The New York Times has an article covering the implications of the impending agency pricing model for book sales. It mentions the one-star ratings that have shown up when e-book editions have been delayed or perceived as too expensive, and warns that publishers may be in for more than they bargain for with the increase in price.

Many of the arguments that we have covered in detail over the last couple of weeks make their appearance here: the cost of printing and shipping a paper book versus price of e-book, the sense of “entitlement” displayed by consumers, and the risk of increased price leading to increased piracy.

There are a few notes that might come off as ironic to those who have been following along. In particular:

“There are people who don’t always understand what goes into an author writing and an editor editing and a publishing house with hundreds of men and women working on these books,” said Mark Gompertz, executive vice president of digital publishing at Simon & Schuster. “If you want something that has no quality to it, fine, but we’re out to bring out things of quality, regardless of what type of book it is.”

As many mistakes as readers have been finding in Kindle editions (springing, apparently, from automated conversion without subsequent proofreading), this declaration is laughable. If they want to increase their prices, they had darned sure better start paying attention to the sort of “quality” they are putting out.

The publishers seem to be hoping that the Americans who have not bought Kindles or Nooks so far, and are not used to the $9.99 price for best sellers, will find $12.99 to $14.99 a reasonable price to pay for the electronic version of a more expensive hardcover book.

A number of consumers interviewed for the article had other opinions, however. Author Douglas Preston expressed astonishment at reader “entitlement,” calling it “the Wal-Mart mentality”.

Amazon commenters attacked Mr. Preston after his publisher delayed the e-book version of his novel [Impact] by four months to protect hardcover sales. Mr. Preston said he was not sure whether the protests were denting his sales. But, he said, “It gives me pause when I get 50 e-mails saying ‘I’m never buying one of your books ever again. I’m moving on, you greedy, greedy author.’”

This is the sort of experience a number of authors are having lately. Certainly judging from a recent post on Whatever, John Scalzi has been getting a number of that kind of e-mail in the wake of his series of posts on the Amazon/Macmillan affair, but he doesn’t let it bother him.

If the article has a flaw, it is that it simplifies e-book readers’ complaints to the price increase and release windowing, which does make readers seem a little “entitled.” On the other hand, as Ficbot and I have made clear, some of we early adopters do have a few more issues than just those. (But then again, most of the people complaining will probably be relatively new Kindle users who may well have a simpler outlook.)

In any event, the article also quotes publishers saying they can take advantage of the opportunity to experiment with different prices and find out what the best prices are for their content. And if the publishers’ track record on pricing so far has led to the sort of frustration Ficbot and I expressed, we can at least be hopeful that this is a chance for them to make a fresh start.


  1. But isn’t it Amazon that insist on their proprietary format and make all the final conversion of files for Kindle. That (ie Amazon – the retalier who sells it on cheap at a loss) is where the fault surely lies with absent proofreading of the automated e-book. Not the publisher, who after all has gone to all the expense of getting it right in the paper edition to begin with.

  2. Pretty good article, but the argument by publishers that ebooks only save them a tiny bit of money is just as worthy of criticism as the notion that readers feel “entitled” to cheap books. As we’ve gone over before ad nauseam, publishers in this article and elsewhere misleadingly isolate the cost of printing as the only savings. Penguin CEO Makinson was doing it just the other day in his Wall Street Journal op-ed.

    The issue isn’t really about a sense of entitlement or anyone’s feelings. It’s mostly about economics, consumer preferences, market demand and all that. Why is Apple working so tirelessly to try to get TV and movie producers to cut their prices in half in the iTunes video store (Source: WSJ today )? Because they know that lower prices drive greater volume of sales. Similarly with Amazon.

  3. A non-fiction book with tables and graphs would take more time, but as I describe here, for the typical novel, starting with a typeset manuscript (say, Adobe InDesign) and exporting to Word, I can create a clean PRC file in less than an hour. A company like Simon & Schuster should be able to create scripts that would mostly automate the whole thing. What exactly do the “hundreds of men and women working on these books” do? Okay, there’s marketing, but that has nothing to do with the “quality” of the manuscript.

  4. Whenever I hear the whole $9.99 is not enough for an eBook I only have to look at Harlequin who was one of the few who has embraced eBooks and made it a hit with their readers.

    They are not trying to insist their eBook prices which are always way below the $10.00 mark do not pay the rent. In fact they always seem to be posting good profits as a well run company should.

  5. At present, the jury is out on whether the agency model will prove better for consumers than the Amazon model, with the latter likely to be temporary anyway. Amazon isn’t going to allow itself to throw away several dollars on each ebook sale forever.

    But I do wish more attention would focus on relatively easy ways to make ebooks more valuable.

    1. Settle on a standard that’s open, universal, and that can provide something more sophisticated that line after line of text with a little bolding and italics. The standard and the software that displays it, for instance, should be smart enough to scale and place graphics properly on any size display. The goal should be an ebook that can look as good as top-quality printed books.

    2. Be sensible about DRM. It does little to stop piracy. Popular books like Potter can easily be OCRed. DRM should either be done away with or made so it never interferes with a user’s ability to transfer a book to another platform.

    3. Buying ebooks should be as permanent as printed books. Right now it’s more like renting. Buying an ebook should give a reader permanent access to it on any device and any common ebook format that should arise in the future. He should be able to consult his ebook collection online, search it, read from it, and download a new copy. (He should even be able to pass it on in his will.) For a reasonable fee, he should be able to retain an annotated-by-him copy of it online. All those are things we can do with easy with printed books. We should be able to do the same with ebooks. Heck, as I have pointed out elsewhere, we should have markets where we could sell ebooks.

    4. Text-to-speech should be enabled with book markers that transfer between devices (home and on the go) as well as reading and listening. That’d let us read when reading is best and listen when we can’t read, such as when we are driving. This would add value for almost nothing and do little to hurt the sale of audio books, since no computer can match a professional reader. (In fact, with today’s technology, it makes sense to create combined ebook/professionally read audio book, with each sentence in one linked to the corresponding sentence in the other.)

    In short, we need to get over fussing over the price and let a free market handle that. Publishers should focus on the ways ebooks don’t measure up to printed books, eliminating those deficiencies, as well as finding ways that ebooks can be better than printed books at little or no cost. Adding value is better than squabbling over the cost of ebooks whose quality is still very lacking.

    There’s an old adage that to replace an old technology the new technology must be ten times better. I doubt that’s true with books versus ebooks, since the user experience is so similar. But to capture a major market share, ebooks do need to be two or three times better.

    To be honest, right now they’re more like two to three times worse.

  6. Maybe customers new to ebooks wouldn’t find a $14.99 price high but they will certainly pause when they see an ebook price similar to or higher than the paperback price. Those of us who are regular customers (I buy about 20 ebooks a month) see this all the time.

    I don’t understand how authors and publishers can keep complaining that their customers are acting “entitled” when they can’t even give us a high-quality product in the first place.

    There are freelance editors who specialize in formatting ebooks. Why not take the poorly formatted and badly edited ebooks off the market instead of continuing to sell a product you already know is full of typos, misspellings, and formatting errors? Then you can hire someone qualified to fix them.

  7. Is anyone really surprised by this move motivated by greed and disregard for the concept of a satisfied consumer. When sales flatline and then dwindle perhaps publishers will back pedal as they already should! I NEVER pay full price for any hardcopy books I purchase and you expect me to buy DRM’ed no cost to produce digital copies for MORE than paperback cost? Dream on Morons!

  8. I understand that $10 is considered a bargain price for ebooks in some circles. I can’t agree. That’s about my top price for a physical book these days (brand new trade paperbacks quite frequently sell for about that on Amazon), and I frequently manage less when I shop around, buy used, or the like. Sure, it’s cheap compared to hardcovers, but I don’t buy hardcovers unless on steep discount. I don’t know anyone who does. (And I know a lot of readers.) And while an e-book has some convenience advantages, it’s ultimately a lesser value than a physical book because of the restrictions currently inherent in the format, such as being unable to lend it to friends, family or coworkers.

    But I have occasionally been prepared to pay $10, and I would be okay with that being the starter price for most ebooks on the simple principle that I am already used to being patient when buying physical books. I can wait for the price to drop if I don’t think $10 is the right price for that book. $15? That’s clearly insane.

  9. It would be nice if some of those hundreds of people working on the books could at least manage to attach authors’ names to the ebooks. Lately, half of the ebooks I buy from Fictionwise show the author as “null”.

    I asked if this could be fixed, and got this reply —

    When the ebook was created by the publisher or the processing house, data about the book was added such as title, author, publisher, covers, etc. The reason the author is not showing up is because this information was not added to the book at that time. We apologize for the inconvenience, but to add this information the books would have to be rebuilt by the publisher.

    It didn’t strike me as an acceptable response, but apparently Fictionwise doesn’t feel able to demand that the publishers recreate the files.

  10. A lot of the arguments I’ve seen have the authors/publishers arguing regarding the proposed model/pricing plan and readers arguing regarding what has happened in the past.

    I just wish the arguments could be separated a bit. I don’t want to pay $9.99 for a piece of badly scanned text, any more than I’d want to pay $15 for it. I see no advantage to me in building “poor quality” into the $9.99 price

    Almost all the back catalogue is not starting from an electronic file, but from the physical book. I even had the impression that new books are going Electronic -> Physical -> Ebook. And that’s really the only explanation for some of the dreadful quality problems.

    My primary concern (as an Australian) is idiotic regional restrictions, then poor quality of books and DRM. Price comes trailing in toward the end, because I won’t pay more for an ebook than I will for a physical book (though, keep in mind that in Australia a new release hardback costs $50AU while that $15 ebook would come in at about $18AU) but I LOVE the idea of $15 new releases – provided I can own them rather than rent them, without covers, with errors.

    I have no problem with an ebook pricing structure which is based on ‘new release’, ‘recent release’ etc, so long as the price always stays below the physical book, and all these related issues are looked at.

    I would hate to embed $9.99 as some kind of magical price when, first, the Macmillan model will put a lot of books at lower than $9.99, and second, the quality issues and DRM issues aren’t addressed.

  11. I always think about what my mother would say about such things. She is a very middle of the road, average customer, exactly the demographic many marketers think of when they picture the ‘average’ customer. She is not very techie, nor very political, would not know ow to ‘pirate’ a book if she wanted to and just wants to read the latest Tom Clancy at the beach. And when we have talked about these things, she has assumed, without any prompting or clarification from me, that a) ebooks will be cheaper because there is no paper and b) that she could share an ebook with her husband the same way she could a paper book. When I pointed out, at least on point number 2, that this may or may not be true depending on several things, she just repeated ‘but he’s my husband!’ as if that should explain it all. She is not a criminal. She is not out to steal bread from the mouths of starving authors. She is a regular, average Jane Customer using basic human logic.

    Personally, I think a lot of authors have a sense of ‘entitlement’ about the whole thing. Yes, they should be able to get a fee for every book they sell, but that should by no means guarantee them a middle class, self-sustaining income. Lots of people have to have day jobs which aren’t their true passion, such is life. Either you get savvy as a marketer and self-promoter and you go that route, or…or it’s a hobby. And you work the day job. I really resent a lot of the authors who go on about how hard it is to ‘make a living’ as an author and then complain that it is unfair to expect them to be PR people since that is not their jobs. And I say this as a former ‘writer’ who went back to school and trained to be something else because I found I did *not* enjoy the PR side and did not enjoy the consequent poverty from being unable to make a living at it. When I write now, it’s for fun and if I make a little money, fine. And I am much happier that way. You have a right to expect that people who want your product will pay for it instead of steal it, but you do not have a right to expect that this will assure you a middle-class living.

  12. ^ No-one’s entitled to anything – authors aren’t entitled to get paid big bucks, and readers aren’t entitled to books without some form of payment.

    But if you’re barely scraping a subsistence-level living, and a small portion of your readers (which is where ebooks are at the moment) are telling you that sales on your new releases should be significantly less (which is what the hardcover argument is about), then an author is “entitled” to not be happy about that.

    I, as a reader, want to read new Robin McKinley novels. Robin McKinley wants to write novels. I’m happy to pay for them – and hey! I can get them for $9.99. All is happy in the world.

    But the next book is overdue, and there I am thinking Robin’s slacking off. And I go look for when the new release is coming out and…hey, Robin still wants to write, but the job at the library she had to take to cover the electricity bills because she’s hardly getting any money these days now that Amazon priced her new releases at under cost…

    Writing is not simple supply and demand. Each and every book and author is unique. If I starve Robin McKinley out of sufficient money to write – because she’s a HOBBYIST, dammit, and shouldn’t expect to make money at writing – then the publisher can’t outsource Robin McKinley novels to be manufactured at 10c a pop in China.

    I want my favourite (and undiscovered favourite) authors to have enough free time _to_ write. I want my favourite authors to be professional writers. I don’t want my favourite authors to be hobbyists because then I Get Less Books.

  13. I get what you’re saying, but then I think about my cousin the musician who teaches on the side, and my other cousin who makes stained glass windows—and teaches on the side—and I wonder why writers think they should be immune from the realities of what it takes to survive in the world. In an ideal situation, perhaps the writers could just write, and the musicians could just play music etc. But in an ideal situation we would not have supermodels making six figures while daycare workers subsist at just above minimum wage, and anybody who wants to be a stay at home parent could get a government subsidy to do so. If writers are not making enough money from the sale of books, they have to supplement, same as everybody else—being a writer doesn’t give them a special pass on that.

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