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The #MurderBot Series is Everything Wrong With TradPub

Did you by any chance get the free copies of Martha Wells’s MurderBot series that was giving away last week?

I did, and in addition to four fun stories, I also got an object lesson in what’s wrong with trad pub.

The content is great, but there’s very little actual content there, and they are charging an extortionate price for it.

The 4 books in the Murderbot series are novellas, and their combined length is 625 pages (about the same as Game of Thrones). The writing is great, but the price is ridiculous.

I got these stories for free last week, but if I had bought all 4 I would have had to pay $36. Yes, Macmillan is charging $36 for one novel’s length of content.

The first installment costs $4, while the second, third, and fourth books cost $10, $11, and $11, respectively. To put it another way, the latter three cost the regular retail for a trad pub ebook, and yet you only get a story about half as long as the minimum expected length of a novel (300-ish pages).

While some people are buying the ebooks, they sure as hell are not happy about the prices.

  • Enjoyed the series, very brief reads. Not a fan of the price for a sub two hour read.
  • The first book is delightful. However, at the rate I read, I can’t afford the other three novelettes at$10 each.
  • First story was very good – and I can see where this might go – but the next set of stories is way too expensive for very short works. $10 for 160 pages? I can read 160 pages in a couple of hours.

What’s especially interesting about this series is that both the top positive review and the top critical review complained about the price.

John Sargent wonders why his ebook sales are down, and he has repeatedly blamed library ebooks. It’s really weird how he never seems to realize its his own policies (as evidenced by this series) that are causing the shortfall in sales.

I mean, Sargent was running Macmillan when he decided that the publisher’s first move into ebooks was to conspire with Apple and bring about agency pricing, raising Macmillan’s ebook prices in the process.  And he was still in charge when he brought about Agency 2.0 in 2014.

And now, as a result of Sargent’s policies, we have Macmillan charging $36 for a novel-length story.

The reason this is the perfect example of what is wrong with tradpub, folks, is that for the past decade trad pub has refused to sell the public what it wants at a price the public wants to pay. The whole point of agency pricing was to raise ebook prices and force consumers to buy the print books the publishers want to sell.

In this example, Macmillan split a novel into 4 parts (it honestly feels like it was written as a single novel) so it could try to get people to pay four times the going market rate.

And y’all wonder why trad pub ebook sales are down?



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Disgusting Dude April 29, 2020 um 10:14 am

There is a long tradition of publishing novellas as standalone stories so the author might have wanted to puff up the resume. Not a particularly big crime.
The pricing, though, is ridiculous…
…but standatd Tor/MacMillan pricing…
…which is why I buy nothing from them.

Thing is, if the author had gone Indie, the first volume would be permafree or $0.99 and in KU,with tbe other three at $2.99. Total cost: $9.99. (Interesting price in of itself.)
The author would be netting $6.30-6.80.

Going gradpub, the consumer pays $36 and the author gets $6.30 minus the agent cut and is left with $5.35.

I don’t think those prices are arbitrary, they are picked to ensure the author gets as much as they would going Indie (minus the 15% the agents skim off the top) and Tor gets three times as much.

So don’t blame tbe author for breaking up the novel.
Blame them for signing up with predators for no gain.

Doesn’t sound like they thought it through.

Nate Hoffelder April 29, 2020 um 10:29 am

I didn’t blame the authror – I didn’t even mention the author.

Bruce April 29, 2020 um 10:59 am

I think another possibility is they are reaching back for ideas on how to move forward. DAW had a long history of publishing150 page serials and many other publishers did as well. The word count has gradually increased over the years to the point where, as you mentioned, people expect a 300+ page book at the minimum. I don’t mind the shorter work if they are well formed and these were.

Another point is that Martha Wells (in my opinion) has a bit of trouble with the longer form. All her other novels have struck me as episodic and not well tied together. So her writing in a shorter form turned out to be brilliant decision — I have enjoyed them much more. I am actually a bit worried about the upcoming novel. I guess we will see.

I won’t argue about the pricing though. $5-6 is the most they should be charging; $11 for a really short novel (if you accept my premise) is ridiculous especially since they turn around and use them as loss leaders for her new novel. Actually the whole process of free books is starting to annoy me since any book I want to download for free I have almost always shelled out the $$ to buy it earlier.

Trad publishing are going to have to wrap their heads around a more sustainable pricing model for ebooks. One of the issues is that all (most) of the genre publishers have been bought up by conglomerates who are a) money foccussed and b) increasingly out of touch with the kind of diversity that exists in their readers. I enjoy a well curated publishing list but its harder and harder to stomach the kind of money they want for a rambling 12 novel series that starts to fall off on book 8.

Disgusting Dude April 29, 2020 um 12:23 pm

You should have: she signed with TOR.
That’s a crime right there.
The pricing is all their’s but what they are is no secret.
Enablers are guilty, too.

Mikou April 29, 2020 um 3:27 pm

I happily took advantage of the free offerings. Luckily for me, $10 to $11 for books 2 to 4 was so overpriced that I didn’t even bother them or even the 1st at $3.99 (fair price, in my opinion). It seemed pointless because I would never buy the rest of the series at those prices.

But these ridiculous prices are what lead me to read way more books from independent publishers and public libraries.

Steve H. April 29, 2020 um 7:13 pm

I downloaded them to read later. I would have been @$;?ed about how short All Systems Red is…on my Forma, 134 pages!

Nonetheless, I expect ebooks will pick up some steam this year; even if a large portion are library barrows. You cannot go down the street and pickup anymore.

Xavier Basora April 29, 2020 um 10:18 pm


Traditional publishing has nothing to do with entertaining content creation but lumber distribution.

The publishers still delude themselves people will buy hardcovers in the age of Amazon.
That’s why their circling the bankruptcy drain.


tired April 30, 2020 um 8:14 am

Tor also publishes the massive door stops of Robert Jordan and Steven Erikson. The latter of which can sometimes easily run upwards of 1300 pages. All for the same price. These novellas are not indicative of Tor overpricing books as a whole.

What they are indicative of is a poor pricing model (because it is flat).

Making every ebook $10 old, $13 new release doesn’t make any sense. The popularity of the book, author, the age of the book, the length of the book etc. should all be considered when pricing ebooks. And trad publishers should have frequent deep discount sales. All of that would actually increase revenue and profits in the long term and build better relations with their customers. That is how it works (very successfully I might add) for digital video game distribution as well as movie digital downloads.

So no it is not greed just laziness. These publishers don’t dynamically change prices, are overly stingy with sales and discounts and don’t even do a good job marketing. The only time we know of them is when they are in ill conceived spats with public libraries that make them look bad.

Nate Hoffelder April 30, 2020 um 10:44 am

I think you may need to use the past tense here. One of the authors is dead, and the other hasn’t published a new door stopper in that series since 2011 (or so his website suggests).

My point is that the door stoppers Tor published years ago have nothing to do with today’s policies.

Mike April 30, 2020 um 3:17 pm

There was a time when SF was centred around the magazines, a novel was anything that ran as a serial (hence the 40,000 word lower limit for the Hugo) and the novella, novelette, and short story were the more commonly produced fictional works. The short novel and the novella gave us many great stories and the switch to book publication and the publishers' push for higher word counts has not always been artistically fruitful.

It is a bit silly if people expected a 300+ page count (or whatever) for a novel rather than whatever the story needs. With the move of much of the field to e-books and indie publishing this idea is pretty well obsolete and we are seeing a big revival of the short novel and the novella, often as part of a series where the other titles may be longer or, as with Murderbot, connected tales set in one universe. With these works, Martha Welles is doing just what a writer would have done 50 or 60 years ago, and doing it very well.

It’s a great pity that Macmillan just cannot adapt to this new world and are still trying to push buyers towards paper books even for these shorter works, and doing so by stupidly high prices.You might think that having a separate SF subsidiary like Tor would allow them to adapt their prices for this genre to reflect the changes in the market, but apparently not.

Nate Hoffelder April 30, 2020 um 4:13 pm

I thought someone would bring this up.

I don’t have many paperbacks on my bookshelf, but I do still have a couple early Heinlein novels. The several I do have are all in the 270 to 300 pages long (all of these titles were serialized). Also, all of his juveniles run over 200 pages.

So yes, Wells’s novellas are short.

Mike May 1, 2020 um 3:34 am

It’s word count that matters, the page count is at best a fairly bad proxy to this. Indeed there is such a large variation between what you report and what I’ve found on my shelves to suggest that page count is a pretty useless measure.

I’ve looked at the Heinlein paperbacks on my shelves and my results are in direct contradiction to yours. Excluding the short story collections and those where a couple of unrelated novellas were published together, the 16 books originally published in the 1940s and 1950s average 187 pages, the shortest being "Double Star" (which won the 1956 Hugo for novels) at 123 pages and the longest "The Star Beast" at 247.

I also pulled out some Harry Harrison books from the 1960s, "The Stainless Steel Rat" and the "Deathworld" series, and they typically run to about 160 pages.

So the older SF on my shelves gets nowhere near your "expected" 300 page mark, and is none the worse for this.

That Martha Wells books are short is beyond dispute, that’s why they are novellas (at least per the Hugo and Nebula rules). It is also beyond dispute that Tor’s pricing for the ebooks is a stupid rip off. My only point was that the ebook revolution allows authors to break free from the artificial length constraints that the move from magazines to books had imposed (whilst still leaving them the freedom to write the long books that didn’t fit into a magazine serialisation) and that you shouldn’t blame the author for taking advantage of this. Some authors are better suited to novella length, and there is some evidence that this class includes |Ms Wells.

Mambo, OCD, and Tattoos – Unlawful Acts May 1, 2020 um 8:22 pm

[…] Essay: “The #MurderBot Series is Everything Wrong With TradPub” by Nate Hoffelder (The Digital Reader) […]

Incident Report No. 85 – Unlawful Acts May 4, 2020 um 10:58 am

[…] Hoffelder rightly skewers Macmillian CEO John Sargent and all other publishers, big and small, over the price of ebooks. What got Hoffelder going was Tor’s giveaway of the MurderBot series, four ebooks totaling […]

Olivier May 4, 2020 um 4:24 pm

The pricing of these novellas did give me sticker shock, too, but I tend to give Tor a free pass because, first, they are the only major publisher to forego the use of DRM and, second, they publish a lot of quality free content (short stories) on their blog. Also, the Murderbot novellas were peach-perfect and I am willing to pay more for quality.

OTOH, why absolve the author of pricing? She’s a big name and surely has some clout.

Mikou May 13, 2020 um 11:44 pm

I was just about to buy book 5 and I noticed that Amazon already has a page up for book 6 (expected to be released in a year). Apparently, it’s going to be 176 pages, which is the same length as book 4;

So, how much will #6 cost? $11.99! Only the 1st book has a paperback version. The others only have hardback and audio versions, which I assume is why Tor has no compunction in charging so much for the ebooks.

I thought that was bad enough until I checked out the Barnes and Noble catalog. As of 9/22/2020, an omnibus of the 1st 4 books will be available. You can pre-order it for the bargain price of $70.96. Based on the product details

No, that was not a typo. This is why I’m happy to stick to ebooks.

In case anyone wondered: According to the author (from her dreamwidth account), the word counts are:

All Systems Red: 31468
Artificial Condition: 32422
Rogue Protocol: 35204
Exit Strategy: 35811

Frank May 15, 2020 um 11:40 pm

Murderbot is a little overpriced but the story quality is great. Recently a novel length was published so it is a little longer,

M January 1, 2022 um 1:52 am

8 cents a page in Aus. It’s a joke. That’s on kindle. So no printing costs. It’s switch bait

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