A recent discussion on a listserv I share with a large group of professional genre writers has had me thinking for days now. There was one comment in particular made by a long-time pro with an established track record of writing terrific fantasy and science fiction. And at the risk of setting off what I suppose might become a heated discussion, I thought that I would share the gist of this person’s comments along with my thoughts on them.
The point this other writer made was essentially this (I am paraphrasing here, and actually adding my own thoughts on the matter): It can be infuriating for me as a writer to hear people say that they will only pay, say, $1.99 or less for an e-book. Why? Because such a statement assumes that the value of the book lies largely not its artistic merit or the production efforts of editors, copyeditors, typesetters, and other production staff, but rather in its physical form.
Yeah, like I said. This could lead to a heated discussion. But let’s look at this more closely.
Prior to the advent of ebooks, the vast, VAST majority of books sold here in the U.S. came in one of three formats: hardcover, trade paperback, and mass market paperback. (For now we’re going to ignore more specialized items like limited edition leather-bound books on the one hand, or spiral bound small books or chapbooks that were marketed by some small presses.) Hardcover books have tended to sell for $24.00 to $28.00. Some might be somewhat less, some might cost more, but that has been the range in our genre for some time now. And yes, in that format, consumers paid a premium for the physical book itself. High quality cloth binding, higher quality paper, heavy-stock paper jackets; all of these things combined to make hardcovers more expensive and more desirable for bibliophiles and book collectors. Writers get the highest royalty rate from the sales of these books usually starting at 10% and climbing through 12.5% to 15% as sales hit certain benchmarks.
Trade paperbacks, the larger format paperbacks that are often associated with non-genre literary fiction, tend to cost about $10.00 less than a hardcover, and so are usually between $12.00 and $16.00. They are sized similarly to hardcovers, but are not cloth-bound. Their pages are also made from high quality paper, and their covers, while paper, tend to be of a higher quality than those one sees on mass market paperbacks. They are not prized by collectors the way hardcovers are, and they are not quite as easy to carry as mass market paperbacks, but they look and feel like a quality product. Oddly, author royalties on trade paperbacks tend to be the least generous of the three physical formats — usually starting at 6% and then sometimes rising to 7% after a certain number of sales. (Occasionally, a good agent can get you a flat rate of 7.5% on all trade sales. — Waves to Lucienne –)
Mass market paperbacks are the familiar small format paperback books one sees pretty much everywhere — bookstores, airport newsstands, drugstore book racks, etc. They usually cost between $7.00 and $9.00. They are cheaply made — thin paper, flimsy covers, poor quality gluing to hold the package together. Let’s face it: They are basically one step removed from piles of paper bound by duct tape. On the other hand, they were for a long time the cheapest option for readers, and they are easy to pack and carry. These editions generally yield royalties that start at 6%, rise to 8% after, say, 100,000 copies have sold, and then jump again to 10% after another 100,000 sales. Sometimes the rate will start at 8% and then jump to 10% after the first 100,000.
Okay, so now let’s look at e-books. Again, for many readers $2.00 ($1.99) seems to be the threshold beyond which they start to feel that they’re paying too much. Why? Yes, I know that creating an e-book costs less than creating a mass market paperback (and that’s the yardstick I’m going to use, because nobody in his or her right mind is suggesting that ebooks should cost $25.00). But really the production costs of creating that paper book are not nearly as high per unit as you might think. I will concede that there is a certain cost as well in the transportation and storage of the paperbacks that are not an issue with ebooks.
But let’s look at value. Say you buy Faith’s latest, Raven Cursed, in paperback. The book costs you $8.00. How do you assign that $8.00 value among the books various components? Is three-quarters of the value of the book simply in the paper itself? Really? Or is there inherent value in the story as it’s written — in the prose, in the plotting, in the characters, in the setting? What about the value of the editing work? Faith would be the first to tell you how crucial good editing is to the quality of all her books. I would tell you same about my books. So would Misty and A.J., Kalayna and Catie. What about the copyediting? That has value, too, right? And what about that fabulous cover art? There is value there, as well. My point is that Faith’s book is more than just a pile of paper. It is an artistic work, the value of which is at least somewhat divorced from the physical form in which it’s presented. People ought to be willing to pay a certain amount for that work, regardless of format.
As long as we’re comparing book platforms, we should also ask ourselves about the value of the electronic format. Are readers buying ebooks only because they’re cheap, or are they drawn by other factors, too — convenience, lack of bulk and weight, cool gadgetry? The fact is, ebooks are worth a certain premium; they have inherent value of their own. Let me put it this way: People often compare the digital revolution in books to the digitizing of music. It’s actually not a comparison that I find very useful beyond the most superficial similarities. But still, I think it’s worth mentioning that even as the CD market has bottomed out, giving way to iTunes and MP3 sales, the price of music has not gone down substantially. A single song costs $.99 or sometimes $1.29. Getting an album’s worth of music still costs $10-$15 — around the same price as a CD, even though the content is being conveyed without any physical manifestation. Only in literature is the content devalued because of the ease of electronic file-sharing. That seems crazy to me. A CD is much cooler than a paperback book. It’s shiny and comes in a cool case with liner notes and that kind of stuff. A paperback book is pretty much a piece of junk next to that. And yet, the “loss” of the CD has no effect on the price people are willing to pay, while the “loss” of the paperback leaves people feeling that they only ought to pay a fraction of what they were paying.
Books have value because of the artistic and production labor that went into them. Yes, hardcovers and trade paperbacks have somewhat more value because of their higher quality physical attributes. But I would argue that an ebook ought to be priced comparably to a mass market paperback. You want to take out the price of the paper and glue, a bit for storage and a bit for transportation? Fine. But then let’s put a bit back in for file formatting across competing platforms and the cost of electronic storage, backup and uploading. And then we can price ebooks at something reasonable — say $5.99 or $6.99. And if it concerns you that the big publishing companies will be making too much off sales of the e-book form, let’s give the extra money to the folks responsible for the content: the artists and editors and copyeditors, and yes, the writers, too — because they’ve all been getting way too little of the pie for far too long.
Let the discussion begin.David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net