konrathIt can be entertaining to watch a good fight sometimes. That’s the case concerning a recent post by Porter Anderson discussing the question of publisher pricing on e-books, and a response by Joe Konrath defenestrating it. (I met both Anderson and Konrath at BookExpo America this year, so it was a pretty red-letter convention for me.)

Anderson, in kind of a long and rambling way, considers the problem traditional publishers and their authors face in the form of competition from much cheaper self-published e-books. It’s full of discussion of consumers “value perception of our quality content,” authors complaining about readers getting their e-books cheaply, and the importance of traditional publishing’s “dignity.”

He also complains of, effectively, all those unwashed barbarians at the gates:

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.

So many self-published authors sell for cheap or even free because it’s the only way they can get noticed without a publisher to promote them, Anderson contends. And then most of these cheap or free e-books languish unread.

It’s a little hard to puzzle out the point he’s trying to make in this piece, just because it rambles so much. By and large, it tastes of sour grapes—who do these self-publishers think they are, selling their trash so cheaply while our Great Literature languishes unread and unloved at higher prices?

And that seems to be where Joe Konrath comes in, with his response. I tend to find these defenestrations a little hard to read, given that they alternate bold text with italics and it can be a little hard to put the context together. By and large, I think I might prefer a single block of text that addressed the cogent points one by one, rather than an email-style quoted reponse. Still, Konrath makes some good points. If traditional publishing partisans want to gripe about their own high prices, they’ve got nobody to blame but themselves. Konrath writes:

When technology cuts out middlemen, costs (and subsequently prices) drop.

Publishers didn’t drop prices even when they no longer had to pay for shipping, printing, warehousing, distribution, and returns. They suddenly had more money because they didn’t have to pay a myriad of middlemen for ebooks. And rather than share that extra income with authors, publishers kept it all for themselves.

So authors like me decided we didn’t need publishers, and now publishers feel threatened. Boo-hoo.

In response to an author’s complaint of readers who only download giveaways and never buy books because they don’t have to, Konrath notes that lending libraries and other free sources of books have been around for centuries, yet the publishers haven’t attempted to close them.

Furthermore, readers have always had a lot of choices, and reading isn’t a zero-sum game. People read multiple books—reading one doesn’t mean they can’t read another.

And in response to the above quote about Blockbuster and Netflix leading to unsatisfying knockoffs, Joe writes:

Translation: When you lose control over distribution, cheap knock-offs abound and eat your lunch.

I’m fine with you calling me cheap. Why should I care? Your lunch is delicious. I bet you really enjoyed it when it was still yours.

He also pooh-poohs the notion that authors go cheap because it’s the only way to get noticed. In fact, very few traditionally-published books get much marketing either, and cheap e-books don’t have a monopoly on languishing unread. And self-publishing royalty rates are a lot better than publishing rates, which means authors can keep their prices low and yet earn a lot more on each sale than they could via traditional publishing.

Konrath notes that Amazon understands what prices best sell e-books—but rather than allow Amazon to price their e-books to sell, publishers insist on jacking the prices up themselves. So readers flock to cheaper books instead—and publishers ought to lower their prices if they want their e-books to sell better.

Anderson also quoted Joe Konrath from his BEA panel I took in—the line about reaching more people by signing with a big publisher—and Konrath said Anderson took the quote out of context and that most people would make more money by self-publishing instead.

It’s an old, old argument, and it continues unabated. I have a strong suspicion that both sides will keep going around and around, with no major changes, until and unless something serious happens to affect the balance of the industry. Will publishers eventually realize that rampant agency pricing really is harming their brands, and consumers simply don’t need them anymore? Will they adapt to the new reality, or will they try to sue someone?

I suspect it may also depend on the question of whether e-book adoption really has stalled out as Amazon opts to concentrate on media tablets rather than e-ink readers, as that other panel I took in at BEA suggested. If e-books are going to stay in a distant second-place to print books, it may be that publishers will just refocus their attention on making the most they can out of print and cede e-books to the self-publishing field. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds.


  1. The undeniable fact is that there are tens of thousands more published authors now, compared to the days when Big Publishing controlled the book world. Try as they might, Big Publishing can’t put that genie back in the bottle and it is just a question of time before even established writers realize that they are giving away unnecessary profits to these parasites.

    Pricing is not really the issue, the ability to be published at all is the issue. The world needs those who write and those who promote. The world no longer needs those who live off the talent of others and contribute nothing else.

  2. I’ve never understood the comparisons that legacy publishing advocates make between self-published authors and traditionally published authors, on any level.

    They take income, or quality, of self-publishing as an aggregate and compare it income and quality of traditionally published authors as an aggregate. But those two groups are not the proper comparison; you have to compare with the hundreds of thousands of people who try to publish traditionally every year and never get off the slush pile. That’s the apples-to-apples comparison.

  3. I don’t particularly care for new fiction writers, but I’m delighted to find that the economics of small press e-publishing are making it possible for me to buy — at bargain prices — and read dozens of old authors who would otherwise have fallen into the Copyright Gap; too new to evade copyright but too old to be remuneratively reissued under the traditional system. If and when major publishers make an effort to put ALL their backlists up for sale then I will have more sympathy with them.

  4. Please…while there are certainly some fairly good authors who self-publish, around 80% are at best mediocre and almost ALL could use someone who actually knows how to edit (and that doesn’t mean hiring someone who tells you they are a BA English major graduate, which means you know nothing about editing, necessarily). Think of all the amazing books you’ve read and it’s hard to see what all this complaining about the big publishers is; sounds a lot like sour grapes…don’t have fame? don’t have wealth? don’t have an advance? don’t have a team for your book? Tell everyone day-after-day why indie publishing is better.

    I have YET to read a single indie published book, which reaches the level of professional publishing. This is mostly because most indie authors are cheap; the money that traditional publishers routinely spend on great covers, great editors, and layout, indie authors think they shouldn’t have too…after all, that would mean they have to spend Real money, significant money, but since they are an “Indie” author, they shouldn’t have to do that, right?

    There are even author “consultants” on Amazon, who…remarkably and without shame…tell authors to just throw up what they’ve got and begin selling it, after all, they can come back and correct it later. Traditional publishers would never do that and that’s one of the reasons they do charge what they charge, they take the time to make the book look right, read right, and be right.

    As someone who has worked in traditional publishing, and who will now be “indie” publishing (because I know how to edit and how to do all of the tasks the right way, creating a Quality book), we should applaud them for all the risks they take. Every book for the person who takes it on at a publishing house, puts their career just a little bit up or a little bit down. And you, sitting in your chair, have no right to deride their choices.

    It seems odd that indie authors, kvetching about big publishing, forget just how hard the people at these houses work, how smart they have to be, how caring they are. So stop complaining and pay good money to get your book to equal the Quality of the big publishers; then and only then will indie publishing get some respect.

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