The Argh Interview: Barb & Jenny on E-Publishing, Part Two

May102011

Jenny: Yesterday we talked about practical considerations, the things writers need to know to make author-originated-digital publishing work. But the thing that’s most interesting to me is the emotional reaction writers are having to this. The way readers feel, the way writers feel.

Barbara: Okay. Let’s start with that. Writers are absolutely exhilarated for the most part.

Jenny: You told me yesterday that I was envious, and I am.

Barbara: It has put a lot of the fun back in publishing for me.

Jenny: “Back into”? When was publishing ever fun?

Barbara: I used to think it was a blast when I first started.

Jenny: I hated it from the beginning.

Barbara: It was so amazing that I got published and people could buy my books and they PAID me to do this! I loved every bit of it.

Jenny: I’m not good with authority. “Change this please.” “No.”

Barbara: The cover worksheets, the author bio, meeting an editor.

Jenny: See all of that made me itch. I didn’t want the attention. I liked the money, though. I like working under the radar. One of the reasons I like my pseudonym.

Barbara: I’m Little Polly Sunshine most of the time.

Jenny: From now on, you are Polly to me.

Barbara: I’ll take it. LOL. There must be something dark we can call you, something growly.

Jenny: Meg used to call me Eeyore. “Yeah, I made the bestseller list, but my tail will probably fall off.” But enough about me. You seem so thrilled with everything you’re doing. Tell me about that.

Barbara: Rather than talk just about my own experiences, which I will, I would like to start with the fact that writers in general have very little control over the flow of their careers. So many things are just completely out of your control…the covers, the placements, the fact that something like a railroad accident or a bad weather January can kill your numbers. You’ve spent a year on a book, poured everything into it, polished, edited, etc, and in two weeks, the thing can be dead in the water and THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. Right?

Jenny: Yes, with reservations (g).

Barbara: I’m willing to hear the reservations.

Jenny: Publishing is a casino for us, certainly, but it is for the publishers a lot of the time, too. You just roll the dice. I’ve heard authors say that their publishers could have made them bestsellers if they’d wanted to, but I’ve never met a publisher who wouldn’t have made a bestseller if it could. So nobody really has that much control. But within what you’re talking about–lousy covers, placement, that kind of thing–I agree.

Barbara: It’s not about blaming publishers at all. I agree, they want us all to do well. What’s the point of buying us to let us fail? I think it’s possible you’ve had a wee bit more support in your career than the general run of writers. But anyway…

Jenny: I know I’m spoiled by SMP. Especially on things like editorial support and covers. I have an ideal situation. But SMP is not the only publisher I’ve worked with. I have scars. I was the one who threw a fit on the internet and called one of my publishers the Evil Empire, remember? It hasn’t all been roses over here.

Barbara: Right. It’s just not the same thing to be a NYT best-selling author with a massive fan base and the workaday writer that most people are. But you have had a lot more POWER than most, and that’s what I’m talking about.

Jenny: The other argument–not yours–that I have is with people who say that authors are powerless and the publishing houses hold all the power. As long as you can say, “No” and walk away, you still have power over your career. But if an author wants to be published at any costs, yep, powerless.

Barbara: The writer’s lack of power is what makes the digital revolution so incredibly appealing. It’s real power. You have a chance to genuinely affect the outcome of things.

Jenny: Yes. And that is exhilarating. I’m excited about it and I’m treated very, very well by my publisher.
I can only imagine what it’s like for authors with grievances. But I still say that my power came from my willingness to walk away. If publishers really want you and they know you’re willing to go unpublished rather than sign a contract you don’t like, that gives you all the power. The problem is that they have to REALLY WANT YOU. Which doesn’t happen all that often.

Barbara : This might be a side argument, but I think you’re speaking like a royal. It’s easy to say you’ll walk away when you know they’ll never let you.

Jenny: I walked away from HQ. Went without any publisher at all for nine months. And during that time I turned down three bad contract offers from other publishers.

Barbara: I remember. Because you knew what you wanted. I remember. I was there.

Jenny: I know. You were wonderful. Thank god for supportive author friends.

Barbara: It was bold and brave and I’m not discounting it. But things have been different since then, and most writers have not had that advantage. Which is why they are so empowered by indie publishing.

Jenny: But my point is, if my career had ended there, and a lot of people were saying it did, I still would have preferred that to signing a bad contract. All writers have that power. All they have to do is want a good contract more than they want to be published. My mantra has always been, “I don’t care if I’m published, but I’m passionate about being published well.” And as you say, that’s what the e-revolution is doing. It gives writers the power to choose to be published as they see fit, as they define “well.” Well, that’s one thing the e-revolution is doing. It’s doing a lot of things.

Barbara: I know an awful lot of writers who have had just rotten luck, over and over, and should have had more success than they have.

Jenny: Sure. A lot of this business is being in the right place at the right time with the right book. That’s not going to change with e-publishing.

Barbara: It might. I’m not sure it’s great for the industry overall, but I also don’t think it can be stopped. A lot of writers are out there swinging.

Jenny: I think author-originated publishing is good for the industry, actually.

Barbara: That’s not what I would have expected you to say. How so?

Jenny: I think that anything that upsets a long standing apple cart probably shakes out a lot of rotten apples. Not rotten in the sense of cheating and lying but just business practices that have been set in stone. Wearing away at stone like water on a rock doesn’t change things fast enough. But if something comes along and smashes it, you can pick up the valuable stuff and leave the rest behind. (Give me a minute and I’ll think of another metaphor to cram in there. Mix much?)

Barbara: Like the idea that all publishing must be based in New York City (an old fact I think is hurting the industry desperately at the moment).

Jenny: There are good reasons for that, though. Tell me why you think it’s bad.

Barbara: Not bad…just crippling. Manhattan real estate is horrifically expensive. We’re all on computers now…there’s no reason for agents to have to take a train into the city, or editors to have to go to the office.

Jenny: Ah. Good point.

Barbara: It would be much more sensible if they all worked from home and came in for meetings once a month or something.

Jenny: See, there I don’t agree.

Barbara: The computer industry is dumping real estate like crazy and people telecommute.

Jenny: Yes, but computer people aren’t book people.

Barbara: But why do book people need to be face to face?

Jenny: Because they’re book people, because they are in an emotional business. It’s not just balance sheets; that kind of thinking is what got publishing into the mess it’s in today. Books are about people, not numbers, and selling books is about selling emotion, not balance sheets. The social network in publishing is crucial I think.

Barbara: But isn’t it the words and stories that sell the books? I have never sold a book face to face. Social networking can be done online.

Jenny: I don’t think so. I think something is lost.

Barbara: The difference could mean the survival of some companies. Telecommuting as a part of the industry would be helpful.

Jenny: Yes, but not the editing and sales part. I don’t care if the lawyers and the number crunchers telecommute. They deal in facts. But I want my agents having lunch with my editors. I want my editors hashing out what makes a book appeal in person.

Barbara: There could still be gatherings on a regular basis. I don’t talk to my editor in person when she’s editing me. Why would they need their own expensive offices in the city to have lunch together?
They occupy these tremendously expensive buildings. That’s really old school.

Jenny: They need to be able to walk down the hall and talk to each other.

Barbara : Why?

Jenny: Because that’s how synergy happens.

Barbara: Why can’t they email each other?

Jenny: Jen walks down the hall to Matthew’s office and says, “I just thought of this,” and they sit down and hash it out. They stop by a bar for a drink on the way home and come up with something brilliant for marketing my book. It is not the same online. The synergy is lost. But I will give you this: Those horrific rents are part of the overhead problem, definitely. So move everything but editorial and marketing somewhere else?

Barbara: New ways of doing that would arise. That particular cost, coupled with the price of shipping books, is one of the things crippling traditional publishing.

Jenny: I agree. Plus warehouse costs. And of course the return policy for bookstores has always been insane, but there’s nothing that can be done about that now without destroying the bookstore business which is already reeling.

Barbara: And IMO, it’s one of the most difficult and most important things that have to shift. Indie skips over all of that. ALL of it. I would love to see traditional publishing benefit from the freedom of some of that, too. Again, we’re dealing with paradigm shifts, which are very, very difficult for people to manage. It’s hard to think outside of the ways we’ve always thought.

Jenny: Meanwhile, the light and fast author who is publishing herself in e-books moves like the wind with comparatively little overhead. It’s the British against the Spanish Armada.

Barbara: Laughing. Yes.

Jenny: And if you’re a writer who feels screwed over by the Spanish Armada, it must feel pretty damn good. I can understand the crowing some people are doing (not you, you don’t crow).

Barbara: I don’t feel screwed over by the Armada. I love it. I am a writer who likes to experiment, and this is a lot of fun. It’s west coast vs east coast, though I know you don’t like that comparison.

Jenny: I think there are differences between the coasts. I just don’t think it’s Harvard types vs free-spirits.

Barbara: Not at all. It’s flexibility vs old guard. One of the other things that’s so exhilarating for writers is actually having hard numbers.

Jenny: The numbers thing is huge. One of my royalty statements has numbers for the royalties, but not for the number of copies sold.

Barbara: Real numbers, every day. This book is selling better than that one by x number of copies. Why? If I shift the cover or tweak the blurb, will it change things?

Jenny: Oh, that would be fun. Hell, just royalty statements you can understand would be great.

Barbara: Plus, you know exactly how much money you will get in 60 days. For a lot of writers, that’s a kind of freedom we haven’t had in a million years. We have what Neal calls, “Advance addiction…”

Jenny: He’s right.

Barbara: We’re all strapped for cash about half the time.

Jenny: Well, so is most of America.

Barbara: But most of American gets paid every couple of weeks or once a month. Not every six months. That regular money is very freeing for some people.

Jenny: Depends on whether they’re on salary or commission. We volunteered to go into publishing and to be paid twice a year.

Barbara: Yes, we volunteered, but that doesn’t mean all parts of it are great.

Jenny: No, of course not. But print publishing can’t give that salary unless we agree to work for a salary instead of a cut of the profits. In print publishing, we’re not employees, we’re partners in a gamble. I agree that publishing ourselves digitally gives us something that regular publishing can’t, but it’s “can’t” not “won’t.”

Barbara: Not saying traditional publishing should be different, just pointing out one of the reasons some writers feel freer as indies.

Jenny: Right. Sorry. This is my emotional reaction to this, I think. I’m annoyed at people (not you) who are crowing that traditional publishing deserves this because they screw authors over. So I over-react.

Barbara: NONE of this is meant to be a criticism of traditional publishing! I say again: I LOVE my career, love traditional books and paper and the old way of doing things. I also think it’s fun to play with the digital model.

Jenny: That part I get. I want to try this with non-traditional projects. Just the thought of it is exhilarating.

Barbara: I hope that some of our play will end up helping the traditional model, too. (Which is a classically female way of dealing with change…I will go on a quest and find the answer and bring it back to the tribe, my people!)

Jenny: LOL. Yeah, our tribe could use some help. I think the traditional model is toast.

Barbara: It doesn’t have to be toast.

Jenny: I think it does. Not traditional publishing, the traditional way traditional publishing has published. I think the smart publishers are looking the e-revolution and saying, “Okay, saddle up, we need to change.”
And the hold-outs are looking at it going, “How can we control this?”

Barbara: I think so, too. Exactly. We all have to think in new ways (including new ways of creating synergy, maybe).

Jenny: Basically, my emotional reaction to all of this is Janus-like. On the one hand, I’m really annoyed with all the writers who are saying, “Yay, traditional publishing is dead and it deserves to be” while riding on everything traditional publishing has done for them and sending newbie writers into uncharted territory. On the other hand, I really WANT to drink the Kool-aid. I want to try this, it sounds freeing and exhilarating and fun.

Barbara: Maybe it doesn’t have to be either/or.

Jenny: Oh, absolutely. I’m like you, I want both. But I’m surprised by how emotional my reaction is to all of this. And how conflicting my emotions are.

Barbara: Most of the writers I know who have been extremely successful financially and critically with traditional publishing are having the same reaction.

Jenny: Usually, aside from a few rages over re-issue bookcovers, I’m pretty un-emotional about this business. I think it’s the unfairness of some of the comments about traditional publishing that got my back up. Not that we owe traditional publishing anything in the way of staying there if we can do better elsewhere, but the unfairness of claiming success as all your own when traditional publishing set it all up for you. At least, that’s what bugs me.

Barbara: The alimony angle. :)

Jenny: If you say, “Traditional publishing gave me my start, but I’m building on that start and making a lot more money this way,” I say, “Good for you.” But if you say, “Traditional publishing never did enough for me, and now I’m making a lot more money and I did it all on my own and you newbie writers can be just like me” then I think you’re a dick.

Barbara: Are people really claiming the success is all their own, though? I haven’t seen that. I’ve seen writers take backlist and repackage and republish it…their original work, and see it do better than it did originally.

Jenny: Not you, Barbara.

Barbara: Okay, no, I get what you’re saying.

Jenny: Oh, they absolutely have the right to make all the money they want off their backlists. It’s the sneering and the gloating that gets to me.

Barbara: If you are playing Pied Piper to lead people off a cliff, that’s wrong. Or at least clueless.

Jenny: And that crap about “legacy publishing.” I think a lot of it may be cluelessness. Or arrogance. I don’t think anybody is trying to shaft the newbie writer. But there’s a gloating aspect to a lot of this that is pure emotion. I’m not talking about the exhilaration. I’m good with that. Things are really exciting, people should be enthused about it. I’m talking about the people who are thrilled that traditional publishing is dead and are telling everybody to leave because the boat just hit this big iceberg. So people leave the boat, which isn’t sinking, and drown. I’m doing a lot of boat imagery today. I like the happiness part of this, the excitement, the new worlds opening up. That’s the part I want to try. I hate the mean-spirited gloating that puts really bad info out there to people who are trying to learn what the hell is going on.

Barbara: Fair enough. I tend to let it all just roll off my back. I used to feel so exhausted by the hysterical self-promoters, too, and that feels like the same thing.

Jenny: I think part of this is that I came to this whole conversation through somebody on the forums who said, “I read this blog and I can make millions if I self-publish my first book so I’m not going to bother with traditional publishing, it’s dead.” And several of us came on and said, “Wait a minute.” So that’s when I started to really research this. And to talk with you.

Barbara: Really? And yet, you just said that you think traditional publishing is toast, too. So….?

Jenny: No, no, I didn’t say traditional publishing is toast. I said the traditional ways that traditional publishing works, that system is toast. I don’t think the big print publishers are going anywhere, But the ones that are going to do well are going to change radically.

Barbara: Okay. That’s my feeling, too. I don’t see books dying. I do see some enormous change required. Every writer and publisher has to figure out where they will fit on the continuum.

Jenny: But some houses are still thinking it’s just another format. It is another format, but it’s going to eat their other formats and take dominance. So it’s an emotional thing on the publisher level, too. Do they see it as an opportunity or as something to be controlled? Are they embracing the new format or are they trying to protect their old formats?

Barbara: It is absolutely going to dominate. Eventually someone, probably Amazon, will give a cheap reader away and then everyone will have one. Just as we all have mp3 players.

Jenny: Actually, everybody probably has one now: can’t you read e-books on a laptop?

Barbara: Sure.

Jenny: More than that, they have a readership now that is used to reading on screens. It’s a shift for people of my generation, it’s the norm for kids in high school today.

Barbara: There’s a funny demographic in a subset of baby boomers that keeps them away from technology, as if it’s all part of The Man.

Jenny: Huh. I’m a baby boomer. I’m all over technology because it makes things easier. You’d have to be an idiot to stay away from computers because of The Man.

Barbara: But this is something I’ve observed a lot, and it seems to sometimes show up in publishing too…this weird suspicion about technology.

Jenny: Like those people who brag about not having televisions. As if that makes them better.

Barbara: Right. What, exactly, are you getting from that?

Jenny: Well, for them, a feeling of superiority. It’s that emotional component again. It screws up all the conversations on this topic. Not ours, of course.

Barbara: Which ties into….do you think people still have disdain for self-published books?

Jenny: I think that’s disappearing. For one thing, it’s a lot harder to tell self-published on the net. In the bookstore, the lousy production values always made the self-pubbed book stand out. Like bad teeth.

Barbara: Well, sometimes. I mean sometimes you can’t tell online.

Jenny: On the net, the covers can still hurt you, but it’s not as evident. You get a good online cover, nobody notices whether you’re self-published or not since nobody looks to see who published a book. So it’s a leveler there.

Barbara: My friend Barbara Freethy has done spectacular job of republishing and repackaging her books. I could not tell at all which were the originals and which were the publisher books.

Jenny: And with that kind of production, nobody’s going to check to see who published them. Nobody really cares who published them. They care about the quality of the book.

Barbara: That’s very true.

Jenny: And since you could often associate poor writing with poor production values, the self-published book was kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But not on the net. I think the production values are going to be where the stigma is.

Barbara: Except I can see right now that there are books with bad production value selling quite nicely at Amazon.

Jenny: Right. But we’re not talking about sales, we’re talking about self-publishing as a stigma. Once the perception goes away that a self-published book is self-published because the author couldn’t get it out there the “real” way, there’s no stigma. So if you’re self-publishing a wildly popular book, nobody is going to say, “But she published it herself.”

Barbara: That seems to be what Amanda Hocking did for the industry, all by her little lonesome. She knocked that wall down hard.

Jenny: Yes, she did. She’s an icon. A very smart, level-headed, incredibly hardworking icon.

Barbara: I don’t think that wall exists anymore, honestly. People are choosing books according to their tastes and desires, browsing around for new things.

Jenny: Plus there’s the big emotional plus for readers of being able to read what they want RIGHT NOW.
Browsing an almost limitless selection and getting it immediately.

Barbara: That’s HUGE. I’ve found it to be my downfall in terms of spending money on books. I buy on impulse constantly…but I’m also reading a lot more than I was because I’m buying what I want to read today, not maybe next month when I get to it.

Jenny: Instant gratification. It’s all part of the emotional whirlwind that’s e-publishing right now. I really do believe that the most important thing right now in understanding what’s happening is the emotional component. For writers, for publishers, for readers.

Barbara: We’re in a better place, too, than music was a few years ago. We’ve seen what happened, how that industry was transformed, and that it will happen here, too. So how do we work WITH it, rather than against it? (I buy a LOT more music than I once did, too, because I can buy a song or two and it feels like I’m not spending that much.)

Jenny: Me, too. I think what publishers and writers have to do is strip the emotional reactions out of their calculations and decisions while paying attention to the reader’s emotional reactions. Because the business is driven by readers.

Barbara: This is a critical piece, absolutely.

Jenny: It isn’t what format is most highly regarded by publishers, it isn’t what writers are most comfortable with, it’s where readers are taking the market and why. Traditional publishing is something publishers understand, but if it doesn’t evolve, it is dead, so traditional publishing better update its traditions fast.

Barbara: Every big change brings with it both opportunity and loss. We have to keep that in mind and stay in balance. Enjoy the opportunities, but be mindful of the risks.

Jenny: Right. And don’t let the excitement of the new override the facts. The ramifications of the emotional are so important. One of the big ones is apparent value. How much is an e-book worth? That one’s giving traditional publishing nightmares right now. And the flip side, how much does discounting e-books hurt the apparent value of the story itself. You said there was howling when you priced at book at $.99.

Barbara: Well, a lot of traditionally published writers would like to form a band of “no lower than 7.99 or 3.99″ or whatever their particular price point is. But that’s not realistic. The publisher prices on ebooks are too high. Maybe they don’t need to be 99c, but some of my traditionally published books are on sale in ebook format for 14.99. Who would buy that?? This is pure capitalism. The readers are speaking. They are controlling the price points.

Jenny: There I agree with you. I think “too high” is an emotional reaction, though. To a certain extent.
I mean if the price point is too high, they don’t buy, absolutely. But there’s also the aspect of pricing the books so low that the readers expects e-books to be less and therefore values the form less. There is a real correlation between how much somebody pays for something and how much they value it.

Barbara: I just don’t buy that argument. ha ha. Maybe because I’m a value shopper and always have been.
Books have become ungodly expensive the past few years.

Jenny: Yes. Way too expensive. Which brings us back to overhead again. Because publishers are not making much profit even at those prices.

Barbara: There is a point that’s too low, of course. But I’m not sure how you keep people from setting low prices.

Jenny: Oh, you can’t keep people from setting low prices.

Barbara: But they have to find ways to be competitive in the ebook market, and currently, the prices are just too high. I don’t have answers. It’s just reality.

Jenny: Although there are some books I’d pay $14.99 in e-book format for because I WANT THAT BOOK. Emotional again.

Barbara: That’s true. I do that, too. I try not to, but I do it.

Jenny: I think the $.99 window has closed or is closing shortly.

Barbara: Closed? In what way?

Jenny: Some very smart people (like you) did it early when it could get you on lists and get high visibility.
But once everybody starts doing it, then there’s no benefit to anybody who doesn’t have a name to put you at the top of this list again. When twenty people were doing it, you could get the visibility of the bestseller list. When 20,000 people are doing it . . .

Barbara: Ah. Well, that may be true. I think mostly people think they are worth more than 99c and they think people will buy their books at a higher point. But you are probably correct, and that would be good for all of us. That’s too low, really.

Jenny: I could see it as a loss leader for a short period of time. “Buy my new X and get my backlist title X for 99.”

Barbara: I am more than happy to pay 4.99 for a book. It’s a reasonable price. Loss leaders…right. That’s the game. Giveaways and coupons, all that.

Jenny: SMP did a nice thing when Maybe This Time was coming out in hardcover; they put Bet Me up at $2.99 in ebooks to get new readers to drive to the hardcover. But when we asked SMP to give away the e-book of MTT for free for a week when the trade came out (buy the trade, get the e-book) and they said no because of the devaluation of the e-book format. And I think they were right. Because it would have made the trade seem like the “real” book. And the e-book like something they could give away for free.

Barbara: Hmm. Not sure I agree. I begged for that. Begged and begged and begged…wanted 99c price for Lost Recipe e-version, before HTBPL. They would not agree. They did not want to do it because it would hurt the brick and mortar stores. Which I get, too. In the end, I think all of us would have benefited…me, the brick and mortar stores, publishers.

Jenny: The perception is already out there that e-books are free to produce so why do they cost so much? The perception is that people are paying for the format and not for the work.

Barbara: That’s a good point.

Jenny: And too deep a discount on the e-book reinforces that.

Barbara: I keep saying, whatever format a book is published in, I will still have to take 6 months to a year to write it!

Jenny: For me, it’s closer to eighteen months. I’m slow. The thing is, the argument that e-editions are cheap to produce is beside the point. They’re not paying paper or ether, they’re buying the story. So what’s the story worth?

Barbara: What the reader will pay.

Jenny: Exactly. But what the reader will pay depends a lot on her perception of worth. If she thinks she’s getting ripped off by an e-book priced at $14.99 she won’t buy it. But what if she comes to think that $7.99 is too high? Because there are all those great books out there at .99? If they can publish those books for .99, why not all of them? It’s the emotional component.

Barbara: Well, what if she does? What can be done to change that? I’m not sure it can be changed.

Jenny: No, but it can be used. If none of my books are priced lower than $7.99 or $4.99, I can establish the premise that my books always cost that. That Crusie does not write $.99 books. You don’t want to pay more, you don’t pay more: don’t buy her.

Barbara: But will you sell any?

Jenny: Yeah, I will. Not as many as I would at .99, of course. Absolutely not as many. But enough that I’ll still make probably the same amount of money without devaluing my brand.

Barbara: That’s certainly one answer.

Jenny: BUT that’s because traditional publishing established my brand.

Barbara: Right.

Jenny: The thing about the .99 price point is that it was great at getting new readers when not very many people were doing it. And there are a lot of people who browse the .99 cent lists so it’s a way of getting new readers. But ultimately it’s a loss leader, and writers have to look at what it does to the perception of value of their books.

Barbara: It did work. And a lot of readers talk about 99c so they get excited. I’ve been seeing higher prices all around.

Jenny: I think $14.99 is dead in the water. But I’m not sure the .99 is really a smart move any more either. It’s that emotional component again.

Barbara: The bottom line for me, however, is that I’m absolutely practical. I’ll do what works, whatever that is. My prices are 2.99 for the most part on backlist. Frontlist is 6.99 and up (and those prices are set by my publisher. I’d like to see all but the newest titles be sold for 6.99).

Jenny: See, that pricing makes sense to me. I’d go 9.99 until the hardcover version is done and we move to trade paperback, but I think 6.99, 7.99 is the sweet spot.

Barbara: As an indie, I’m in control of moving that price point as I wish. I can raise or lower at will.

Jenny: I think I could go to $7.99 and still sell. That’s about my own cut-off point.

Barbara: I had this conversation 20 times over the weekend. Everyone can cry about the downturn of prices, but the fact is, a lot of books sell at the 99c and 2.99 price points. As long as they do, those prices will exist.

Jenny: I think that the people who are trying to protect the higher prices—the $16.99 and the $14.99—have missed the important thing here, which is that readers have already decided what they want to pay. People who are trying to preserve those price points are defending an empty barn.

Barbara: I agree. The consumer has already decided. Unless there is value added to the basic product, no one will pay more. I can watch as many movies as I wish on Netflix for 9.99 per month. I can buy a song for 99c.

Jenny: Plus readers have all those concerns about not being able to lend e-books out, about the platforms disappearing like Betamax, about the theoretically low cost of production making the higher points price gouging. They don’t see e-books as just another format, they see them as a different format, with different pros and cons.

Barbara: Something always shows up to replace the outdated form.

Jenny: On that poll I put up on Argh Ink, only 3%, 12 people out 422, thought $12.99 was a fair price for an ebook.

Barbara: VERY telling.

Jenny: The poll asked “What’s a fair price to pay for an e-book?” Which I think turned out to be “What’s the most you’d pay?” The big winner with 204 votes out of 422: $6.99- $7.99. Or mass market prices, basically.

Barbara: Did you discover what they usually DO pay?

Jenny: Only anecdotally in the comments to the post because actual buying depends on the book. For somebody eagerly awaited, like Pratchett, they’d go higher. For a new author, they’d go lower.

Barbara: And how many people said $3.99 or $2.99?

Jenny: 37% or 157 votes. But I left out $4.99 to $5.99 and some of the said they’d have gone for that so it was really $2.99 to $5.99. I should never write polls.

Barbara: I suspect that’s a bit skewed, honestly. The numbers I see in practice are pretty insistent.

Jenny: What are they?

Barbara: That 2.99 is great, but 99c moves books insanely. I’d love to push the price point higher, but the market won’t tolerate it (at least from me), at the moment.

Jenny: Of course, my sample was skewed. It was people who read my blog, and most of them are fairly passionate readers. 3% said 99 was a fair price. 11 votes. But I think the low number means that most of them felt authors should get more, not that they wouldn’t be delighted to pay that. Which is why I think the answers were really, “What the most you’d pay for an e-book?” Because I’m pretty sure they’d ALL pay .99.

Barbara: A lot of the 99c readers are the people who once haunted used bookstores and bought books used because they are such passionate readers they wouldn’t be able to afford their habit any other way.

Jenny: Right. And I have my own bias. I didn’t even put $14.00 or $16.99 on there as a choice because I thought those were insane. But that’s what some of my books are going for.

Barbara: Some of mine are, too. Crazy.

Jenny: And then you get to the question of length. One of the exciting things about this is that you can publish short fiction this way. But how much is a novella worth? How much is a short story worth? : I don’t think I’d put out a short story by itself. But a collection of shorts, that I might do.

Barbara: It goes back to “what will readers pay?”

Jenny: Is $2.99 too much? Too little? Some of them are flash fiction. A thousand words. Some of them are really long. 10,000 words.

Barbara: I think the answer is that we all have to experiment and check it out. See what works. What flies? What doesn’t? I’m not sure length matters as long as you label it a short story. It’s not that we are ever paid by the word.

Jenny: But I think people see value in length.

Barbara: Meh. I’m not sure it matters that much.

Jenny: Of course, I’m guessing here; you’re the one with the real world experience.

Barbara: It matters whether it is a full-length novel or a short story, but not a short short story and a long short story.

Jenny: Nobody in NYC is interested in short story collections because they don’t sell, which is perfectly understandable. But on the net . . .

Barbara: That’s the great beauty of this process. It’s thrilling to sell books to the people who want that specific reading experience.

Jenny: Or to be able to write a novella and get it out there without worrying about finding two more to make a book.

Barbara: It’s thrilling to be successful selling directly to readers of a certain ilk, like the medieval readers who have been underserved in recent years. There were markets for that long ago but not so many now. Or any.

Jenny: Or, for me, to show people the stories I wrote to prep for a novel.

Barbara: What a great idea!

Jenny: Or the story I wrote for SMP as a prequel to Agnes that was rejected because it was too violent. I understand completely why it was rejected, but on the net, I can put a violence warning on it, and put it out there.

Barbara: For me, it’s a chance to play around in any number of ways. I have always liked playing in many sandboxes, and e-publishing makes that possible. It makes my brain feel alive and real to be able to dance in the middle ages, then in the kitchens of the present, and maybe offer a collection of my columns on writing. I can differentiate the brand to offer all of them.

Jenny: And to not worry about how many copies are sold. About earning out. That’s so freeing creatively.

Barbara: About earning out. That’s the anvil always hanging in the air. Mass market means a book has to have mass appeal, which means somehow hitting somewhere in the middle ground usually. That’s never been my strong suit.

Jenny: You’ve really talked me around on this. Which almost never happens with anybody (g).

Barbara: It would have surprised me if it had not appealed to you, the artist. The business woman is nervous, understandably, but the artist is doing backflips. How could she not?

Jenny: Fortunately, I’m not the business woman. That’s Mollie. And she’s all for it. Very excited.

Barbara: Yes, I’ve spoken of my support team here. :)

Jenny: I was really burning out, seriously thinking about quitting.

Barbara: That happens so much!

Jenny: But now I can do non-fiction, story collections. a book on collage, anything I want. It’s not that SMP isn’t endlessly supportive because they really are. It’s that they can’t support what they can’t sell. It’s business.

Barbara: This discussion has helped you imagine ways to write for the joy of it?

Jenny: Talking with you really helped me break through that “It has to be a novel” wall I was beating my head against. I don’t fault SMP for not wanting to buy what won’t sell, that’s just common sense. But all of a sudden there’s a place for whatever weirdness I want to do. And I think it’ll lead me back to the joy of writing novels, too. We really need that variety of creative experience, I think, but when you’re writing to pay the electric bill, you get focused on what will bring in money. Tunnel vision.

Barbara: I don’t fault any of my publishers for not wanting all of my various projects, either. I mean seriously, A Bed of Spices sold 11,900 copies. That’s a losing proposition for a publisher, but I have no doubt it will eventually sell that many copies by the end of its lifespan in ebooks. It will just happen over a long period of time. Which is okay. That avenue is available because the book doesn’t occupy physical shelf space. It doesn’t have to be moved out of the way to make room for the next wave of novels.

Jenny: It’s actually better, the book with legs, rather than the book that hits and disappears. I want all my novels at SMP. But self-publishing opens up a huge creative playground for me. As long as I don’t damage my brand, I can do anything I want.

Barbara: This is one of my pet subjects, as you know. That writers are creatives and we need to have space and room to let our passions fly all around. Not all projects are viable, but if we can’t play in any way, then we get stuck and cranky and unable to move forward.

Jenny: Yes.

Barbara: I also want the experience of writing for Shauna at Bantam and growing as a writer, because every time we do a book together, I grow. I learn more about my craft and the way readers read. I love the entire team at Bantam and they’ve worked very, very hard to get my books into the hands of the readers who love the books.

Jenny: Yes. I’m a better writer because of Jen. MUCH better. The thought of writing an entire novel without her . . . not going to happen. Let alone PUBLISHING a novel without her. That would be dumb. But these weird-ass projects that I want to do? Absolutely.

Barbara: I have four desires for this revolution. The first is that all the major publishers hire some computer geeks and pattern watchers to figure out how to price ebooks and keep up with that trend.

Jenny: Yes.

Barbara: The second is that publishers, writers, and brick-and-mortar stores can all figure out ways to be proactive and face into the change instead of shying away from it so that we can all thrive.

Jenny: Yes.

Barbara: The third is that five years from now there will still be many paper books, and everybody will also have a reader.

Jenny: I think your third is a given. Maybe not readers for everybody, but for the majority of book-buying readers.

Barbara : The fourth is that lots of writers will play and play and play, just to find out what gives them joy. That’s going to give ME some awesome books to read.

Jenny: That’s the exciting part, the good emotional part, watching the amazing stuff that’s going to come out of the revolution. New ways to write books, new ways to structure books, interactive stories, animation . . .

Barbara: Voice overs, holograms (I talked with a woman who is working with that technology..OMG!)

Jenny: I feel the way I felt when I moved from an electric typewriter to my first Mac. (Yes, I am an old.) All of a sudden there are all these POSSIBILITIES. It’s a brand new world for everybody in publishing which I know is causing a lot of trauma, change always does, but for writers, it’s more exciting than anything else. I don’t think it’s the Perfect Solution Writers Have Been Waiting For, I don’t think it replaces print publishing or that print is dead (and if one more person tells me I write Dead Tree Books, there’s going to be blood on the screen), but is this an amazing opportunity for creative people everywhere? God, yes.

Barbara: There has never been a more exciting time to be a writer, not ever. It’s the wild wild west, and anything can happen. I’m planning to find ways to enjoy all of it.

Filed in Interviews, Publishing

68 Comments to 'The Argh Interview: Barb & Jenny on E-Publishing, Part Two'

On May 10, 2011 at 3:32 am BarbN said...

wow, fascinating. Thanks for sharing it with us. but: I have to say, my head came up, ears perked, eyes bright… an Agnes short story?? really?? *happy dance*

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On May 10, 2011 at 5:23 am Katie said...

Ditto. I love Agnes.

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On May 10, 2011 at 7:06 am Mary Stella said...

Brilliant discussion again. Thank you!

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On May 10, 2011 at 7:07 am C.J. Archer said...

Another great post, Ladies! Emotions are certainly running high on this issue for anyone involved in the book biz, but I think a lot of it boils down to fear and maybe jealousy. Fear of what the publishing landscape might look like in a year, five years or 10 years. You can smell it at conferences and on blogs. It’s human nature to be afraid of the unknown, especially where careers and money are involved, and indie publishing is still one very big unknown. So much has changed so quickly and it doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon.

But jealousy too from authors who’ve done the hard yards, did the rounds of agents then editors etc. I’m finding authors who’ve recently signed contracts are the most vocal in their anti-indie stance. Those with backlists, like Barb, are excited again and I love that.

I dont’t want publishing houses to die. They are filled with talented, savvy professionals. Actually I don’t think they will die but I do think they’ll change. It’s a system that is only working for a few authors, those at the very top of the tree whose books consistently hit the bestseller lists. Publishing can live off these rare few but I think they’ll now look to the indie bestsellers and skim off the cream, a la Amanda Hocking, to find them. They’ll take fewer and fewer chances on the unpublished slush pile. There’s nothing wrong with this. It makes sense to give contracts to known bestsellers. But publishers will also have to learn about pricing, and experiment the way indies are doing. I love your poll on this, Jenny, it’s very informative.

Self-publishing is not new but the ability for authors to make money off it with only a small upfront cost is. The dust is still settling and will for a while yet. But I believe price points will sort themselves out, the broo-ha-ha (how do you even spell that?) will fade and big publishing companies will survive, albeit differently somehow.

I for one am excited that talented authors with great stories to tell will find their audience. As a reader, there aren’t many books on the bestseller lists that I enjoy (present company excepted of course) so I love trying new authors and books at reasonable prices, prices that won’t make me regret taking a chance if the book turns out to be a wall-banger. It’s brought back my enthusiasm for reading and writing. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

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On May 10, 2011 at 8:07 am Nancyf said...

My daughter is just finishing her masters in English lit and her speciality is post modern. Recently she was showing me some of the new work being done with interactive hypertext books (she describes them as a book written like a wiki article) The examples she had were still basic, but I could immediately see the possibilities for a whole new speciality genre where books become even more of an interactive experience. (the children’s book market is already using this sort of thing with read-along books) Just think if the character finds a map and by holding your mouse over the spot you see the map….yes this is really just an illustrated book, but add music or the recipe (in a book like many of Barbara’s) An author could create images and include value added information to the story.
I don’t think every book could, or should be like this, but it opens up lots of artistic possibilities.

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On May 10, 2011 at 8:57 am Naked Under My Clothes said...

1. I love how you guys discuss this — all aspects are on the table, you keep talking, you disagree, you say “oh yeah didn’t think of that,” it never gets nasty. Thanks for showing good discussion!! So refreshing!

2. I have been telecommuting as a writer and editor (including writing markety things) for nearly 12 years. I would have said “meh, don’t need to meet in person,” because it didn’t feel necessary and I loved the independence. But recently I edited a book close to a client’s heart. I met with him initially to make *him* more comfortable with *me* but I found it incredibly helpful to *me* to have met *him.* I worked with much more confidence and did much better work. The finished product is better and I feel more attached to it, which makes me better at recommending (not officially selling, not my role) it.

So yes, I agree that informal “hey, what about this?” contact among editorial and marketing can be useful. It builds connection to the project and each other. Ideally, people would be able to meet physically, or not, depending on project, personalities, weather, career goals, etc.

3. Wouldn’t a short story collection be the lit equivalent of a music “album” or “CD” on iTunes? People could buy a single or the whole collection. Sample one, go back for more.

4. I love watching you guys toss around ideas for ways to make the change in the business model work for you. Any change is an opportunity. When creative people use an opportunity creatively, we all benefit, whether your creations fill our wells or inspire us to create our own things.

Thank you so much for sharing the conversation!

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On May 10, 2011 at 9:12 am Trish Morey said...

She wrote, She wrote wrote: “Barbara: But most of American gets paid every couple of weeks or once a month. Not every six months. That regular money is very freeing for some people.
Jenny: Depends on whether they’re on salary or commission. We volunteered to go into publishing and to be paid twice a year.”

Volunteered? – maybe fell into it – me, I just wanted to be published. When that call came from a print publisher after several long years, I didn’t quibble about payment terms, just publish me, please, because while it was such a joy, it was also such a relief. Sad, but true, which is probably the case for a lot of us.

But my question is, how long do you think print publishers can hold onto the antiquated six monthly royalty payment system – something designed in the days of pen and ink when it took an age to assemble figures and count them up. In this day of computers and POS, why can’t print publishers move to at least quarterly statements?

Should we be asking for it? Even demanding it? It’s one way traditional publishers could move closer to the epublishing model, distributing royalties more frequently. I can’t see any reason why this hasn’t happened already. Is there one?

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On May 10, 2011 at 11:16 am Jenny said...

It’s not just counting the books because book stores can return anything they don’t sell. So if the pubisher ships 100 copies of my book and pays me the royalty on that, and then four months later the bookstore sends back 90 copies, I owe my publisher a lot of money. If the bookstores couldn’t return, the publishers could pay faster, but if the bookstores couldn’t return, they wouldn’t order as many which would mean people looking for the book and not finding it. Also at this point, that would pretty sign the death order for bricks and mortar stores.

Publishers are still getting books returned a year later, so six months out is a pretty good compromise. Plus, if the advance is calculated correctly, you get all your royalties up front. Remember the publisher is giving you that advance before it’s made a penny on your book.

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On May 11, 2011 at 9:35 am Trish Morey said...

“Plus, if the advance is calculated correctly, you get all your royalties up front.”

Yeah, I remember you saying that in Sydney a few years back. Still working on that one.

Good point about returns. Admittedly I was thinking category, which of course is only one part of the market, but still true, stuff does dribble back at odd times. Not that I’m convinced they couldn’t manage quarterly if they tried/wanted to.

Great blog. Thanks to you both.

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On May 10, 2011 at 9:13 am Katie Redhead said...

I’m not a writer/not in the industry, but this topic seems to be cropping up everywhere. I heard it on NPR this morning and thought of you all:

http://www.npr.org/2011/05/10/136144912/publishers-navigate-the-open-road-of-e-books

Very interesting segment

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On May 10, 2011 at 11:20 am Mary Stella said...

Barbara, have you heard of BacklisteBooks.com? It’s a site/community started by author Patricia Ryan where readers can find authors who have put their backlists up in electronic format. Reasonable annual dues for the authors!

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On May 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm Estara said...

And for the fantasy and sf friends there’s the backlist – and occasionally new book – of quite a lot of writers at Book View Café. I highly recommend them, too.
My favourites are Judith Tarr, Sherwood Smith, Vonda N. McIntyre and Katharine Eliska Kimbriel but I keep finding other interesting writers in the genre there – and they don’t just publish sf&f either.

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On May 10, 2011 at 1:57 pm Electric Landlady said...

A similar idea is Book View Cafe: http://www.bookviewcafe.com

Basically, an author co-op for e-books, and a great way of getting neglected backlists out there to readers who want them.

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On May 10, 2011 at 3:11 pm Mary Stella said...

Oh, thanks for the reminder. I heard about Book View last fall at the NINC Conference but it slipped my mind!

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On May 10, 2011 at 11:34 am RK Charron said...

Thank you for letting us eavesdrop on your conversation!
Very illuminating & interesting.
All the best,
RKCharron

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On May 10, 2011 at 12:42 pm Gray St. James said...

There’s an Agnes short story? A prequel? Does it involve the flesh and blood Dr. Garvin?

I would definitely pay money to read that at some point!

I don’t have much to contribute to the over all discussion at this point, but I want to thank you both for having it and publishing it in a public place. I’m a reader who just made the jump to digital last year (love it) and a writer who’s just starting to poke around this “getting published” thing (terrified of it) so all of this is EXCELLENT information and it’s great that you’re including the perspectives of writers, readers, and publishers. Looking forward to part 3!

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On May 10, 2011 at 3:13 pm Jenny said...

The Agnes story is about Agnes and Lisa Livia as they graduate from high school. Agnes is headed for college in Ohio. Lisa Livia just found out she’s pregnant. It’s called “Agnes and the Boyfriend.” And yeah, we’ll probably publish it digitally eventually.

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On May 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm Caryn said...

(bouncing at the thought of Agnes and the Boyfriend)

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On May 10, 2011 at 12:54 pm Carrie said...

I would buy a collection of Crusie short stories in a heartbeat (e-format or not). It would be AMAZING to get a glimpse into the more-or-less-happy-as-long-as-you’re-not acting-like-an-idiot, after-the-fact lives of my favorite characters. A sorta Crusie take on happily ever after.

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On May 10, 2011 at 3:14 pm Jenny said...

Most of them were from events before the books or outside of the books. A lot of it was brainstorming for character. No sequels. Although I have always wanted to do a sequel to “Hot Toy” with the sister. I had the best time writing her.

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On May 10, 2011 at 4:11 pm Caryn said...

YES! The sister was fascinating in “Hot Toy”. So yes, anything with your characters that we already met would be snapped up. (Like Liza as a teen. What was she like then, before she was lethal in red leather in Bet Me?)

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On May 10, 2011 at 12:58 pm Slave Driver said...

Thank you for an awesome discussion. For me price point is very important in ebooks. Several years ago I read TLRFH (the dog on the cover sucked me in). Not having read any of Ms. Samuel’s historical, I bought Heart of a Knight because of the price (.99) and loved it. So I also purchased The Black Angel.

Because a book by Elizabeth Chadwick was free (The Greatest Knight) I downloaded it, and enjoyed her voice so much I purchased another by her and plan on buying more. Buying, I think, is the key here. And I’m more apt to stack-purchase 6 or 7 ebooks at $2.99 and under, expecting I will read them eventually, then impulse buy a $10 or $11 book. I’m tight, and it takes a lot of draw to squeak $14.99 from my e-fist. Especially if it is something I can borrow from the library.

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On May 10, 2011 at 2:57 pm Barbara Samuel said...

Thanks for letting me know that! (And there are dogs aplenty in all the books, I noticed! Both Heart of a Knight and A Winter Ballad have important dogs. :))

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On May 11, 2011 at 3:09 am Slave Driver said...

I was actually advised by friend and fellow URWA member/ writer RaeAnne Thayne about your books being on sale. She steered me towards HoaK. Our loop gets a little chatty sometimes, especially when we see a deal. She also advised us when Fiction Writing for Dummies was free and also Do The Work. RaeAnne is like a German shorthair sale pointer.

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On May 10, 2011 at 12:58 pm Kayl said...

I’ve been lurking and reading this series, and the earlier posts about ebooks, and I want to comment on pricing. I understand the gear about devaluing a book, and books as a whole, by pricing them too low. And of course I understand that books cost more than just the paper they are printed on. But it is a fact that ebooks *do* cost less to produce than paper books. Say a book costs $10 in the store, and say $3 of that $10 goes toward paper, binding, shipping, storage costs, etc. That leaves $7 to pay for the author’s work, the editors and graphic artists and marketers and typesetters, etc, and to give the publisher a profit when it’s all over. When I buy the ebook, I just saved the publisher 30% of his costs. That’s what I’m thinking when I buy an ebook. (You could even go so far as to say that Amazon and I have absorbed those costs ourselves. By purchasing the Kindle, I provided the physical materials; by providing servers and 3G wireless, Amazon has absorbed the distribution/shopping costs.)

Now I just made those numbers up; for all I know the math is completely different. But I think it works as an example. So when I see the publisher asking the same price for the ebook as the paper book (and sometimes you see ebooks priced even higher than paper books), I see the publisher as being greedy and expecting that extra 30% in profit for doing nothing.

I will admit that I’m also just generally getting fed up with content providers trying to get money from me for nothing. This isn’t the fault of book publishers, but it’s the market we’re in right now, and they have to take it into account, even if it isn’t fair. And they haven’t done much to win my trust in that regard. The fact that they now want to sell public libraries ebooks that expire after so many checkouts, the fact that prices went up when Apple entered the market instead of down (as would generally be expected when competition increases), the fact that ebooks are sometimes more expensive than paper books, the fact that publishers have fought for control of pricing and want to dictate to online retailers what they can charge in their own stores… All of those things leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I don’t expect ebooks to be free. I am more than willing to pay a reasonable price for the author’s work and the costs incurred by the publisher. I guess I just don’t trust the publishers to tell me what that reasonable price should be.

(Apologies for any typing errors… Wrote this on my phone ;))

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On May 10, 2011 at 3:18 pm Jenny said...

The paper costs on a hardcover are about $1.50. Less on mass market. And e-books already cost less than paper; my hardcover was priced at $24.99, the e-book that came out at the same time was $16.99.
But in this case, facts don’t matter, perception does. And the perception is that e-books cost practically nothing to produce, so they shouldn’t be expensive.

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On May 10, 2011 at 9:53 pm Kayl said...

Does that cover all the costs of a paper book– printing, binding, shipping, storage, bookstores returning copies, etc– or just the actual paper materials? The other $22.50 goes toward the author and the publisher’s intangible expenses? (I’m not trying to be argumentative, I genuinely have no idea.)

Also, MTT may have been priced significantly cheaper as an ebook, but it isn’t hard to find books that aren’t. I went to the “Bestsellers” section of the Kindle store and found a couple on the first page. Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed is $7.99 in both Kindle and MPP. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is $9.99 for Kindle and $8.67 for paperback. (A disclaimer: the MPP appears to have been discounted by Amazon, so maybe that doesn’t count. Although the fact that publishers dictate prices and Amazon can no longer discount Kindle books when they see fit is another sore spot with me.) George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice is $8.99 for Kindle and MPP, with no discount from Amazon. Even if the paper costs in a book are minimal, they certainly can’t be $0. And it’s examples like that that make readers distrust publishers and feel “gouged” by ebook prices.

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On May 11, 2011 at 12:38 am Jenny said...

Okay, look at it this way.
The publisher has to pay rent and utilities: same cost for paper and digital.
He has to pay editors to acquire and edit: same cost for paper and digital.
He has to pay marketing and PR to sell: same cost for paper and digital.
He has to pay the bookstores a percentage of the cover price (usually 40%): I think that’s about the same cost for paper and digital.
And then he has to pay $1.50 to print the book and whatever he has to pay to get the book digitalized which I’m willing to overlook for the sake of this argument.
Since all the other costs are equal, he should drop the price of the e-book by $1.50 because he’s not paying for paper.
My hardcover cost $24.99 (I think). The e-version that came out at the same time cost $16.99. Eight dollars less. And people still bitched that it was too expensive.
It’s not about the paper. It’s that people think e-books should be cheap.

Or look at it this way: When you go into a bookstore, you don’t look for the cheapest paperback. You look for the best story. If there are two good stories and one of them is cheaper, you might go for the cheaper one, but chances are you’ll buy the story you want to read the most. Because that’s what you buy when you go into a bookstore: story, not paper. You know this logically which is why you don’t buy the cheapest book. But emotionally, you feel that the e-book should be cheaper, and since perception is reality, you feel ripped off, even though even at $16.99 you’re paying eight dollars less than you would for the print version. Even though I’m explaining that the costs for print and digital are virtually the same. It doesn’t matter. You feel that you’re getting gouged and that becomes the reality, no matter how many times I explain about publishing costs, no matter how many times Nathan Bransford does the cost breakdown. It just feels wrong to pay more than $9.99 for an e-book. Or $7.99 or whatever. E-books should be cheap.
And that’s actually okay since nobody is forcing you to buy the book. If you feel it’s too expensive, don’t buy it, paper or digital. People choose not to buy the hardcover every day for that very reason. Wait for the paperback. Get it from the library. Borrow it from a friend.
Just don’t expect the publisher to work at a loss because one format of the book isn’t printed on a $1.50 worth of paper.

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On May 11, 2011 at 2:43 am BarbN said...

For me, the ebook price is always relative to the physical book price. I don’t think about a particular ceiling of how much I’m willing to pay for an ebook, just that I don’t think I should have to pay as much for an ebook as for its physical counterpart. $16.99 for an ebook that is only available as a $25 hardback is a steal if you ask me, but only if I was going to buy the hardback anyway, which I rarely do (I have two hardbacks of Jenny’s, though). On the other hand, 7.99 for an ebook that is available as a 7.99 paperback is too much.

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On May 11, 2011 at 7:30 am Jenny said...

Yes. That’s the general response to e-book pricing, even though you’re buying the same story.
It’s basic capitalism. Here’s a story for sale; how much will you pay for it? And the buyer says, “I’ll pay $16.99 for a discounted hardcover but I won’t pay that for trade paperback and $8.99 is way too much to pay for mass market, and I’d never pay over $5.99 for a e-book.” It’s the same chocolate bar in different wrappings, but every wrapping has a different price depending on that reader’s perception of worth. If somebody said, “I’d never pay over $5.99 for a Crusie,” that makes sense to me, that’s what my stories are worth to that reader. But to break it down by format doesn’t to me, especially pricing e-books the lowest. I’m going through my mass market library now trying to get a room ready to paint and a good half of them are falling into dust. From that perspective, paper should be cheaper than digital because it doesn’t last forever, the way digital does. Even your argument that you’ve paid up front for storage in that e-reader you bought breaks down when you look at it logically. When you add up all the bookshelves and bookcases I have in this house, I’ve paid at least five times that for paper storage.
But it doesn’t matter because the perception is that e-books cost little or nothing to produce and should therefore be cheap.

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On May 11, 2011 at 3:25 am Slave Driver said...

But most people who are purchasing a hardcover or mass market only have also not already invested $100 -$200 in a device to read those books. So while to someone else an eBook is $6.99, I have to expense that out along with the $200 my Kindle cost me to be able to read an eBook like a regular book. And while that $6.99 paperback cost $4.59 or so to produce, I think of the eBook as being produced in an alternate book-producing universe, so to speak. There are no shipping charges, storage fees, and no loss on returns. None of them will get damaged in transit, stolen off of the shelves, or have some slob reading it in B&N spill coffee on it and have to get marked as damaged. And while you might occasionally put them on sale, I’m more likely to purchase the odd .99 special, and if I like it, go back as soon as I’ve finished it (and since I work nights, in many cases for me it’s 2 am) order another backlist and start reading right away.

I still buy hard cover and paperback, but I lean way more towards eBooks either on sale or at a discount. Then again, I got eThe Hunger Games for $5, and paid full price for the other etwo because I wanted to know what came next.

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On May 11, 2011 at 7:20 am Jenny said...

Yes, I understand that the reading device costs a lot.
I also understand that the publisher doesn’t get any of that money.
It’s an emotional argument: “I gave Amazon $200 for this Kindle so St. Martin’s Press shouldn’t charge me so much for the book.” That’s like saying, “I paid $100 to Macy’s for this plate, so Kroger’s shouldn’t charge me so much for this steak.”
But it’s all moot because perception is reality. Nothing is ever going to dislodge that. Even with everything you listed, the paper book is not that much more expensive than the e-book, but people still want them to be much cheaper. And there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.

Edited to add:
This is from Bransford’s blog post that I keep linking to:

“Let’s start with your basic $24.99 hardcover, the most profitable format. Of that cost, only approximately $1.50 goes toward the paper, printing, and distribution and all the stuff that publishers save with e-books. Repeat: $1.50 out of $24.99. E-books just don’t save publishers gobs of money. “

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On May 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm Bethany (Cherry Clawed) said...

My desire to pay less for an e-book is something that came up on another post–the rights. With a physical book (with the exception of ARCs) I have the legal right (verified in courts) to sell that book to someone else. I can’t do that with an e-book so the book is more of a gamble for me. Plus, the rights aren’t fully established yet so it’s still possible for booksellers to do the 1984 thing and pull a book from your device. Even if they’re refunding my money, they’re not refunding the interest or my opportunity to have spent that money on something else in the meantime. Until my rights with e-books are the same as they are with physical books, I will consider e-books to be less valuable and needing a lower price. I don’t expect the publisher to work at a loss–I expect them to sit down and figure this stuff out and get some good laws in place establishing what my rights are in regards to the product they’re selling. I want e-books I own, not e-books to which I have a license.

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On May 12, 2011 at 11:19 pm BarbN said...

this goes further down, but for some reason the reply button has disappeared for the one I want to reply to, which is still about e-book pricing. I see your point– it’s the same story no matter what format it’s in. But if I’m online at Amazon, and I’m trying to minimize the amount of money I spend on books–which I always am, I spend WAY too much money on books, my house is completely overrun with books– and the ebook of NovelA is 9.99 and the trade paperback is 7.99, I’m going to buy the trade paperback. Or if the ebook is 6.99 and the paperback is $7.99, I’m going to buy the ebook. I just want that story, and because I buy so many books, I want it as cheaply as I can get it–not free, I’m not asking for freebies. I’m just saying that if there are several different options available, I’m going to pick the cheapest one. The digital format doesn’t matter enough to me to pay a premium for it. Mass markets do fall apart eventually, but I have several that are more than a dozen years old, and in that many years the Kindle is going to be outdated, too. I do understand that the difference in producing the ebook vs. the physical book is only a dollar or two, but it IS a dollar or two. This is rambling, and not an organized response. Just trying to explain my reasoning.

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On May 13, 2011 at 1:50 am Jenny said...

No, I absolutely understand buying the cheaper book. I probably would, too.

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On May 10, 2011 at 1:27 pm robena grant said...

Thanks so much for taking the time discuss this topic, and to share your thoughts with us. There is a lot to consider, but you’ve stirred up my adventurous side. Drat.

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On May 10, 2011 at 2:10 pm Meggrs said...

Jenny and Barbara, thank you both SO much for this enlightening series. Your perspectives are incredibly valuable and insightful, and I’m grateful to have been able to “eavesdrop” on this conversation.

Publishing is a big, scary world, and hearing from women who’ve been eyeball deep is very, very eye-opening.

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On May 10, 2011 at 2:35 pm heidi said...

I agree with what most are saying. I will buy a .99 without a second thought. It takes an awful lot to get me to spend 14.99. My biggest issue right now is many of the books I want are selling for LESS as paperbacks. I want the kindle version but can’t see paying more when the production costs should be so much less.

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On May 10, 2011 at 2:49 pm Shirley Hailstock said...

Great discussion guys. I didn’t know some of the info about Jenny, but we could be twins with some of the things we both did, like turn down bad contracts and go without a publisher. I think the self-publishing is going to help writers.

I have the rights back to books that I’ll be publishing myself. Thankfully, I’d learned how to use PhotoShop and can design my own covers.

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On May 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm Jenny said...

Hey, Shirley! Long time, no sit and chat. I’ll see you at National, right?

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On May 10, 2011 at 2:51 pm Cathy M said...

This was a great blog. Even though I’m not a writer or hoping to be, as a reader it’s great to hear from authors about their process and the business side of their craft. I think this is another great thing about the internet. Without blogs, only a limited number of people would ever have any insight into their favorite authors, let alone have the opportunity to give immediate feedback.

I think the whole publishing entity can be looked at in a Darwinian way. Organisms that do not adapt to changing environments become extinct eventually. I look at e publishing as just another publishing species that has arisen due to the change in our environment. As long as the traditional publishing methods adapt to new available technologies and grow with them, both should remain viable.

Thanks to you both for giving us your insights and for listening to your readers.

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On May 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm Mikaela said...

Re price: My personal cut off price point is 15 dollar. I might buy a book above that, but then it is an author I really, really like. ( Not that I have to do that often, one of the positive effects with living in Sweden is Kobo’s discounts.) I like e-books that are cheap, since it makes me try new authors. And if I get hooked on an author, I tend to buy all their backlist, and frontlist. :)

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On May 10, 2011 at 3:27 pm katyL said...

I’ve been following these discussions, and they’re great. Couple of questions, though.

You mention a short piece with Agnes that was rejected by the publisher because of violent content, then say you could potentially put that out in e-form with some type of violence warning–how does that work? And further on, you mention being able to pursue non-fiction e-books so long as they don’t affect your brand in a negative way–but would putting out a book with content the publisher thought was “too violent” undermine your brand? Maybe not for readers, but in your publisher’s eyes (which might affect your relationship with them).

I ask because I think this aspect speaks to another important consideration for all writers–branding–and how it’s handled by pros like you helps newbies like me learn.

Also, you talked about a renewed “writer” joy (so important) re putting out indie books and how you’d like to be part of it–but didn’t I read somewhere that you and Lani had decided to put out a PopD book as an indie e-book? Thought that was a great idea.

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On May 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm Jenny said...

Considering the violence in Agnes and the Hitman, the violence in “Agnes and the Boyfriend” is pretty much on par with that. I doubt I’d put a warning on it, really. I think the real problem was that it was going up on SMP’s website as a freebie, and it was too violent for that. For anybody just buying a Crusie, not so much. After all, we knew Agnes had long-standing anger issues that bordered on the homicidal . . .

Lani and I have outlined the PopD Guide to Romantic Comedy, but I don’t think either one of us has written a word yet. The nice thing about the short stories is that they’re already done.

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On May 10, 2011 at 9:11 pm katyL said...

Thanks for explaining. I loved Agnes. Although I only have iron skillets, so anyone getting on her bad side in my house would be toast! But, I thought of those scenes more as action than violence:)

And if you do go ahead with a PopD book, I hope you also include some analysis of more romcoms–especially some of the British ones that weren’t done yet but other foreign ones would be interesting too. I watch a lot of French movies and am always interested in the different sensibilities of foreign filmmakers. On the one hand, story is story, and on the other hand, the process of storytelling can vary. Be fun to look at some of that. Maybe as bonus material exclusive to the book.

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On May 10, 2011 at 4:07 pm Sure Thing said...

Thank you again. Emotions are a vital part of the business of books. Glad you discussed it.

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On May 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm Caryn said...

This has been a great conversation.

Plus a hidden bonus: Jenny: Or the story I wrote for SMP as a prequel to Agnes that was rejected because it was too violent. I understand completely why it was rejected, but on the net, I can put a violence warning on it, and put it out there. YES!!! I’d buy it in a shot. Personally, Agnes was wonderful but there wasn’t the edge I wanted because those characters required it I thought. So YES YES YES to Agnes!

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On May 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm Jessie said...

I almost never pay over $15 for a book, excepting art books because they all cost a fortune and I can’t even imagine why I would buy one as an ebook because I need large illustrations when I am trying to figure out what I am doing wrong or how to work out a color effect. And a lot of hardcover books I buy come from Costco – so I usually pay less than $15. The Costco component is important to small bookstores too. An owner told me that she bought her best sellers and a few other books from Costco because even though she was a speciality bookstore, people wanderede in wanting the top 10 or something to read in their hotel room and she could not get as good a deal from the publisher because she ordered so few as she could buying from Costco. So she buys from Costco and returns what she didn’t sell.

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On May 10, 2011 at 7:34 pm Jenny said...

Yep, for art and craft books, I want print with glowing photographs.

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On May 11, 2011 at 2:41 pm Jass said...

You can’t get better than e-format for descriptions of steps and detailed picture steps, especially with the ability to add a voice to read aloud while you follow the instructions, or resize the pictures for closer detail.

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On May 10, 2011 at 7:12 pm BellaBetty said...

My family gave me a tablet for Mother’s Day, so I have Kindle and Nook on it. First thing I did was scoop up the referenced .99 e-books. That price point got me moving! The only print/e format offering I bought as an e-book was less than MM edition at under $5. Guess I know what my price point is.

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On May 10, 2011 at 11:23 pm Anna/Irish Betty said...

I’m not a writer, don’t want to get into publishing, but as a reader, I’m really enjoying your discussions about the publishing world. For someone unfamiliar with the industry, it’s an interesting look into a totally different world! Thanks!

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On May 11, 2011 at 11:47 am Courtney Milan said...

Well, a lot of traditionally published writers would like to form a band of “no lower than 7.99 or 3.99″ or whatever their particular price point is. But that’s not realistic.

Not only unrealistic, but illegal. Don’t do this. If someone suggests it, tell them not to do it.

If you’re going to set your prices, set your own prices, but no banding together with other people. That’s called a cartel, and it’s price-fixing, and if you do it you might go to jail for ten years. DO NOT DO THIS.

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On May 11, 2011 at 12:25 pm Jenny said...

As was evident in the chat, neither of us is interested in doing anything like that, either price-fixing or trying to organize authors, since both are impossible.

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On May 11, 2011 at 1:21 pm Courtney Milan said...

I know you wouldn’t do it. That was a general PSA because I know a lot of people are reading this blog. I hear people say things like this all the time.

It’s a knee jerk reaction. The lawyer in me is hard to kill.

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On May 11, 2011 at 6:26 pm Jackie said...

I have the same problem with IT security issues. I just had a sudden image of Crusie and SEP chasing cats. (I don’t know what Barb looks like, so I made do). Obviously Herself has more sense. :)

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On May 11, 2011 at 4:29 pm Meg said...

Delurking here to say that, although your hardcover may be priced at $25.99, I’ve never paid full price for a hardcover. And hardcover bestsellers especially are generally up to 40% off in most of the larger bookstores. So I’m not sure thats a fair price point to compare your ebook version to, especially since a lot of the time the websites aren’t allowed to put it on “sale” for lower than the publisher lists it at.

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On May 11, 2011 at 7:43 pm CrankyOtter said...

True that. I can think of 3-5 books I paid full hardcover price for and that was because the author was in house, signing them at an indie bookstore with no 40% off capabilities. eBook pricing is not independent of published paper pricing to my mind. My price comparison for a new release hardcover vs. eBook is the 40% off price, which in this case is $15.60, making the hardcover $2 more, not $6 less. Plus, I don’t like hardcovers for reading, so I try to go with paperback or ebook, so my usual anchor pricepoint is the paperback. Yes, I’m willing to factor in time from initial release to paperback in my price point.

In the end, I’m buying story _and_ format _and_ the potential rewards of future ownership. If a pricier format has features I like, I pay extra, if it doesn’t, I don’t. If timing is a factor, I might pay extra or I might wait. If I wind up not liking the ebook format on a particular book, I feel I have less recourse, and less advanced knowledge that would allow me to avoid it. I also can’t turn it in for 25% at the UBS, or buy someone else’s ebook for 50% (yet). I also don’t have to pay someone to haul away a box of old ebooks… So ebooks are still settling out, price wise, but they’re still settling out technology wise as well. Until the path forward seems more clear, I think ebook pricing expectations will stay lower because of the lack of potential future rewards is viewed as diminished if not the cost of production.

Given that people who think of high numbers before an auction will bid more than people who think of low numbers, I think there are a great number of tricks available to get people to pay a profit-making eBook price that doesn’t feel too unfair. The publishers just have to maintain a stock with varied pricing which on eBooks may mean better or worse formatting and features, or could mean always tying it to the hardcover price.

The discussion on pricing keeps making me think of movie theater popcorn. I have bought a normal sized popcorn at a theater maybe 5 times in the last 10 years. I have no interest whatsoever in paying $4-6 for more popcorn than I can eat that I know for a fact cost them $0.20 or so to make it. If they gave me half the size for $2, I would probably get popcorn every time I went. (Actually, usually the kids package is $5-$6 for a v.small popcorn, reasonable sized drink, and some candy. I do buy that.) I can’t but help thinking they shoot themselves in the foot by charging a shocking amount more than I would ever pay and the extra volume they toss in isn’t actually a good thing. So charging too little when there’s a captive audience doesn’t make sense, but pricing out 80% of your market makes less sense. There has to be a place in the middle that appeals to the masses in addition to the hardcore fans (of either popcorn or ebooks), a price that can withstand the occasional loss leader pricing of $2.99 or less to hook a reader into a series or an author.

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On May 11, 2011 at 6:48 pm Jackie said...

The part of all this that really struck me was the part about telecommuting and publishing houses and IT and software houses.

That’s not working as well as some people say it is for IT. The fact of the matter is that good communication and interpersonal skills are as important to getting software written and systems in use as it is in many other fields. Despite the popular image of the lone geek with no people skills, the fact is that most software is created by teams. You know, with other people on them. Some of the work of programming is best done solo, but a lot of it requires a team and coordination with other teams of people with other talents. Some of them are even artsy types. Some of the programmers are artsy types. So while IT tries to spend a certain amount of time telecommuting, thet still need an office and connection to the teams they work with and for.

I am currently working for a contractor who works for the federal govenment. Not a techy, this time, just a clerk. But I am watching as the government going further and further toward telework for many of their employees. We have less and less office space and more and more conference space. But we still have both. And we still will need both because people work best with people.

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On May 11, 2011 at 8:59 pm Kaetrin said...

I totally agree with what Bethany (Cherry Clawed) said above. One of the problems is, I think, that publishers don’t necessarily see readers as their customer (and they should). Traditionally, they see the bookstores/retailer as the customer and that doesn’t serve the reader very well all the time.

I’d be happy to pay the same for an ebook if I knew I was getting the same quality in terms of the way the words appear on the page etc, (some/many ebooks don’t even have a cover picture) and that it was actually MINE and not a license type arrangement. If I didn’t have to try and get aroung geo restrictions all the time or DRM in order to read the ebooks I want to read. There is a reason my perception is that ebooks have a lower value. In many cases, they actually do. When the first letter of a chapter is on one page and the text is on another, that is the publisher telling me that they couldn’t be bothered putting time and effort into getting the ebook version to the right quality – that is them telling me they think it’s inferior. What doesn’t track is that if the publishers think it’s inferior (by not giving me a cover, by (apparently) not caring that the word flow and line breaks and page breaks are correct, etc) then why do they insist on pricing them higher than the paper versions? Either the product is inferior and should be cheaper or it is equal and should be equal in quality but it seems to me that publishers (and by publishers, I’m mainly referring to the Agency 6) want it both ways.

The other comment I had about the 2 discussion posts on this topic (which were really interesting, thx!) is that if a newbie/author is going to be really dumb and not do any research and only pay attention to the message “you can earn $$ if you self publish with almost no effort”, well, don’t they deserve what they get? Aren’t they the literary equivalent of the people who send money to the guy in Namibia to help him get his millions out of the country? Or the ones who’ll buy the Brooklyn Bridge on eBay? The idea that you can earn money for nothing is patently false. Good information is out there and it’s really not hard to find (some of it is right here in fact). I agree that people who irresponsibly put bad information out there should be hit on the head with something, in the same way that the con artist sending the Namibia email should be jailed but ultimately, people need to take responsibility for their own actions and do some research.

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On May 12, 2011 at 12:22 pm Jenny said...

“if a newbie/author is going to be really dumb and not do any research and only pay attention to the message “you can earn $$ if you self publish with almost no effort”, well, don’t they deserve what they get? ”

Nope.
Publishing is absolutely Byzantine in the way it works. There are people who have published twenty books and still don’t understand it, and you can see from all the posts about how much cheaper it must be to produce an e-book that very smart people don’t get it at all. For example, most people think that if you sign a contract for two books for fifty thousand dollars, you get a check for fifty thousand dollars. Most people don’t know that bookstores take at least 40% off the cost of each book and sometimes more. Most people don’t know that if you sign a contract to write a book, that book can still be rejected and the contract cancelled. I could go on here but the truth is very few people understand how publishing works. So the fact that this mythical author was actually searching the net for information puts her ahead of most other aspiring writers. At which point it’s the responsibility of people giving advice to actually give good advice, not lead astray those who are trying to learn.

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On May 13, 2011 at 9:53 pm Kaetrin said...

Clearly I don’t know anything about publishing! :) It does just go to show that any aspiring author would do well to get good advice and take some time to do good research before embarking on their publishing journey – it would be nice if only good advice were out there but I don’t see that happening in any other arena so I don’t see why publishing would be any different. Sounds like the starting point is that there is no free ride and to beware of hidden traps.

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On May 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm Jill said...

And then along came this http://www.acx.com/

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On May 14, 2011 at 11:59 pm Joleesa said...

I just read a very interesting and thought-provoking essay on e-publishing on Patricia Briggs’ website. I’ll try to post the link if anyone is interested:

http://www.patriciabriggs.com/

It’s on her main page. Very well done.

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On May 18, 2011 at 5:24 pm Christina said...

This is really interesting (and fun) to read, thanks for having such an open discussion.

About the reasonable price thing: At this point I do not have a credit card so I can’t buy anything online (Paypal is illegal in South Africa, do not ask me why), but I will be joining the card carrying group next week and then I will become very poor very quickly. I actually think $18 is a perfectly reasonable price to pay for a story irrespective of format. I would obviously be happy to pay less, but I don’t think I am ever going to get to a point where I would feel entitled to getting a book for less. It is never about owning a tree corps; it is about being able to read a story.

On telecommuting: There is no job where you would not be able to do a better job by having a face to face discussion about the job at hand with people who have experience and input to offer. Well, no job I can think of anyway.

I should maybe add that the normal price for a mass market paperback in SA is R120 to R130 which comes to about $18 and I can get books second hand for about R60 to R20. So $18 is normal and anything below $8 is a case of “score!”.

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On May 22, 2011 at 11:45 pm Anthea Lawson said...

Excellent discussion and comments! I’d like to expand on a couple of details:

HARDCOVER books cost $1.50 to produce. Mass market is actually considerably more expensive – but the idea for publishers is to print and sell a lot more, making up in volume for the smaller margin. However, it’s important to note that publishers EXPECT to pulp up to half of the print run. That’s right – anywhere from 20-60 percent of those books are going to be wasted, and that figures into the cost as well. That’s simply not an issue with digital books.

Mass market published authors get 8% of the cover price – and sometimes less. That 10-15% bandied about on some blogs? That’s for hardcover deals, which the average mid-list author will rarely see.

For many dropped authors and struggling mid-listers, it’s not about abandoning a ship that may or may not be sinking. It’s about pulling ourselves out of the frigid waters traditional publishing has already flung us into, and making our own lifeboats. There are undiscovered coasts ahead, and certainly treacherous currents (to flog a metaphor) but at least we’re not drowning~

As an author who was dropped after two books by a publisher who dropped MANY other authors at around the same time

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On May 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm Janette Harjoj said...

This has been a very interesting disscussion. Thanks for sharing, Ladies! :))

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