Reshuffling the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

21 Feb

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?

19 Responses to “Reshuffling the Deck Chairs on the Titanic”

  1. James Young February 21, 2016 at 1:42 pm #

    It’s interesting having this discussion at panels with traditional, independent, and hybrid authors. There are things a publisher / agent bring to the table if an author is disinclined / unable to do the bulk of their heavy lifting. That being said, from my perspective I’ve seen very, very few publishers / agents willing to go to war with the ferocity a self-publishing author should with their own work. I’m not quite sure the traditional industry as a whole is at Titanic level yet–but I do think the pumps are smoking, and they’re lucky that movie / other media rights provide succor (for now).

    The e-book high prices, however, are crazy talk regardless of how one feels about the “larger ship.” As are the ways royalties for those are distributed. Bad juju.

  2. Rodger Owen February 21, 2016 at 2:13 pm #

    From a reader’s perspective, I agree with you, Chris, and am very satisfied that I have found a whole bunch of new authors, like you, with very good stories to tell and who have decided that going the e-book route is a good fit for them. I base my reading choices on content and price. For many years, I stopped reading because I just couldn’t justify spending the money on print books (paperback or hardback) when I had a family to support. I only had so much discretionary money available for entertainment, and expensive books just didn’t make the cut. Then, for Christmas 2013, I got a Kindle Fire as a gift. After a couple of months of procrastinating using it, I started reading a few books that finished a fantasy series from an author whose earlier books I had read years ago (in ink, of course). Well, I’ve been reading e-books non-stop since – and mostly from authors who don’t put their books in ink print. Of course, I read your books voraciously, and am very thankful that you are such a prolific writer! Anyway, price gouging the customer to read an e-book version of the paper book isn’t a good route for publishers since I have so many choices at much lower prices. For example, there are Bernard Cornwell books I’d like to read, but because his publisher is pricing the e-book version of them so high, I won’t get them. As Blockbuster Video stores went, so also do I believe that paper print book publishers are going – out of business. The current youth are not reading very much at all that isn’t digital (outside the classroom), so the future market is grim, I would think. It’s just a matter of time…

  3. David Land February 21, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

    Just a bit of an alternative perspective on book pricing. Of course we book buyers would rather pay $3.00 vs $14.00…. There’s a “however” lurking out there… Once I get to know an author’s work, if I like him, I am willing to pay more… There is a price point that optimizes sales, for me that number is around $10. I will pay more than that, if I really like the author (like I like your writing)…. I buy selectively by the author, not by the publisher…. But I agree,in the big picture, gouging can’t will not boost sales, especially for new authors.. As to publishers gouging, to Goethe a litter Yoda speak, “short sighted, they are”. 🙂

  4. Jas Pennock February 21, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

    I think there will always be those that love the feel of a paper book, so big publishing will survive, but they can’t continue to believe it’s viable to have similar prices for eBooks vs Hardbacks. The other thing that is quite frustrating is those of us that are international, having to pay $50+ for a book you get in the US for $15, or as an eBook for even less.
    It’s another reason Amazon is thriving. Thankfully, Indie authors not only have such a brilliant selection, but the price is great!!
    Sanderson might be good, but not at the price we have to pay out here, and not when I can get, in my opinion, something just as good such as the entire series of Ark Royal, or, 3-4 books of another Indie author for the same price.
    Having a new hard cover is nice, but in today’s climate, it’s not worth the cost of several books, and several books I can have with me all at once in an eReader.
    I think it’s time people just accept ebooks are here to stay, get over it, but also realise this doesn’t mean the death of hardcover books as there will always be bibliophiles.
    Bet when the new Harry Potter comes out, queues will be out the door, and it won’t be for an eBook?
    But eBooks are the Indie authors best friend, saving them cost, so we get their awesome writing without the cost, and they still get (I hope I have this right Chris??) something for it.
    And here Chris the $ is not great, so I pay $5-6 for your books, and its gladly, there worth it 🙂

  5. Brad February 21, 2016 at 8:17 pm #

    Lots of good comments here. Publishing is another area where the web is changing the way we buy and think about our entertainment. As with the music industry, those companies that can figure out how to support what consumers prefer (less expensive books, more choices) will grow, others will die out. Almost everything I read is electronic now, and books are generally in the $3-$5 range. I will pay more for an author I follow and like, but that author has very little room for “laying an egg”.

  6. Ralph Trickey February 21, 2016 at 11:27 pm #

    I see a lot of parallels to the music industry. The difference is that the book publishers tried even harder to ignore the sea change that was coming and were better able to slow it down. Amazon stepped in and aggressively took over both the traditional distribution, but they also drastically lowered the bar for indies to the point where anyone with drive can get their book published. Up until Amazon stepped in, the publishers had a monopoly on content.

    The one thing that bothers me is that Musicians can work locally and go on tours and make money that way, I don’t see an equivalent for authors.

    I don’t see a good strategy for the publishers, for their big money makers lowering ebook prices would cannibalize print sales and leave overall lower margins, and their big titles would walk to another publisher. If they don’t do anything to attract new authors, they’ll end up dead anyway. The one strategy I don’t agree with is the way they overprice their back catalog. SciFi/Fantasy books from the 70’s cost more than when they were first published, I’d think they would make more money by dropping the price.

    Best case I see for the future would be the same split we see in games, there are big expensive console and PC titles. There are also cheap tablet games. I like the big expensive Harry Potters but I also like the Bookworms 😉

    I do hope that the lower prices will get new new readers into the habit of reading, the cheap books will only have authors if there are enough readers.

    My habit it to read almost everything in a few genres and to follow a couple of authors more closely.

  7. Anarchymedes February 22, 2016 at 9:22 am #

    So Chris, you’re not as conservative as all that, are you? Me, I’m a software developer, so I couldn’t have agreed with you more: ebooks are the future. The Titanic is sinking.
    Let’s not forget the depth of human weirdness. There was absolutely no logical reason to shoot the latest Star Wars on film, as opposed to a digital carrier. There was just sentimentality and nostalgia. The same thing that makes some music fans love vynil and hate CDs, let alone MP3s, that allegedly sound ‘dead’. Well, I still remember old jazzmen with their accustic things saying the same about rockers with electric guitars – and then rockers blasting DJs. And some (non-English-language) published authors I used to know absolutely seriously implored their fans from their website to ‘please, please don’ t read literary work from a computer screen.’ In 2006. I kid you not. And later, here in Australia, a guy (an engineer) despiced the ebooks so much he’d spent thousands of dollars relocating his massive library of technical books – each of which could be found on Amazon as an weightless ebook – interstate. Well, I could continue about another bloke (that one in the US, in 2000) who despiced plastic cards and loved cash so much he got almost sexual pleasure from simply handlind the dollar bills, but enough is enough. The point is, the Titanic’s agony will be long, and before it sinks, it will yet manage to rip off many a weird romantic who’d think it’s cool to hop on a slanting deck, take a selfie there, then wave his/her hands theatrically, and so on. So don’t write the Big Publishing off just yet. 🙂

  8. Stephen Smith February 22, 2016 at 10:20 am #

    Firstly let me agree with you! The reasonably priced Ark Royal is what got me to punt for the eBook and was my first foray into your books. Since then I have read many others so that works in you favour too.

    Buts let play devil’s advocate for a minute. There is this train of thought in business, that states that if you double the price and loose less than 50% of your customers then you increase profit. A good example in my opinion of this (though I don’t know this is fact?) is Coco Cola. By reducing their bottle size 0.25L and increasing their price they stand to increase profit. While I don’t have their sales figures I can deduce from the supermarket shelfs that they sell less now than their brand rival Pepsi, but how much less? The Coco Cola brand is very strong and I’m willing to bet it’s less than 50% so have they made the correct business decision?

    The question then is would I pay $6 for one of your books now. The answer is yes if it’s in a series like because the brand is strong and I like your imagination. If it’s in a new series I would pause, read the bio and then decide whether to take the punt. If it was $14 I probably would think twice even though I like your brand. So on the face of it the logic stands it is better to double your prices as in my case you would lose less than 50% of sales.

    Going back to my original comment however would I have punted for Ark Royal if it was $6? The answer therefore seems to be linked with my cola example above for existing customers Its seems so, but what about new people to the cola soft drink do they take a punt on Pepsi which is cheaper and in larger quantity or Coke based purely on brand? Without knowing your brand I would have said no

  9. Karl G. Bergquist February 22, 2016 at 4:40 pm #

    I received Ark Royal as a free book from Amazon. I have since purchased all 6 additional books in the series at full price. I regret having let Ark Royal languish among my unread books for so long. I think the Amazon support of Indie authors is great. I’ve had the opportunity to read so many new authors that I would have overlooked or never had the chance to read through traditional publishing. I would like to be able to buy books like Ark Royal in Hard Cover, oh well!

    • Korwin A February 23, 2016 at 8:06 am #

      Curriosly I got hooked on Sanderson by an free ebook sample of his first Mistborn book, which I got directly from TOR…

    • Anarchymedes February 23, 2016 at 9:11 am #

      There! You’ve just made my point: people still prefer hard cover, and only tolerate ebooks. When it’s the other way around – then it would be time to farewell that Titanic. 🙂

  10. Robin Angell February 23, 2016 at 11:52 am #

    Let me just start by saying I love your writing Chris. That’s the toadying out of the way!
    As for the topic and as a lover of science fiction since the 60’s, I have to love e-books over their paper based cousins and it really is insulting to suggest higher prices protect anyone other than those benefitting from the sale which mostly will be someone other than the author.
    Over the last few years I have accrued 29 titles on my tablet, many of yours (Warspite, A learning experience, Ark Royal and Retro Wars) and others including books from Heppner, Wehr and Jucha to name a few which quite frankly I would never have experienced had they been priced nearer the hard or even paperback versions. At an average of £2-£3 a ‘book’ the purchase decision is a no brainer quite frankly and long may that continue (with RPI of course)! The logic behind supporting an expensive shop front or a greedy publisher under the guise I am protecting the author is lost on me?
    My wife on the other hand loves crime novels, prefers the physical contact with her read and buys 4 books a year tops.

    P.S Can you hurry up and get Fear God out soon please!

    • Robin Angell February 23, 2016 at 11:58 am #

      Doh, I wrongly gave you Retro Wars Chris which is of course Weir!

  11. Bagsy February 23, 2016 at 2:13 pm #

    As an ebook producer and having been in the book business for years before ebooks were ever popular. I cannot agree with Chris more.
    Unfortunately the big publishers haven’t learned from all of the mistakes the music industry made trying to stick to a model that was superseded by the internet leaving them scrambling around for years. Now they finally seem to have adapted and the music business is flourishing again. You would have thought that the publishing industry would have learned the lessons but unfortunately it seems to be run by people for whom the whole internet is just a damn nuisance.
    Obviously my business is ebooks so I am going to be for them but as an avid reader as well I love being able to carry around a whole library which I can access at any time. I also still buy the print version as well – I love books that much.
    One company that seems to be able to cope with both the print and ebook sides of the business is Baen who seem to have adapted very successfully – putting the big five publishers to shame.
    I find, as a reader, that I am prepared to try lots of independent authors I have never come across before because they price the book realistically. Lets face it if the book is only £0.99 or £1.99 if I do not like the book I have not really lost a lot. But what I have found is that there lots of authors I now follow waiting for each book to come out – Chris is a case in point. The low pricing of ebooks by independent authors has encouraged me to read more and across more genres than I ever did before.

    • Brad February 23, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

      I agree with all of that Bagsy. Although I am not in the business, I can say as a consumer that I have switched almost entirely to ebooks for the reasons you detail above, starting with price and convenience. The only exceptions are books that are only available in print (mostly older books).

      I also find indy/online writers to be very open about how the process of getting a book to market works. They recognize that although competitive, access to publishing is no longer closely controlled.

  12. Andrew February 23, 2016 at 6:10 pm #

    I’ve got to agree that making ebooks more expensive does sound counter productive for authors and publishers. I’m visually impaired so I don’t actually read your books, I get the audiobooks (and on a side note thanks for being an author that regularly publishes those) and I must admit I wouldn’t of tried them if it weren’t for audible’s subscription service making the book £4.50 rather than the whole £20 (and that’s not even an expensive audobook price) and military fiction is one of my favorite genres. How do publishers expect to have a future if they don’t give people the opportunity to find new authors.

  13. NineTales February 23, 2016 at 8:16 pm #

    I work in publishing – though not Big Publishing. There are 8 people in our entire company. I read many, many ebooks and I love the convenience. I do not like to spend more than five or six dollars on an ebook and, if I am willing to wait for several months, the ebook price often comes down. But I do completely understand the high price of ebooks from publishing companies.
    We publish small non-fiction books in a niche market – which is why there are only 8 of us. Our first responsibility is to our authors who always want bound books. Our ebooks are made from the files we create for the paperback books. The number of consumers who buy a paperback book, and then the same book as an ebook are statistically less than 1%. So in order to make enough money to pay for the editing and design work on a title, and pay the author the kind of royalty that they deserve, our ebook prices run in the $10 to $20 range usually.
    Self-published authors, and publishers that sell ebooks exclusively can and should sell their books with an eye on increasing readership. Those of us that have overhead – offices, salaries, marketing, printing, etc. – find it necessary to sell the ebooks at a higher price to cover our costs. It is not just getting a manuscript and pressing a button for some of us. I wish!
    I recognize that fiction books are easier to do than non-fiction. We have photos and formatting constraints. But even so, for any book that is published as a bound book the ebook price is going to be higher than one would expect. The expense of production – print or digital – needs to be covered. Which is why, once the overhead has been met, the ebook price often goes down.

  14. Marc March 10, 2016 at 8:16 pm #

    Since i started using a kindle i have purchased 350 books i would never have looked at otherwise. I buy entire series then get impatient with the author to write more. Pokes Christopher. However ther are a few recent publications i wont buy until theycome down in price as £12 for a ebook is a fucking crime


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