From old and probably unreliable memory, I recall a story from the night the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. The crew, realising the ship was in trouble, started launching lifeboats, but the passengers were largely reluctant to believe that the unsinkable ship could actually be sunk. Accordingly, the first set of lifeboats were largely empty. Unsurprisingly, as the ship continued to sink below the waves, there weren’t enough lifeboats to take the remaining passengers (indeed, IIRC, there weren’t enough lifeboats anyway.)
I mention this because of a response I got to my recent interview with Brady Dale, here. A commenter observed that high (eBook) prices benefited all authors and that selling eBooks through Amazon weakened regular bookstores. Big Publishing feels it’s better, he argued, to lose some eBook sales to maintain a competitive marketplace.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Now, when I read it, my first thought was that I was being asked to take a hit for the team. I can understand the value of working on a team, but – well – this isn’t a team game. Big Publishing does not see me as being on its team, any more than I see myself as working for them. Big Publishing regards Indie authors such as myself as upstarts as best, enemies at worst. Why should I set my prices high, in the certain knowledge I will lose sales, when Big Publishing has shown no interest in supporting authors?
Frankly, this is a suicidal attitude.
I love Brandon Sanderson’s books, to the point where I bought a hardback copy of The Bands of Mourning when it came out. But I didn’t buy the eBook. Right now, the eBook is priced at $14.42 on Amazon and the hardback is priced at $18.79. Apparently, Tor feels it can realistically sell eBooks at $3 more than the paperback. However, anyone who stops to think about it will rapidly come to realise that they’re being gouged. On the face of it, Tor is aiming for a colossal mark-up and – I suspect – is likely to see very low sales. Or piracy. One can understand a high price for a hardback, but not for an eBook.
The thing is, production costs for eBooks are strikingly low. Once you have a manuscript, you can produce unlimited copies at the touch of a button. Customers ask, quite reasonably, why they have to allow themselves to be gorged? And this is bad for Sanderson’s career because he won’t receive any credits for books he doesn’t see (or gets pirated) even without people complaining in reviews about the high price (which isn’t Sanderson’s fault). High prices, in short, do not benefit authors – they harm authors.
Let me insert an example from my own career. Ark Royal, the book that (so far) spawned six sequels, was put up for sale in January 2014 at the princely price of $3. It sold very well, much to my bank manager’s delight. To put this in some perspective, the highest estimate I have of how much it costs Big Publishing to put out a new book is $30’000. (I couldn’t find anyone willing to give me hard numbers.) Ark Royal would have earned itself out within the first month, if it had been published traditionally.
Now, do you think that sales would have been anything like as good if I’d set the price at $6? Or $10? I doubt anyone would buy one of my eBooks at $14.
I’m not saying this to brag, but to prove a point. High book prices harm authors.
Regardless of how selling eBooks harms regular bookstores (which is ironic, as many small bookshops were destroyed by big booksellers, with the enthusiastic collaboration of Big Publishing), it should be noted that most bookstores do not sell eBooks.
Furthermore, the marketplace is not particularly competitive. As I have noted before, Amazon is endlessly searching for new ways to appeal to customers, while Big Publishing is alienating readers while trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. The model of customer service it clings to is outdated, yet it tries desperately to pretend that nothing is wrong. These are not the days when it was largely impossible to copy books (or videos) on a large scale. This is not Amazon’s fault. I don’t believe there is anything particularly unique about their vision that could not be duplicated, if Big Publishing was willing to try. As far as I can tell, they seem to be more inclined to complain about Amazon – and try to get laws passed to restrict its growth – instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.
Big Publishing, in short, has forgotten what it is like to complete. Indeed, it has forgotten that it must compete to survive. And the only way for a business to survive is to accept the old proverb – the customer is always right.
The authors who defend Big Publishing are trying, frantically, to reshuffle the deckchairs on a sinking ship. They simply do not get the level of support from their publishers that they need, while they are bound by ironclad contracts that were written in a different day and age. They are at the mercy of decisions made by men and women who do not understand that the world has changed, or put political hectoring and point-scoring ahead of keeping the customer entertained; they worry, constantly, about not making the sales that will convince the accountants to keep them on for another book.
But the ship is sinking. Why would anyone want to board? And why would anyone want to sign up for a team that bases its entire plan around kicking their own people as hard as they can?