ImagesFor the past three years, my ebook reading, if you graphed it, would be a steady, upward slope: more choice, more books, more happiness. I went from Project Gutenberg freebies to full-price patronage at first one store, then several; I went from plain text reading on a tiny but serviceable PDA to a gloriously book-sized full screen on a dedicated device; I can now do what used to be a sci-fi fantasy and access my entire library off any device I own and synchronize my bookmarks between them. Life should be great, right? The curve should continue steadily upward: more choice, more books, more money, life is grand. So…why isn’t it? Why is 2012 shaping up to be my worst ebook year ever? Here are my top five reasons. Any of them taken in isolation might be tolerable, but as a combined force, they spell a worrying downward spiral.

1) QUALITY IS GETTING WORSE

Of the first 100 or so ebooks I bought way back in the glory days of Fictionwise, there was nary a typo to be found. And now? I can’t even remember the last book I bought that didn’t have something wrong with it. It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of book it is, either. I’ve seen really careless mistakes that even a casual glance would have fixed in new best-sellers by hit authors; in re-issues of decades-old paperbacks; in midlist non-fiction and so on. I just can’t stomach paying—especially at current higher-than-paper prices—for books I have to decrypt just so I can correct them for future re-reading. If I wanted to be a copy editor, I would have stayed a professional journalist. I don’t have the time or the inclination. So I have been getting more and more stuff from the library—that way, I am not out any money if the book has problems. I can delete it, guilt-free, and move onto something else. Of course, this means I am discovering fewer new authors. An author who may have converted me with the library freebie into a future paying customer can lose a valuable opportunity when their book is error-filled!

2) PRICING IS GETTING OUT OF CONTROL

I understand striking while the iron is hot—a new release by a best-selling author should absolutely command a higher price than the backlist. But just how high a price? What used to be a $9.99 best-seller is now going for $15-18 thanks to the agency deal. And unlike the traditional hardcover-to-paper paradigm, it’s never going down either. When the new JD Robb book came out this past week, it was priced in ebook at almost $19—and so was the previous book in the series! At that pricing level, it has to be something I truly, desperately want to read for me to shell out that kind of money. And to shell it out and then have to deal with mistakes as I read? It has to be something I doubly extra-special want to read. There is fair pricing, then there is pricing yourself out of the market altogether. I’m happy to pay for quality content, but I am not happy to overpay. I am starting to feel taken advantage of, and my response has been to simply retreat and read other things.

3) NEW RELEASES ARE BECOMING LESS AVAILABLE AT THE CHANNELS THROUGH WHICH I DISCOVER THEM

First, one of the big 5 dropped out of the library game altogether. Then another one raised their prices 300%. What’s left? If my local library is any indication, it’s reams and reams of vampire novels. Yawn. Why slog through those when I have hundreds of unread classics bookmarked over at Gutenberg? And hundreds of other purchased books I haven’t gotten to yet? The reality is that there are maybe a dozen books a year I hear about ahead of time and really want to read. The other books I read are just whatever comes my way. If you are fighting for my attention, you lose it right out of the gate just by not being available through the channels I regularly check.

4) AUTHORS ARE GETTING SERIES-CRAZY

It seems every book that comes out these days is part of a series, and to be honest, I just don’t have the initiative right now to get invested in something new that’s going to involve that kind of commitment. I hit the same threshold with television about a year and a half ago after decades of voracious watching. It all started looking the same, and the thought of getting hooked in and then having to keep up with every new installment or risk falling behind and losing the thread completely just tires me. When I do watch television now, it’s usually one of those pseudo-how-to things where you can watch one episode and be done. There is one I particularly enjoy involving an expert who comes in and teaches people how to manage their money. Each episode is a self-contained experience. I have many pulls on my time these days and I value that. I am starting to value that in books, too. I do have a few series I follow already. That is commitment enough right now. As for a new-to-me author? Just give me a good read. I don’t need any more sagas.

The bottom line? I have bought only a handful of books this year so far, and don’t see that changing any time soon. I do have a lot of books to read. I am just spending less money, on fewer authors, in order to get them. 2012, worst year ever? So far it is! Here’s hoping for a more favourable second quarter.

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"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."

21 COMMENTS

  1. An interesting list. I’m not sure if text quality is getting worse, but I’d agree it isn’t getting better very quickly. I find myself more satisfied with independent books’ quality these days… when I find one I want to read. That, to me, is a major stumbling block: Finding the independent authors and books I’m interested in. It’s no easier drilling past the ads and reviews of every piece of drek by the major publishers, trying to find good indie fare.

    At least indies have better control over their pricing. And thanks to a new Smashwords initiative, more of those indie books may become available at libraries… just in time for you to get to them, Joanna.

    And I’ve also heard a lot of push-back on series lately. I don’t mind so much, if the stories are totally encapsulated–and some of my books come under that category–but I agree, buying into an unknown number of never-ending stories seems to be more than a lot of people want to invest in right now. Too much to do… too little time. Standalone books are aces.

  2. This shows a complete misunderstanding of what’s going on in the digital space. As ebooks become more complex and more mainstream, the costs of producing them increase while at the same time representing a larger portion of the revenue stream needed to finance those operations. Publishers are looking to a time (not far off) when ebooks will provide the lion’s share of their income, and subsequently, the costs of digital content are rising to equal that of other formats of that same content.

    Quality, meanwhile is actually increasing dramatically. I don’t know what ebooks you’ve been buying, but the overwhelming mess I used to slog through on my ancient Compaq iPad Pocket PC back in the day have been replaced by vivid, colorful, dramatically formatted live text with “nary a typo to be found.” Just a year or so ago you couldn’t buy a graphic novel or illustrated children’s book as an ebook, but today the market is awash in them – all beautifully designed and cleverly formatted to take advantage of the digital medium.

    Project Gutenberg will always be a go-to source for me, but new resources are appearing at an astounding rate – a sign of increased production and consumer choice. The doom and gloom prognostication of your headline is grossly misleading, and I am willing to bet, incorrect by a mile.

  3. We don’t know what books you’re reading, either; I don’t know anyone who doesn’t find typos in every ebook they purchase.

    And as the popularity of ebooks increase, why would the cost of producing them increase? It should be decreasing, as publishers get their infrastructure in place, streamline operations and begin to cut away the fat. And if you hadn’t noticed, a lot of ebooks cost far more than their print counterparts. Maybe you’re spending too much time picking up freebies at PG to notice?

  4. I am curious as to where this pricing information comes from. While I am not crazy about the pricing of e-books, I never see new release fiction priced as high as $19.

    I don’t read JD Robb, so I did a search on Amazon for this author. If I did my search correctly, the most recent e-book from this author is Celebrity in Death priced at $12.99. I’m not crazy about $12.99 and usually wait for those titles to come down in price, but it is a far cry better than the $19 mentioned in this article. The book is published by Putnam, which I believe is tied to Penguin, and thus should be a part of the Agency model and priced the same everywhere. I suppose it is possible that the book has come down in price, but it has only been out a few weeks and I have never seen a price drop that quickly on a new release. The other books by this author seem to be priced mostly at $7.99, with a few priced at $2.99, which would seem to me to be reasonable for backlist titles from a big name author.

  5. The reason that the cost of digital production is increasing with rising popularity is precisely because of we’re having to put all new infrastructures in place, and because as ebooks go mainstream consumers demand higher quality and richer content. As an independent ebook creator, just keeping up on all the new devices coming out is costing me a fortune. How many 99 cent ebooks will it take to pay for the new iPad 3? About 1500. I can’t afford to sell my books for that. We are so far from “streamlining operations” that it’s not even in the foreseeable future. It certainly won’t be this year.

  6. I guess I’ve been lucky as errors seem to be few and far between for me these days.

    As far as the JD Robb book. The new one came out at $14.99 (in the US) and once it was a bestseller for a week dropped to $12.99 which is standard for Penguin (the hardcover is currently $16.16 on Amazon). The previous book is $7.99 and dropped to that on March 6th when it was also release as a mass market paperback.

    I’m not a fan of Agency pricing, but don’t find the above prices totally unreasonable (of course I wouldn’t argue if they dropped by a few bucks) and the big publishers do seem to be doing more $2.99-$4.99 sale books than they used to. I really wish getting through the indie slush pile was a bit easier, but I think that’s something that will develop with more time.

  7. @R. Scot: As an independent book creator, I produce my books in 4 formats, sell on multiple sites plus my own, and don’t have a need for bells and whistles like device-specific apps, multimedia, etc. I also sell at $3. I’m not saying all ebooks should be as simple as mine, but they don’t all need to be as complex as yours apparently are, either. (At least I don’t need to but an iPad 3 to make sure my books work…)

    I also admit to having a bad year in 2011, but as a seller, not just as a consumer. My problem with selling is exactly the same problem I have buying: Trouble positioning and finding content outside of the traditional heavily-advertised pop and major publisher material (which is mostly uninteresting to me).

    So for me, the thing to do to crack open 2012 (and beyond) is to figure out a promotional process that breaks past the major publishers’ drek, and to find more superior independent material to enjoy.

  8. I thought I’d go on a Nero Wolfe re-read. Fer-de-Lance, the first book, is $6.99 for the Kindle. I can deal with that, although for a book that old, paying new-book prices stings a bit. But The League of Frightened Men, the second book, is $11.99 in Kindle – same publisher. I think I’ll go find them in my library, instead.

  9. Latest Jd Robb at kobo = 15.99
    http://www.kobobooks.com/ebook/Celebrity-In-Death/book-xhGmMUjo5ECA18wRSZlwnw/page1.html

    Last JD Robb at kobo published last year also = 15.99
    http://www.kobobooks.com/ebook/New-York-to-Dallas/book-RqhG8_T6IkWh_W6_5Q2_yw/page1.html

    JD Robb book published 14 years ago = 8.99
    http://www.kobobooks.com/ebook/Holiday-in-Death/book-U1FsXzPzZ0OWFs5Tc9AG9Q/page1.html

    Clearly not good enough pricing for my reading habits.

  10. Someone in these discussions needs to split up the market into illustrated titles demanding graphic intensive work, and novels and titles that are 100% text.

    For Novels and titles with 100% there is no such increase in costs and no one is going to buy this story.

    I continue to encounter a constant stream of titles with rampant typos and other errors. I don’t know how anyone could say things are getting better or that “Quality, meanwhile is actually increasing dramatically”. Quite the opposite. Only indies seem to be bothering and I find them far superior in this regard.

  11. Interesting thoughts, Joanna.

    I agree that I’m finding more typos in books put out by major publishers than I once did. I wonder, though, if this is because I’m more aware of typos rather than because there are more of them. I appreciate R Scot Johns’ thoughts on eBooks becoming more complex and costly. Perhaps it’s my paranoia, but I’ve long suspected major publishers would like eBooks to become more complex and costly to keep pesky independent publishers out of the business. I read mostly genre fiction and for me, the text is the thing.

    Rich and Steve are dead-on that independent publishers often provide quality material at more affordable prices. Of course, the trick is helping independent publishers and readers find one another.

    I also appreciate Joanna’s point about series. The fact is, series seem to sell. As do franchise-related books. Walk into your local B&N or library and half the science fiction books on the shelves seem to be StarTrek or StarWars… not just series but conglomerate-controlled series. I don’t blame publishers for putting this stuff out if that’s what readers want, but I’m looking for original fiction… fiction to inspire movies rather than derive from them.

    Rob Preece, Publisher

  12. Thank you, John, for the Kobo links. It’s gone down a few dollars in the days since I checked, but as your links show, it is still quite high. I do understand the wish to price the new release a little higher, but then the previous title should be marked down to backlist levels. That’s what had me so upset about the whole thing. This is a series I devotedly follow, but when you hit the $12 mark I start thinking a little harder, even for books I really do want to read. And when you show bad faith by keeping the previous ones as high as the new release…well, it foes make me reconsider how badly I want to read it or whether I can get it, even in paper, for free at the library…

    I do not buy into the ‘it’s getting more complex’ argument at all. If they could put them out at Fictionwise five years ago for $8, why is there now a need to double the price and halve the distribution network? It just defies logical sense. If your business model really is so complex that there is not a plain English explanation you can give your customers that sounds even somewhat plausible to them, then your business model needs to be simplified. The customer does not *care* about nitty gritty details. They care that once, they could have the book and now they cannot. If you can’t or won’t SELL to people, you lose all credibility to complain about your profits. And as Howard points out, the ‘complex interactive art’ market and the ‘plain text novels’ market really are not the same animals at all. I should have clarified that the only market I am concerning myself with an an analysis of my personal buying habits is plain text novels.

    And yes, I do acknowledge that there are some indie folks who are doing it better. I think that I am still working through the backlog of commercial titles I own but have not gotten to yet. I certainly foresee that once I have exhausted them, the indie market will get a lot more attention from me. Fwiw, of the handful of titles I have actually purchased this year, probably half of them have been from indie publisher Delphi Classics. They package out of copyright classics into some really nice anthologies. I got the complete works of Dickens split up into about 20 volumes and downloadable as a single DRM-free zip file for about $3 and I have been buying their new series where they present the complete works of various artists complete with commentary (which seems to be drawn from Wikipedia) and bonus features. About $2 each, DRM-free. A great value, imho. Yes, I could hunt out all that stuff for free very easily, but it is worth the $2 to have it all packaged nicely.

  13. I don’t pay attention to the typos in a book — the more common problem is ebooks created for 15 or 20 page short stories by amateur authors on smashwords — most of which are just too insubstantial to be called an ebook. I really try to devote a certain percentage of my reading time reading through the slush pile of free titles from feedbooks and smashwords, but I am about ready to give up. I am just sick of downloading all these interesting-sounding freebies and later learning that the ebook was really only 10 pages long.

    I understand the need for a mix of freebies and smaller size ebooks, but the current trend is just ridiculous.

    The solution I think is better disclosure about how many words a title actually has.

    Another complaint about the same slush pile of indie ebooks. I really don’t mind if you are a student writer or this is the first story you’ve ever written. Whatever. But would you take the time to write a one or two paragraph description of what the book is about — none of these 1 or 2 sentence descriptions. Chances are, these “slush pile ebooks” (and I use the word not to disparage them) don’t have any reviews; all the more reason to give accurate descriptions of what the package is about.

  14. I’m in complete agreement with Rob Preece: I believe that major publishers would like to have us believe that such books are more complicated and costly, and then use that as a cudgel to try to beat back the indie segment of the market.

    Honestly, saving as HTML, PDF, RTF and then using Calibre (or numerous other resources) for .epub and .mobi ain’t all that hard. And this very simple workflow works for 90% of what mainstream publishing puts out today…mostly just words and more words. Drop caps I could care less about. I think most readers agree.

    The publishing industry really enjoyed having the bookstores all to themselves…they really would rather not have those messy, smelly indie authors cluttering up their carefully co-op controlled end-caps and best-seller lists.

    Series tend to be written because it is a great tool for co-branding by authors. Names tend to be easily forgotten…but brand names can have a certain zing that tends to stick in the readers’ mind. And readers tend to gravitate towards known quantities…so series are something that generally work for both authors and many (but not all) readers.

    Right now we’re experience the land-rush phase of indie books. Soon enough, the people who believe it is easy money with no real work will get frustrated and move on.

    But over the next few years, lots of great authors will be able to establish themselves and find their audience without a publisher standing between them and readers.

  15. Robert: Also in complete agreement about distinguishing between various word lengths. I believe it is in authors’ best interests to tag each book with something along the following lines:

    xx words (Reading time: Approximately xx hours/minutes). DRM-free.

    (A good rule of thumb that I’ve seen on Feedbooks and other sites is 20,000 words = 1 hour.)

    I believe authors can only benefit from noting when their books are DRM-free since it shows readers they can format-shift without hassles (and raises awareness of the issue to those who aren’t paying attention…YET.)

  16. Robert ands Bill – Excellent posts. I agree completely.

    On the subject of Series I part company with many and feel there is nothing wrong with series. But they should be judged on the same basis as any other new title. If they are good enough then sure why not, if not then it’s disappointing, obviously. Writers are not just pure artistes … they are looking to earn a living and if they feel there is an audience for a continuing story then fine. MANY readers also enjoy another helping of a good story.

  17. The price of Agency 6 ebooks may vary with your location. For example, Hachette and HarperCollins doubled the price of ebooks for Australians just before Christmas. Despite our much smaller population, Australians are half the UK book market. The big publishers need to realize that people who buy a lot of books are their best market, and that p*ssing off good customers is bad business. God only knows what goes through their alleged minds nowadays.

    As for J.D. Robb, for an Australian ebook buyer, at Amazon her previous title (New York to Dallas) was $9.99 on release, but $17.69 in the New Year. Her newest title (Celebrity in Death) was $21.74 on release, and still is. I am NOT willing to pay more than $10 for a single, rented* copy of a text file (in the case of most authors, $5 is plenty). Text files are not difficult to produce and distribute. Lower the price and gain many more customers, making much more money in total. But again, the Agency 6 aren’t listening.

    * According to the ebook contracts, when we hit “Buy”, we’re only renting a copy of that ebook. The publishers can take it back anytime.

  18. Ebook publishing industry is flood by a lot of low quality rubbish. In these days, everyone can claim its own eBooks with simple steps and small amount of money. It looked the same with the fast growing Internet business in last decade. It needs sometime to clear up the market.

  19. @Clytie Sidall, what a name.Sorry but if you really think you’re going to get new releases for $5, you are delusional. Gas is $4 a gallon but you sit on your butt at home and get your book in 60 seconds. STOP complaining so much or write your own ebooks. If you had a potential bestseller your desire to charge $5 peanuts would change.

  20. Actually Cytie is 100% right and more and more people are adhering to his policy. So you need to get used to it.

    Willus – I disagree with you utterly. I was with an elderly aunt of mine on Sunday in a bookstore (somewhere I try to avoid nowadays) and was looking, with her, at the shelves of new releases, best sellers, recommended reads etc. It is LITTERED with utter trash! Being ‘published’ in paper is no guarantee of quality.

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