Saturday, June 21, 2014

Some thoughts on ebooks versus real books.

I tried to find a picture of me but couldn't on my phone,
so here is a picture of a hand in the glow of a laptop.
Scifi author Nigel Mitchel (Operation:Masquerade, which is really very good!) has a post up on his blog today talking about e-books versus regular books.  You can click here to go read that, and you should, but the infographic got me to thinking about some stuff.

First, if the production cost of an ebook is fifty cents, something I've pointed out a LOT in the past, why are ebooks $9.99 (or more?)  That's not always true, of course; I just checked on "Best Sellers" under Kindle and the current number 1 is The Fault In Our Stars, which is selling for $4.99 on the Kindle, but of the New York Times Best Seller list's top ten books right now, the cheapest is something called "Orphan Train: A Novel" at $6.99.

Assuming that by "production cost" you mean "Everything that goes into producing the book including paying editors, the rent on your New York office suite, etc.", and what else would you mean by "production costs", then Orphan Train: A Novel represents $6.49 pure profit even at 2/3 what everyone assumes is the rate a book costs.  (And what books would cost had Steve Jobs not gotten away with price-fixing between Apple and the Big Five publishers in a blatant violation of law that the US government is busily wrist-slapping).

Songs on iTunes are still $0.69, $0.99, or $1.29.  They have not fallen even though it is presumably far far cheaper to upload and maintain the iTunes database than when that service first began in 2001.  Book prices have climbed since Jobs' illegal price-fixing scheme was hatched (and worked) even though, again, it should be easier and cheaper to get a book onto Amazon now.

So why are books still $9.99? Is it because we will pay that for them? Is it because (as many suggest) the higher price suggests quality, so an indie author's $3.99 books suggest low-quality?

I ought to test that theory.  I ought to make my books even higher priced.  A while back, I raised them from $0.99 to $3.99.  I have not noticed any dip in sales (I don't sell many, no matter what) and I haven't noticed an increase in sales.  I wonder if I priced my books higher if people would think they aren't indie books?

One possible reason -- I'm just spitballing here -- is that publishers are afraid to mess with pricing because of Amazon, and don't want to become the next Hachette.  For that reason, indie authors (and readers) should be pulling for Walmart: When Amazon picked a fight with Hachette, Walmart began pushing ebooks.  Walmart probably has the muscle to take on Amazon, and it is currently searching for a way to attract higher-end customers whose wages are not stagnant.  Book buyers tend to be high-end customers (that's why Amazon started as a bookseller: Jeff Bezos wanted to build a store patronized by smart people with money.)

Another thing from that infographic: It says (in small print) that Kindle owners by 3.3 times as many books after buying a Kindle than before.  That's certainly true for me, and Sweetie? She buys something like 2 books a week.  (And yet, she says she's so busy taking care of the boys... HMMMM.)  Electronic books are good for writers and readers: They make it easier to buy and carry books (I've bought books at 11 at night and while sitting in a hospital emergency room, which says a lot about how much I felt it an "emergency" that I be there) and cheaper to do so, so readers love them.

Writers should love them.  If you produce something -- pumpkins, iPods, short stories -- and there is a gadget that increases consumption of that thing, it creates a market for you.

And yet, writers like Stephen King still try to stop the proliferation of ebooks, a move I chalk up to not so much disliking ebooks, per se, as disliking competition from other writers.

Finally, it seems the only argument left in favor of real books is "I just like the way they feel," which means that real book lovers are the vinyl aficionados of the literary world.  The only reason I think a "real" book should be made is if it specifically takes advantage of that form.  Pop-up books, large-scale photography or coffee table books, of course, and then books that use the 'real' format in intriguing ways -- like S, by JJ Abrams, which is only available in 'real' form but which has a pretty good reason for being that way.

Hey speaking of ebooks, I have the After available for just $3.99 (at least until I go price it like a
BIG 5 BOOK!), and it's been called 'a masterpiece of speculative fiction'. HONESTLY. That wasn't even me who said it; it was Michael Offutt, scific author!  CLICK HERE to go buy it.


  1. Thanks for the plug! I know I personally buy more books since I started reading ebooks. It takes away all the can't forget to bring it with you, you can read whenever you have a spare moment, and it won't get in the way. Oh, and people can't see what you're reading.

  2. I would like to make a long comment, but I just got back from 14 hours of softball and can't manage that. What I can say is that since I got an actual Kindle I have not purchased a single new e-book. Of course, that's because I'm trying to make my way through the 150 or so I already from when I just had it as an app on my computer.

  3. I have over 700 items in four To-Read collections on my Kindle. Most of those are samples; some are free or very cheap complete eBooks. Even if I don't read them all (I'll sometimes read and delete a few samples before I settle on one), it'll still take me years to go through them, yet I still download new ones. I like having a big selection to choose from, and you never know where you'll find your next favorite book.

    Some indie authors do sell better at slightly higher prices. I tend to sell the most when I have sales and promote.

    As a reader, I try not to buy fiction eBooks above $9.99; even at that level, it has to be something I really want to read. I got burned once paying $12 for Libriomancer. It was a good book, but not $12 worth of good, IMO, so I borrowed the sequel from the library instead. I will pay higher for non-fiction, however.

    King, Turow, Patterson, et al are promoting their publishers' interests. From their perspective, trad publishing works. They fail to realize they are the 0.9% of authors who benefit from the system. The rest of us are better off controlling our rights and cutting out the middleman.

    If you don't read The Passive Voice blog, I highly recommend it. You can learn a lot about publishing there, not just from the articles (which are sometimes clickbait from HuffPost and elsewhere), but from the comments.

    P.S. I couldn't help but notice you referring to paper books are "real" books. To me, eBooks and paper books are both viable formats with different advantages. The story is what's important, not the container for it.

    1. You're right about "real" versus "paper," Sandra. I guess I was thinking "tangible".

      I'll check out The Passive Voice.

  4. I find it a tad offensive to say the only argument for paper books is "um, I like how they feel?" It's about the same argument, really, for ebooks. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. To suggest only backward Luddites would consider sticking to the older format, which is the most common thought expressed in all these ebook posts (not specifically yours) is kind of tantamount to saying the whole world ought to be digital for, y'know, the convenience of it. And on that note, I will eat my digital food, go to the bathroom for digital waste extraction, and sleep digital sleep, and ---whoa! I just figured out I'm in the Matrix!

    But in all seriousness, I do find this kind of post funny (again, not specifically yours). I think indy authors in general love ebooks because in their mind it makes the process of selling their books so much easier when they can tell their potential readers that they can try something new and not really have to worry to much about it taking up space in the real world if they don't like it. Either the darn thing stays in the digital cloud or it can just be deleted.

    1. Also, I hate it that the arts are always the thing we shrink out of physical objects, when as far as I'm concerned they're the only reason we get to play with the idea of civilization anyway, the only best argument that we're not a bunch of Neanderthals. Why is it all those idiots who gleefully stole all that music fifteen years ago thought it didn't matter? That's maybe why ebooks cost so much, because someone figured out (among other things, besides grand old capitalism) that if you completely devalue a thing and expect it to still exist, you're going to get a lot of one and little of the other. You think it's hard getting respect now as an artist? Try living in a future where none of us at all get paid for doing this. Maybe that'll finally reduce the unnecessary clutter. But my point is, of all the things that should lead us away from the monetary leash, the arts should not be the first.

    2. I'll bite, Tony: what else is the argument for paper books?

      Food can't be digitized, and even if it could, food has a valuable reason for being tangible: the feel of food is important. I don't think I'd like pizza as much if it felt like goo. Probably I would, but...

      But for books, the feel of a book is rarely the point of it. Note that I said that physical books have a point if they have a point: "S" is a great example. And I'm not against physically crafting a beautiful book; I've started going to used book stores and buying vintage hard copies of books I love, because I like the way they look.

      But consider paintings: Is it important to see the Mona Lisa, or Starry Night, in person? That depends. Sometimes the physical size of an artwork or its 3-dimensionality is significant. Few would say the Sistine Chapel is the same when seen online as opposed to in person. But for many works of art, digital on a computer, or reprinted on a poster, is every bit as good as the original.

      You have to ask what the point of the physicality of it is, and if the point is simply "I like the heft of it," well, that's where I think it's silly.

    3. It's a heck of a lot more convenient to be able to flip around if you need to reference something, or just want to mess around, with a physical book, no matter how many fancy options they give ereaders. Ereaders make the same mistake digital music made in reducing the experience to only one level (reading the books, listening to "a" song, no matter how many you download). It's like going to a concert for an act and only hearing "a" song. Really? With something like a movie, because it's so much shorter an experience, you can easily sit through it in whatever format you choose (theater, home video of some extraction, a teeny tiny screen on your phone) and it doesn't necessarily change at all. I think the whole point of S. wasn't so much to prove how clever that book was, but everything that any book can do. In extreme personalizing of the experience, even if 99% of readers will only ever share their books with...themselves, it removes the generational appeal of the book. Take away the history of a book, and it becomes instantly disposable, so many electronic ones and zeroes, one step to meaninglessness, just a random series of words you happen to read in a certain sequence, that much more unlikely that you'll read the same thing as someone else (as if that isn't a problem already), or if you do, it'll be not the best but at best average material, or if the best, devoid of all the advantages critical readers theoretically enjoy in reprints of the classics with additional contextual material and commentary.

      Any of that good enough? Who buys an ebook other than to just read an ebook? Isn't that like saying you listen to music just to hear the notes?

    4. I disagree with you about the physical book being easier to look things up in. Physical books have no search function. If you don't remember exactly where whatever it was you need to find, you're stuck flipping through pages, which is cumbersome at best. Plus, with an e-reader, you can look stuff up that's not in the book without having to put the book down and go to the computer. I think e-books have a lot of potential that they aren't being used for, yet, because we still have in our minds what a "book" is.
      And, just to say it, I don't buy a physical book to do more than just read it. Or, maybe, I'm just looking at the individual letters?

    5. I'm with Andrew on that point about searching.

    6. I'm certainly not arguing that ereaders don't have their unique advantages. I'm simply arguing that it's nonsense to suggest physical books don't. To your point that it's arduously difficult to go back and reference something in a physical book...Really? The ease of a thing does not automatically make it better. Having a search function only applies if you know exactly what you're looking for (unless machines have become completely intuitive when I wasn't looking and hey! Skynet!). I suppose that works, too, if you bookmarked a particular passage in your ereader, but probably more often than not, the thing you want to reference isn't something you were thinking about until something you just read made you think about it again.

  5. I'm more willing to take a change on an unknown author on an ebook than a printed book. I save my print book purchases for authors I've read for years and display on my bookshelves. .99 to 3.99 is usually the ebook price range I look for.

    1. You're probably right in line with most buyers.

  6. The only reason to have a physical book is to put it on your shelf so people think you're smart. "I have many leatherbound books" or whatever Ron Burgundy said that Butler Blue III recently quoted on Twitter since I only watched "Anchorman" once and hated every minute of it.

  7. "Yeah, I know what you're thinking. What's this guy making such a big stink about old library books? Well, let me give you a hint, junior. Maybe we can live without libraries, people like you and me. Maybe. Sure, we're too old to change the world, but what about that kid, sitting down, opening a book, right now, in a branch at the local library and finding drawings of pee-pees and wee-wees on the Cat in the Hat and The Five Chinese Brothers? Doesn't he deserve better? Look. If you think this is about overdue fines and missing books, you'd better think again. This is about that kid's right to read a book without getting his mind warped! Or maybe that turns you on, Seinfeld; maybe that's how y'get your kicks. You and your good-time buddies."

    You can't draw weewees and peepees in an e-book.

    I'm not sure I follow you, Tony. The idea, as I understand it, for vinyl lovers was that they liked the 'authenticity" of the experience -- the crackle and hiss of the inferior recording. Stephen King put out his last book in 'paper' format first because he wanted people to read it under the covers with a flashlight or something (nevermind that with my Kindle I can read in a pitchblack room, Stephen King). Songs have always been available on single format; it wasn't until cassettes and then CDs came along that the single started to fade out (although album rockers like Led Zeppelin no doubt helped that in the 70s). The mp3 didn't invent the idea of a single. It just made it easier for people to participate in the music they love, like making playlists on the go and getting only the songs they like.

    I'm with Andrew: I think the potential for ebooks is only just beginning. Stuff like Prezi and the ability to synch in music, and videos, the way we can play with words on the page.

    I think "S" could've been an amazing book as an ebook, too. And as for looking stuff up, on my Kindle I can get the definition of any word I read in a book; I can share passages and make notes electronically and email them to myself, I can click through and search for references on the web if I have to. It greatly expands my enjoyment of reading.

    1. But the thing is, before radio (there was such a time!), people likely sat around listening to whole sets of songs rather than one song from a random artist after another. This was certainly different in specific circumstances. But again, there is time before slightly modern times to consider.

      Also, bringing up King again is pretty interesting, considering how you reference him in the article. You may or may not know, but King was among the earliest champions of the ebook format, all the way to the start of the millennium ("Riding the Bullet," 2000). To suggest that he's anything but is a bit disingenuous. All writers look for the advantages that will help them stick out. That's exactly why so many indy writers are clinging to the ebook format today. Although it's certainly odd to suggest the best possible way to stick out is to do...exactly what everyone else is doing.

      On a side note, I don't mean to come off as dismissively snarky. I seem to be inordinately passionate about the subject of ebooks, possibly because nearly everyone else seems to think that it's a foregone conclusion ebooks are the latest thing that's the best since sliced bread. It's ironic, because three years ago everyone really believed that ereaders were going to replace physical books the same way music and formats have evolved over the last several decades (as you reference), and the only reason why they weren't doing so more quickly was for strictly sentimental reasons. Except movies in particular are such a relatively new medium, and the widespread availability of recorded music as well, that they're much easier to translate into new technologies without losing much. To correlate physical books with the vinyl format that for some reason still persisting is like comparing, well, apples to oranges. They're not the same and you know it. One is a format that is still only a few decades away from everyday relevance (being vinyl records). They offer a unique alternative. People love them quirky alternatives.

      What I'm arguing is that ebooks are, at the moment, a quirky alternative. They're not the best and only viable format for reading. I sat through a seminar with Scott McCloud about the possibilities of digital comics, how they could easily break away from everything anyone had ever known about that kind of storytelling. That was more than a decade ago. No one has rushed into innovating comics in that way since, just the same fringes McCloud championed back then. At the end of the day, people don't want complicated. They want simple. Isn't that the argument you're making? That ereaders make everything easier? Except at the end of the day, they're just another way of reading. They're no different from physical books. Anything you can think of that they can do differently "or better" is just an add-on. Same for all my attempts to explain why physical books have their own advantages. What we're really arguing here is whether people want to read everything on a screen or not. Personally, I like to have alternatives. I don't want to do everything on a screen.

      And so my challenge to you is, why would I?

  8. Another Seinfeld quote:

    “What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they're trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?”