxes. But now people think they’re entitled to several hours of work for five bucks. I can’t live on that. Can they?

  3. Jaws says:

    I’d like to point out a potentially serious logical pitfall in the argument, somewhat sarcastically recast into a form encouraged by Animal Farm:
    All information is equal… but some information is more equal than others.
    The entire argument is based on the meme that everything “in print” is “mere information” — that is, that the expression, form, and context of presenting that information don’t matter. Perhaps, for some types of works, that’s true: A tabular presentation of census data from 1910 may be clearer than a narrative presentation (with endlessly long sentences and lots of commas and semicolons), but it does not change the meaning of the underlying data.

    For a work of fiction, though, the presentation is the underlying data. We don’t read/listen to/watch Richard III for its (admittedly polemical and objectively inaccurate) data on the pre-Tudor succession. We can’t even choose between versions on that basis; on DVD, do we prefer the 1955 Olivier or the 1995 McKellan version? No, it’s all about expression… and expression is never free: It’s the author’s blood through that quill pen or keyboard, built into a golem by a publisher, and/or a film’s cast and crew. Whatever it is, though, it isn’t “just information.”

  4. An interesting corollary to the debate: there seems to be a corollation between the rise of this kind of attitude among consumers of books and the explosion in self-published and vanity-published books. While that may be an obvious observation, I look at it a different way (being 2/3 of the way through getting an MBA, and having paid attention in my business strategy class).

    Essentially, this is an economics question. Demand for books has remained constant. But the supply has increased dramatically. This puts significant downward pressure on the equilibrium price.

    Now, that’s particularly true of a commodity product. Which, the massive increase in supply threatens to turn the market for books into just such a market. Which is preposterous on the face of it. But there you go… that’s what’s happening.

    According to my business strategy class, the answer to this dilemma is differentiation: finding some way of making the products of books published by the traditional publishers or through traditional channels stand out from the ever-widening sea of low-priced or free self-published content. My marketing class tells me that for this strategy to work, you need a communications platform that clearly communicates the added benefit of “traditionally-published book X” over the low-priced self-published stuff. Otherwise, the customers won’t recognize the difference beween “traditionally-published book X” and “low-priced self-published e-book Y”. It’s all about awareness.

    Unfortunately, the trend among traditional publishers, by all accounts I have read (i.e. not personal experience, unpublished as I am), has been to skimp on the marketing budget. Which means the only data-point consumers have to gauge the difference between the two books as an antecedent to their purchase is the price differential. Ergo, the ensuing debate.

    For those of us who are fans of books, or of specific authors: we’re more than willing to pay a fair price for the books of the people whose books we like. We know what value we’re getting in those circumstances. But that value isn’t something that’s been communicated to us through normal marketing channels: it’s value that we’ve learned by actually handling and using the product (i.e. reading the books). It’s borne of experience, an experience your average consumer doesn’t have with the books of many younger, newer, or less popular authors. This isn’t a condemnation of the quality of the books of those authors, not by far (nor, for that matter, a condemnation of the quality of self-published books, such as they are), but a critique of the business strategy such as it stands.

    Essentially, I think this is an economic question. And it needs an economic solution. Right now, publishers are relying on authors as the almost the sole mechanism for communicating the value of their products over the value of competing, lower-priced products on the market. I don’t think that’s a sustainable strategy in the long run (though I do think it should be a component of a sustainable strategy).

    1. Cora says:

      A couple of problems with this: First of all, self-published fiction is not always free, particularly if it has been published via a vanity press. Nor is it all that easy to find, at least in print form. Stores don’t carry it and ordering a self-published book online can be troublesome, if Amazon doesn’t carry it and you’re dealing with a not very professional self-publisher who loses orders, will not ship overseas, does not reply to e-mails etc…

      That distribution problem does not exist for electronic works, so the playing field should theoretically be level. But you still have the quality issue. Because a high percentage of extremely cheap or free self-published fiction online is not very good. It’s not much of a loss, if you didn’t pay for it, but it still takes work to find the good stuff. And that’s work which the average consumer who buys whatever catches his eye on the co-op tables at the front of the bookstore is not necessarily willing to do.

      True, you could probably read nothing but free online fiction, fanfiction, public domain stuff from Project Gutenberg until the rest of your life. But Gutenberg and fanfic have been around for a long time and new books have still been traditionally published (and I still pay for print editions of public domain works). True, there are some Kindle users for whom one book really seems to be like the other, but I doubt that they are the majority.

      1. Actually, you get to my point exactly. There have been vanity presses forever – heck a decade-and-a-half ago when I was a naive high school student I got offers from vanity presses (thankfully never naive enough, nor funded enough, to take them up on the offer). That never changed anything… until recently.

        What’s changed is that there is now a huge shift in the availability of those self-published books, vis-a-vis the web. With e-publishing and websites like Amazon and POD publishers, suddenly all of these “suppliers” of product have access to a distribution network that never existed before!

        And who are those who are complaining loudest about e-book prices and greedy authors, etc? The users of these very services – especially fans of Amazon, and the artificially (and predatory) low-price for e-Books.

        Now, consider this from the user’s perspective, in an economic sense. They don’t want to read crappy, unedited books. But what are the measures they have to tell the difference? All they know is that the books of better-known and mid-list authors are too expensive compared to books of comparable length by unknown authors self-publishing. From their perspective, there’s plenty of supply!

        That’s why I’m suggesting that part of the problem lies with publishers failing utterly to communicate the value and benefits of their product offering over the “competition”. Whether true or not, if customers really believed that then they’d not be complaining so much – they’d think the higher price was worth the quality improvement over competitive offerings. The fact that a not-insignificant contingent of customers happens not to believe so is at least partly a marketing problem.

  5. I believe that ebook pricing, especially informational ones should be based on the uniqueness of the information and even the degree of benefit the information will produce.

  6. Marco Dano says:

    Do you realize, the greatest entertaining and the most “real” characters in movies are not real people.

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