Just read this article in Publisher's Weekly. If I was a tradtional publisher I think I'd start to get nervous. This has all the feeling of a small snowball rolling down a mountain side turning into a massive avalenche.
Ah, yes. Good points. Take note of the "They're just books!" Also take note how publishers claim credit for an author's work in writing the book! Without raising royalties! And keep in mind that you add another 3 months of your life to the year it took the book to be written after you sign a contract. I have been singularly unimpressed by some of the copy-editing that's gone on (because I have to copy-edit the copy-editor and then the type setter), and some publishers do not edit any longer and ask you to write all the blurbs.
The reader was confused about who sets the price, the author or the publisher. Apart from that, he was right.
I'm also a little tired of hearing publishers talk about how little of the cost of the book is due to printing and distribution. On the one hand, they can't make money because of returns; e-books have no returns. Based on their own comments, that much be an appreciable saving.
The argument about how much work was in editing and cover design would hold more water if we were talking about books that went straight to electronic format. That work has already been done in a book that is released as a physical copy; the additional marginal costs of producing e-books is negligible.
I'm not a communist; publishers should be able to charge whatever they want for a book when it goes to the bookseller. Just as the bookseller should be free to set his own price to the reader.
Good catch Dana. It really does seem a contradiction to say both:
(1) "Physical shipping is a negligible cost in the production of hardbacks" (as are printing and binding, and thus, the argument goes, ebooks should be priced only slightly lower than DTBs) and (2) "Returns are killing us."
I'm the last one to defend traditional publishers (ok, not the last, but. . .), but the stuff about how much the book costs are just noise on both sides. All this stuff about how much an ebook costs to produce and how much readers think an ebook "should cost is in my opinion ancillary to other issues.
One of those issues is that publishers believe having an ebook a lot cheaper than the hardcover will hurt sales of the hardcover. Most of the evidence suggests that the opposite is true, but really there is nothing definitive.
Another issue, which I think has not received enough attention, is something I am planning a blog post on soon, and that is the threat posed to the current "system" by authors who publish directly. It is still being dismissed, and I think that is a huge mistake. Yes, it is absolutely true that cover art, layout and editing are valuable services. I would never suggest otherwise. But just how valuable are they to the reading public? Answering that question is where I think there is still a lot of denial.
Take your average hardback that you can pick up for $18 online or $15 under the new agency proposals. All the production work that's gone into it ($5000-$20,000 worth for tradpub) has made that a better book than one I might put out myself. But the one I put out myself might go for $2.99 on kindle - is it really worth $12 less than that $15 book? To some maybe, and certainly if the author of the expensive book sold a hundred thousand copies of a previous book, that will drive sales of the next one. But my book might actually be a good book, too, and a lot of people may decide that for $2.99, they'll go with mine. Insulated among writers, agents and editors, it's easy to forget that for a lot of readers, "good" is good enough.
Again, professional editors, artists and layout people do add value. I don't claim to know exactly how much (and it obviously varies), but I suspect it's not enough to support $10-$15 ebooks for most mid-list authors as more and more do-it-yourselfers like Konrath and others provide far cheaper competition.
And it gets "worse". I make over $2 on each of those $2.99 ebooks I sell. That compares favorably with the royalties on hardcovers for most authors (and remember, they pay their agent 15%) and is better than most royalties on trade and MM paperbacks. Traditional publishers are beginning to come around to offering authors more for ebook royalties, and it's not hard to see why they must.
And go beyond the $2.99 ebook and look at the free ebook. Now, I've heard that $2.99 ebooks actually sell better than free ebooks, but put that aside for a minute. Imagine the author with some talent who has sold a few short stories and is submitting his third novel after striking out with the first two. He's gotten critiques and advice and is working hard to break through. he strikes out again, but gets a number of positive comments from agents indicating that he's close.
I hope we can all agree that once you get close, your books are just as good as others who got picked up - at least as good as the latter were before the editing and production professionals improved them. The free market has told this author that the book is worth nothing. There's no middle ground in the traditional model. There's no real reason for the author not to give the book away for free. I mean, you could make the argument that once they do that, it will never be saleable so the author should save it to resubmit after finally getting published. I can buy this argument, but many will publish anyway. These free books are also going to hurt mid-list authors and traditional publishers. And the argument that it is unsustainable is quite frankly a ridiculous argument on its face - not all of us are putting in the 20 hours (or more) a week on writing year after year just so we can eventually make a living at it. If I can do it for a decade trying to break in, there's no reason I can't do it indefinitely.
Mid-list authors and publishers are going to get squeezed by cheap and free ebooks. new authors may get more than squeezed - "self-publishing" in one form or another may become the rule rather than the exception for starting out. The quality of books will go down - less editing and cover/layout work. But I just don't see the economics shaking out any other way on a high level.
The final argument i've heard is that readers don't want to comb through the slush, and tradpub provides a filter. There is some truth to that, but the music industry learned to its dismay that such a role only goes so far. There will be more books and more authors, making less money on average.
One final note about quality - I can also foresee a model where editing, cover and layout professionals share in the risk of producing a book by sharing in the profits. In this way an author may very well be able to produce a book fully as good as those from a major publisher. That's not good news for those editors, etc, who want a stable living, but in a free market, those willing to take risks generally end up surviving longer and doing better.
Some traditional publishers will adapt and find a role in the new model. Others will not. I feel for the authors, editors, etc who will get hurt by this. I also feel for the authors who are already unable to make any kind of living despite being "published". Who knows how things will look in ten years, but it will be a lot different.
I don't necessarily think that free self-published books will cut into the midlist market: in fact they may help it. If the the consumer goes to iBooks or the Kindle store and downloads a couple of free books, he/she hasn't done any damage to his/her bank account, and might be more willing, not less, to take a chance on paying for a book by an author he/she has never heard of. That's why Amazon's also listing books in the public domain, etc. If free stuff drives traffic, and supposedly it does, it should then drive it to my books as well. If free stuff competes with books on which Amazon actually makes money, then there's a strong disincentive there--you'd think they'd get rid of the free stuff and insist on charging for everything. You know who gets hurt here? Publishers of new editions of public domain "classics." This is going to kill those guys, if it hasn't already. I think the rest of us will do just fine unless--and this is a big unless--we train consumers to expect all books to be free, or virtually free. When that happens I'm going back to writing poetry, because nobody pays for it, anyway.
It will be interesting to see, Jon. I feel certain that more and more quality work will be available for anywhere from free to $5 (depending on how all the technology, etc shakes out). If that helps the midlist authors, then all the better. But I think the fear about training consumers for nearly free stuff is very real. With the current model, an author is "expected" to pay dues for many years before breaking through - it just seems like with the barriers to entry down, all that work by all those authors (some of them quite talented) a glut of decent low-priced or free work is inevitable. If it's true what you hear that 99% of queries are not published, only 1% of those have to be decent books to double the competition.
One thing is certain - things we're not foreseeing now will also have an impact on how it shakes out.