From Writer Unboxed:
Blurring ‘Our Dignity, Our Value’
“The biggest issue is one that will be difficult for us to recover from…the degradation of our worth as creatives.”
That line is from a piece here at Writer Unboxed a year ago, in May 2015. Our colleague Heather Webb, in As Writers, What Are We Worth?, was anticipating a groan heard ’round the world.
Last month, when I led a round-table discussion at Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum, our topic was “Re-Thinking Ebook Sales and Understanding the Consumers.” But what drew the biggest response was book pricing.
“The consumer,” one of our publishers said, “is in perpetual confusion. No way to understand what a single book costs or how to value our authors’ work.” And at the influential publishing house Bastei Lübbe AG, executive board member Klaus Kluge is calling book prices “staggeringly low” in an interview with Sabine Schwiering Tert at Boersenblatt.net.
In the UK in January, Penguin Random House CEO Tom Weldon told my Bookseller colleague Benedicte Page: “”One of the biggest challenges in 2016 will be e-book pricing: how do we maintain the value perception of our quality content and maximize revenues across all formats for both authors and publishers?”
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What have we done to the idea of writing’s value? How fuzzy is this math going to get?
That’s my provocation for you today. How are today’s pricing problems affecting what Webb characterized here last year as “our dignity, our value, and the viability of this industry”?
Books were always commodities of a kind, and buying second-hand romances by the grocery-bagful didn’t start yesterday.
. . . .
With both the trade and the self-publishing sectors in rampant over-production as they are today, you’re facing a sheer rock face of competition for every glance your book might get, let alone a read, let alone a sale. Your price is in free-fall.
And we can look to our cohorts in Hollywood for a little guidance here, too. You may not remember what the advent of Blockbuster video and then Netflix did to film. But those of us who watched those developments roll in know. Suddenly there were films everywhere, peopled with actors who are not quite the stars they look like speaking dialog that’s as wooden as they are, in strangely unsatisfying knockoffs of other films.
We can’t entirely blame independent authors for this gauzy focus on pricing in books. As the indie insurgence began to impact the trade a few years ago, authors who had never been able to get past the agents and editors, the dreaded gatekeepers, found that they could self-publish in our digital age. But self-selling was a different thing.
When you have no marketing department behind you, when you’re not even listed in a publisher’s catalog or recommended to a Barnes & Noble buyer—and no one’s ever heard of you in the world of books—the one way you might turn the head of a potential buyer cruising Amazon is offer a low price. Or no price.
. . . .
If the trade was aghast at Amazon’s institution of $9.99 as a viable price for the ebook version of a hardcover hit, it’s tempting to mutter “all is forgiven” now. I know many authors who’d love to get $9.99 for their ebooks. Free downloads by the hundreds might feel exhilarating, but your take-home pay? And while it’s popular to hunker down in the bloggoria and shoot the breeze about the “sweet spot” between $2.99 and $4.99, what frequently is not mentioned is frequency: how many of those things do you have to sell at $3.99—even if you’re getting 70 percent—to put together an income?
. . . .
And nobody forced the industry to follow the self-publishing sector in driving the car right on over the cliff. For a time, a UK publisher staged a 20-pence promotion on some of the hottest titles of the year. Now, the bigs are in “new-agency” pricing contracts with Amazon that somehow have them charging high “this price set by the publisher” prices for ebooks at the very moment that the industry needs to energize its digital investments, not price them out of reach.
Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed and thanks to Kristian for the tip.
PG says successful indie authors are very savvy about pricing their books at a level that maximizes author income. And more than a few earn their living from their writing. And nearly all authors who were traditionally published earn more as indies.
Yes, there are exceptions, but PG hears and reads success stories often enough to feel confident these are reasonably reliable generalizations for mid 2016. Simply put, in 2016, an author is much more likely to be able to support themselves as an indie than as a traditionally-published author.
The “pricing problem” that bothers Big Publishing is centered around the unfortunate reality that ebook prices which will maintain an indie author in fine fashion don’t generate nearly enough money to support a large publisher, regardless of how little it pays its authors.
One of the pivotal stages in a disruptive innovation comes when low-priced producers learn how to satisfy an economically significant portion of the overall market and use that position and their low prices to keep garnering more and more customers. These customers are satisfied with the quality of the product the low-priced producers offer and the low-priced producers have reached a point where they sell enough products and earn enough money to continue their business without interruption and without infusions of new capital. In short, the low-priced producers – indie authors – aren’t going away.
Speaking generally, more and more purchasers of ebooks are making purchasing decisions that say they don’t see enough added value from large publishers to justify the higher prices they have to pay. If $2.99 buys them an enjoyable reading experience, why would they pay $14.99 for an enjoyable reading experience?
The more enjoyable reading they experience for $2.99, the less likely they are to ever go back to paying $14.99. They’ll spend time digging around in the $2.99 bin to find a good book instead of paying $14.99. If they get stuck with a $2.99 clunker, they won’t give up on $2.99 books because experience has taught them there are more than a few good reads available at this price.
The question that Big Publishing can’t afford readers to ask is “Will I get five times more enjoyment if I pay $14.99?”
PG has been in the tech business for long enough to see the disruptive innovation process play out in many different markets. In each case, the incumbent market powers believe they add some special sauce to their products for which customers will always be willing to pay incumbent prices. Names like Novell, Lotus 1-2-3, Digital Equipment and Sun Microsystems come to mind, names once associated with the finest products, products that customers were happy to buy at the prices these companies set.
Today, major publishers assume today’s market will support the same prices as the book market of 2-3 years ago. They want to believe customers will agree that ebooks should be priced like printed books. They want to believe that ebook purchasers pay close attention to how much printed books cost and will use that price to determine the reasonable price for ebooks.
PG says these publishers do not understand consumer behavior.
Referring back to the OP, the relevant question in 2016 isn’t “As Writers, What Are We Worth?”
The real question is “Publishers, What Are They Worth?”