fall.jpgIn thinking about ebooks and the future of publishers, I, as have most commentators, have reflected the thinking of publishers that the solution is singular in the sense that one solution will fit all parts of a publishing business. The reality is quite to the contrary; because publishing is a pluralistic endeavor, the solutions must be as well.

Publishing has it great divides, like fiction, nonfiction, and academic, but there are even finer divides. For example, nonfiction can be biography, self-help, technical, cooking, current history, 20th century history, and on and on. When commenters talk about pricing and value, there is little discussion about the particular division under discussion. Most discussions, however, seem to be centered on fiction — the straight text novel.

Admittedly, a new Nora Robb novel is significantly different than a new Tony Judt history of post-WWII events. Certainly, it is the rare novel that is footnoted. So perhaps a different schema is required for the Robb novel than for the Judt history. In pbooks the schemata are the same, thus publishers are not currently thinking in smaller divides for ebooks.

I can buy the argument that the price for fiction is too high; I see a significant difference between what is for me a read-once book (novel) and a keep-for-further/future-reference book (history). But I also recognize that a best-selling novel has sales that dwarf by a thousandfold, if not more, sales of a best-selling history, and that it is the novel’s sales that subsidize the publishing of the history book. It’s a quandary.

The easiest solution, of course, is to “let the marketplace” decide. If history books don’t sell enough to make a profit, then stop publishing them. I think, however, that very few readers would want to adopt this approach. Could we survive on novels alone? (And could novelists write so well without a grounding in history that they get from access to history books?)

Publishers might instead think about dividing the market for pricing. Price novels and histories differently. Genre pricing of ebooks may well be the wave of the future. And the price differences could be justified by enhancing the history and not enhancing the novel. The history buff is interested in original documents, for example, or detailed maps. But the novel reader is more interested in simply reading the novel and moving on.

Unfortunately, none of this gets us past the fundamental flaw of the idea of genre pricing; that is, that fiction provides the funding for nonfiction. How low can pricing go and still support a vigorous publishing industry? I am willing to concede that in today’s Internet world there is less of need for publishers in fiction than in nonfiction. After all, few people look to the novel as a source of information; it is a source of entertainment. But this isn’t true of nonfiction where the function is less one of entertainment and more one of a source for information and requires a more vigorous publishing industry.

Nora Robb doesn’t have to be credible except as a good storyteller. Readers aren’t scrutinizing her novels to learn astronomy or history. Yes, it helps if her “facts” are true, but as science fiction and fantasy authors routinely demonstrate, made up facts and worlds are acceptable. In contrast, Tony Judt’s credibility lies in the verity of his facts and that they are verifiable from other credible sources.

What to do about pricing remains the unanswered question. It is clear to me, however, that if publishers continue to use a united schema for pricing of all books regardless of genre, ultimately publishers will fall and readers will be the losers. Should publishers divide the pricing schema into schemata based on genre, I think they will enhance the chances of surviving in the ebook age.

What remains to be determined is the price point at which each genre grows or dies. To that there is no easy answer.

Editor’s Note: Rich Adin is an editor and owner of Freelance Editorial Services, a provider of editorial and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor blog. PB


  1. I have long supported the idea that new fiction is properly priced at $9.99, but non-fiction (especially research works like history and biography) should be priced higher. For example, the new Teddy Roosevelt biography (years of work and 900+ pages) should cost more than Nora Robb’s most recent novel.

    As for best-sellers funding other books, those days are quickly ending, if not already past. If a book cannot pay back its investment (in time, and research expenses), then it probably shouldn’t be published, or it will need other sources of funding (like research grants).

    That’s life in the real world. Many historians/biographers are faculty members at universities, so the issue of funding can be met that way. If not, it is UNREALISTIC to expect the public to pay an unnecessarily high price for popular fiction to fund it. Besides, if that happens, and the popular author is getting less royalties than he should, they will self-publish at Amazon and get the 70% royalty.

    So, ALL parties must work in this new financial world.

  2. Let’s get rid of the idea that fiction will or should subsidize non-fiction. Publishers aren’t in business to subsidize anything (and believe me, there aren’t enough profits to subsidize much). History books have to pull their own weight. Are they more expensive? In paper, you’ve got expensive color plates, detailed drawings, that sort of stuff. On the other hand, in paper, history books do cost more. Fair enough. Some of those costs go away in eBook format (no need for expensive glossy paper). Others remain. But no publisher is going to publish a line of history books it knows will lose money. (How could a publisher stay in business if it lost money on one line and had to compete with companies who don’t subsidize that line)?

    If we can’t make money at history books, maybe there won’t be so many. Guess what…there are always Ph.D. dissertations if you need to do research and they are, increasingly, available on-line. Or you can always download The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from Gutenberg.

    As a side note, it’s Nora Roberts who also writes as J. D. Robb.

    Rob Preece

  3. Just as an observation, the “one thing subsidizes another” model is pretty pervasive in commerce of all kinds: insurance, movies, various consumer goods, computers, etc. I’m not sure it’s possible to eliminate it completely, but it’s interesting to think about how it could be done and what the results might be.

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