What with the AAP reporting on the decline of publisher ebook revenues, and Big Five publishers either posting falling ebook revenues or refusing to talk about the category at all, I thought today would be a good day to to return to the topic of authors justifying high ebook prices.
Michael J. Sullivan wrote a post for Amazing Stories about a month ago that combines the Joe Konrath method of debate with a collection of straw man and “price of tea in China” arguments to defend high ebook prices.
Here’s an excerpt from his sixteen-hundred word post:
I had lunch at Chipotle after the subject was brought up. A burrito and a soft drink cost me about $10. A movie ticket costs between $8 and $14, but to own a copy it will run from $15 to $30. A pair of jeans cost $30 bucks, a T-shirt $20, a pair of shoes $60. Ebooks tend to range mostly between $0.99 all the way up to as much as $14.99, but most range between $5 and $10. After reading the above question for the second time I had to double check Amazon’s numbers to make certain ebooks hadn’t jumped up substantially —but $5—$15 for many hours (or week’s worth) of entertainment? Sounds like a deal to me.
The idea behind the question, as I understand it, is: since no printing is involved, or any other out of pocket expenses in the form of raw materials, why aren’t ebooks free (or something very close to it) If authors don’t have to invest money to create the product, why charge people to read it? I wonder if these same individuals assume a lawyer, psychologist, home inspector, or tax preparer should also not be paid? After all they don’t invest any money in the services they provide. An argument might be made that these people invested money in their education or in the cost of maintaining an office. But don’t authors do the same?
Perhaps it is the bizarre notion that anyone can sit down at anytime and write a novel—no education, no practice needed, and ignore the costs incurred from rent, mortgages, heating and cooling, books, seminars, software, travel, etc. that those serious about a writing career incur. But what about the editing? What about the cover art? Even ebooks need these, and they aren’t cheap. So, of course, there are investment costs even in an ebook—quite a bit actually by the time you add up the multiple editing, layout work, the art, and then the months or years of promotion and marketing that goes into getting a book noticed.
Authors travel across the country promoting their work, doing signing as bookstores, conventions, and other events. So there is the cost of entering these events, the cost of travel, the cost of hotels, and the time lost from their day jobs, and the cost of ads (if they or their publishers run them), the cost of making swag such as bookmarks, bookplates and postcards to help prompt the book. Authors can easily invest several thousand dollars in a single book. Given that a great many authors don’t sell more than 5,000 copies (and that’s considered pretty good in the industry even if you’re traditionally published), and that Amazon takes 30-70% off the top, it is very likely the writer will not recoup their out-of-pocket investment.
According to his Amazon profile, Sullivan is a hybrid author; he has published with Hachette and Del Rey, released a couple titles as a self-published author, and in the past he published with his wife’s small press, Ridan Publishing (now defunct).
From what I have seen, all of Sullivan’s ebooks are priced at ten dollars and up (with the exception of the Ridan titles, which were later republished by Hachette).
In the past I have taken the opposing view when authors defended high ebook prices as the cost of doing business. But Sullivan’s arguments were so empty that I merely included his piece in a morning coffee post, noted a few key details, and then dropped it.
I was reminded of his post over the weekend when Hachette, S&S, and PRH released their various financial reports and demonstrated that readers, as a group, do not agree with Sullivan’s arguments and aren’t swayed by the similar arguments made in the past (assuming the readers saw the arguments; the larger book industry is its own echo chamber).
Hachette’s ebook revenues peaked in the US in 2013, and have dropped precipitously since then both in terms of dollar value and as a percentage of revenues.
Sullivan is defending a pricing policy which has lead to declining ebook revenues at his publisher, and that refutes any bogus arguments and justifications in favor of high prices.
Arguing for higher ebook prices at this point requires that one first ignore all the industry data which is almost uniformly is lined up against the idea.
There’s no need to refute these arguments, or even respond – not when we can simply point to the data and show that the market disagrees.
So authors, by all means keep telling readers that ebooks have to be expensive; it has taken on a “get off my lawn” vibe, but if it works for you then don’t stop.
image by Julian Partridge