I know the Macmillan…

I know the Macmillan Amazon thing is over (Amazon says they're caving, hooray!), but I think it's still worth reading a few of the analyses. Here's a good one by Scott Westerfeld. Very clear, often funny, worth a look.

Among other things, Scott explains that the printing costs of a book are only 3-10%, so logically, an eBook should only be at most 10% less than the print edition, not 50% less, as some readers want to believe. An explanation no doubt prompted by comments like this one, posted at John Scalzi's blog: "$14.99 for an e-book!! Are they nuts!! JS, set up your own server with Paypal! Design an app for Iphones to download your books at a fair value." -- Viabaja

That's so wrong. Sure, I could write a book, and put it online tomorrow, and even charge you a few bucks for it. I'd sell some copies. But as an author, I would be MUCH better off getting a publisher to pick up the book, even if it were only going to be in electronic form. There's a lot more that goes into making a good book that just printing it! I've been a little shocked at how willing readers are to believe that publishers are basically glorified printers, and that all they do is stand between authors and readers. (I have to wonder how much of that opinion comes from secretly wanting to write an immensely popular novel themselves, and seeing publishers as gatekeepers and obstacles.)

For the record, as an author and as a reader, I love publishers. I am so happy that there are people out there willing to:

  • winnow the massive slushpile, most of which really is unpublishable dreck (I've seen it, and it is bad)
  • actually edit the book (some authors, even some good ones, require a lot of editing)
  • handle author/agent contract negotiations
  • invest a lot of money in the process to follow, knowing that there's a good chance they won't make it back on any given book, because readers are unpredictable
  • copyedit the book (I love my anal-retentive copyeditors, with their tiny but frequent queries)
  • proof the book (many thanks to my meticulous proofreaders)
  • design the page layout for the book so that is both beautiful and easy-on-the-eyes to read
  • design the cover of the book
  • print and send out masses of review copies to get good quotes about the book
  • find famous authors to blurb it
  • get all that good stuff on the cover too
  • help the author generate supplemental materials for books, like interviews and historical timelines and suggested other reading
  • pay for and do the work for marketing the book, including organizing author tours, radio interviews, etc.
  • deal with all the nitty-gritty of actually printing and selling the physical book, printers and warehouses and distributors and bookstores and mistakes in shipping and production and fixing those mistakes
  • keep up with the various electronic options as best they can, and convert books appropriately so there are online options, negotiating more contracts
  • deal with all the nitty-gritty of selling electronic books, new formats, errors to be corrected, e-mails from customers, e-mails from Amazon
  • go to Frankfurt and other foreign book fairs to sell foreign rights, negotiating more contracts (and gods, I am so grateful for my foreign sales, which allowed my book to actually break even in the first year, rather than taking a loss)
  • try to sell audio / video rights
  • handle any legal issues that come up, including making sure all those contracts are fair and appropriate
  • track all the convoluted finances!
  • and I'm sure lots more that I'm forgetting
Notice that only the one italicized point above is specific to a physical vs. electronic book! Everything else, with all its associated staff, etc. costs, is something you'd really like to have a publisher do for your electronic book.

And sure, if they're already doing all of that for their print edition, then it's not so much more to fold in an electronic edition, but I don't think that's a good way to look at it. The electronic version is a little cheaper to produce than the print version, just as the paperback is a little cheaper to produce than the hardcover. But there are massive costs involved simply in publishing a book properly. Which is not the same as me, author, taking my Word .doc file and ftp'ing it somewhere online where you, reader, can buy it.

I really appreciate everything HarperCollins did for Bodies in Motion. They took what I thought was a pretty good book, made it better, made it beautiful, and then got it into the hands of thousands upon thousands of readers that I am quite sure I would never have found on my own (as my self-published and small press sales numbers for several other books attest). My publishers earned their cut. And if they want to sell the Kindle edition for $8.79, that's their call. It seems a little high to me, given that you can get the used paperback edition for $4.00 including shipping, but maybe some readers are willing to pay more for the convenience and instant gratification of a Kindle edition. In any case, my publishers have immediate access to better numbers than I do (for a ton of books, not just mine), and more time to crunch them, so I'm okay with them setting the price they think will sell the most copies for the most profit. That's their job, and more profit is good for me too. It pays for the childcare that hopefully lets me write the next book!

In the end, eBooks should cost whatever readers are willing to pay for them, not what Amazon or any other company arbitrarily decides is the appropriate amount.

For me, I'd probably be willing to pay $30 for a new Lois McMaster Bujold book on the day it came out (and would be tempted to skip teaching in order to stay in bed and read it). For almost any other fiction book, I'd be willing to pay around $10-$15 (I'd rather pay $10, but evidence shows that I've often paid $15 because my will is weak). I don't really care whether my fiction is in electronic or print form. I like electronic for ease of getting it and carrying it around with me; I like print for slightly more comfort in reading, and for the pleasure of the physical book. I think long-term, Kevin and I will end up only keeping print copies of a very limited range of fiction; I can already see that process happening with our videos / DVDs -- I'm much less interested in owning physical copies than I used to be. The books on our shelves will be the ones we passionately love and want to re-read and press on friends when they come over. (Plus possibly all the other ones by the same author because I'm a little compulsive about completeness that way, but I'm trying to get over it.)

For my craft / design / garden / cooking books, I do want them in print, because they're beautiful objects, and paging through gorgeous photos of lovely things makes me happy and inspires me. Also fun when friends come over to have the books to pull out and spread across the dining table. The more pretty photos, the better, and for most of those books, I'm willing to pay about $10 for a used print copy, although very occasionally, I'll pay up to $30 for a new one. I'd be even happier if those print copies came with electronic editions attached, automatically downloaded with a click to my iPhone, so that if there's a knitting pattern or some such that I might want to have on me while I'm out and about, I can easily do that. I'd probably pay an extra dollar or two for that option.

So that's me -- your preferences will be different. And that's okay. We all pay what we're willing to pay for books, and if, in the end, the price for a particular book is too high -- well, there's always the library. That's what it's for.

7 thoughts on “I know the Macmillan…”

  1. Great post Mary Anne. You remind me why it’s important to love publishers. The value of the book lies not only with the author but with the collaborative process that goes into making the book a work of art.

  2. Your point about the comparative cost of used vs. Kindle books is exactly my problem with the pricing. As far as my needs go, a used book is almost always superior — I can loan it out to people and I don’t need to recharge it.

    I like the Kindle for two reasons: immediate gratification, and its “how many books can I take on a trip?” quotient. So, I just bought my second ever real-money Kindle book today (for the gratification angle). But in general, I’m in no rush, and so at the current price points, Kindle loses out for me. (Any other device would be same.)

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Yup, and that’s totally reasonable for you, Michael, and for plenty of other folks, right now.

    But Kevin’s parents, for example, are totally in love with their Kindles (one each), and I think his mom reads exclusively on there now. Easier for them as older folks, in terms of not as hard on their wrists, eyes, etc.

    I think there are a lot of people who are going to end up preferring to read electronically — and I wouldn’t be surprised if you and I are part of the last generation that generally prefers paper books. Sad in some ways, but what can you do? I don’t think we can hold back the tide on this one, and paper books are probably going to become a specialized market, and I would guess, subsidiary to the electronic versions.

  4. I don’t have a Kindle, but I have thought about getting one. My take is that $10 for a book is about the same price as a movie in the theater, and a book is going to entertain me for more than 2 hours. So for traveling, etc, I figure I would be buying the convenience in place of some of the benefits of paper books. Essentially I am paying for a few hours of entertainment, rather than to own the book. And if I really wanted a hard copy, I could always buy one.

    Of course, I think I would end up saving money under the variable pricing plan, since I don’t mind waiting for the price to drop before buying. One reason I have hesitated to jump into ebooks is because I only buy paperbacks, so $10 is actually more than I usually spend on the dead-tree versions – which does seem a bit backwards.

  5. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I don’t have a Kindle, but I do read books on my iPhone. Mostly free ones, although Kevin did buy some that I’ve read. And yes, it’s the convenience that I’m willing to pay for, and potentially the instant gratification of downloading something I want to read immediately.

    Also, I find it reassuring somehow, knowing that if I have my phone, I also have a dozen books on me at all times. It assuages my fear that I might somehow be trapped in a line somewhere with NOTHING TO READ!!!

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