Sunday, October 18, 2009

I've Gone Over to the Dark Side

(image by Vader_is_a_Leafs_fan23)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a mini-rant about the Kindle and how Amazon had reached in and snatched out several books their customers had purchased without advance warning. The whole thing started when some folks put up "editions" of books such as 1984 without the proper permissions. Amazon did what needed to be done, if not in the best possible way. The comments not only to that post, but to similar posts across the blogosphere ranged from outrage that Amazon would do such a thing to comments that those customers should have known better because they paid less than a dollar per book. My reaction fell more along the lines that Amazon most certainly could have handled it better AND the customers should have realized there might be a problem based on the extremely low cost of the books in question.

Then I received a Kindle for my birthday and, to be honest, I've had to re-examine my thoughts about e-book readers, e-publishing and Amazon in general.

Let me start by saying one of my biggest complaints against ebook readers is that they aren't books. I like the feel of a book in my hand, of being able to curl up in bed with a book before bed. You can't do that with a computer and I assumed you couldn't with an ebook reader. WRONG. Yes, it felt different when I first received the Kindle. However, it is close enough to the size of a book, although not the depth, to almost convince me. Then I bought the cover for it and now that it "opens" like a book, a lot of the issue of it not being a book has gone.

Then there is the sheer convenience of a Kindle. I'm a reader. No, I'm an avid reader with what can best be described as eclectic tastes. Add to that the fact I always have at least three writing projects going, at least one of which requires research in some form or fashion. That means books, lots and lots of books. Which, before the Kindle meant carrying a backpack or more whenever I left the house to work. After al, I had my notes, my laptop or eee and power cord, MP3 player, research books, probably one book to read for entertainment, my purse or at least my wallet...well, you get my drift. Now, I carry a book bag, if that. My purse can hold the Kindle and eee. I still carry an MP3 player even though the Kindle has the ability to play my tunes. But I don't need to carry all the books, not when I currently have over 100 books on the Kindle with much more room to grow.

The biggest issue now facing ebook readers isn't the cost of the reader itself, although that is still an issue. The biggest issue is the cost of the books. However, before you start thinking I've lost my mind and have mortgaged the house for the books currently on my Kindle, I have to confess that a good number of them come from Baen -- the one "traditional" publishing house that has the right idea about ebooks and their pricing. Another large group of the books comes from Amazon itself -- and for free. Each month Amazon lists books that have been best sellers or are first books for best selling authors or the first book in a series for free. Is it a hook? Sure. They are wanting to hook you so you will buy the other books in the series. Nothing wrong with that.

Amazon also lets you download the opening of a book, either a few pages or a few chapters, onto your Kindle to see if you actually want to buy the book. I happen to like that idea as well. Just like I appreciate being able to use my Kindle to check my email or look up something on wikipedia.

So what's the big issue about pricing, you ask? It's the cost of the ebooks themselves. Amazon is attempting to hold firm to the idea that ebooks, including best sellers, should list at $9.99 or less. The traditional publishing houses, on the whole, hate this idea. They call it "unrealistically low". My question in response is why? As Dave and others have pointed out, publishers don't have the same financial input regarding an ebook as they do with a dead tree version of the same book. There are no printing costs, no transportation costs, no housing costs. Accounting for ebook sales is much easier as well -- oh wait, that's good for the author, not necessarily for the publisher.

Basically, the time has come for the publishing industry to realize they have to take a hard look at their business models and adapt to the times. Our children have been raised with computers. They think more in terms of bytes than pages. They use their cell phones for everything from making calls and texting to playing games and surfing the web. Universities are using ebooks more and more to help keep costs down for students. I won't even get into the "green" benefits of an ebook reader and ebooks as opposed to traditional publishing.

Frankly, if the traditional publishers and big box bookstores aren't convinced that times are changing, they need to take another look at the pricing war currently taking place between Amazon and Walmart. Both of those retailers understand that the average reader can no longer afford to pay $25 or $30 for a hard cover book, nor do they want to pay close to $9 for a paperback. Are the publishers screaming? Hell, yeah. Are the big box bookstores screaming? You betcha. Do I have an answer, no. Publishers have to make a profit to stay in business. However, trying to do so by raising the price of ebooks to the same, or almost the same, as a dead tree version isn't the answer.

One recommendation I do have is to bring their backlist out as ebooks, price them reasonably and introduce a whole new generation of readers to authors and books they've never heard of before. Oh, yeah, along with that, pay the writers a reasonable percentage of the ebook sales. Take a look at those ebook publishers who are making a go of it and follow their business plan. Everyone will gain that way - readers, writers and the publishers.

What are your thoughts? Has my soul been forever blackened by its conversion to the Kindle? How should the publishers react to the growing demand for ebooks, especially reasonably priced ebooks? And what is a "reasonable" price for an ebook?

Off-topic and your fair warning advisory: Sarah said to tell you she can't be all places at once and is afraid her pointy toed boots would be blunted by all the butts she has to kick because of folks dragging their feet about sending out their work. Sstarting Wednesday, she will be holding an on-going short story clinic to help "encourage" everyone to let go of their "babies" and send them out into the real world. So sharpen your pencils, get out your paper and be prepared to work!

19 comments:

matapam said...

I looked at some readers the other day. Very nice quality. However, I read so much slush on the computer, I just can't make myself buy one.

The kindle. The removal of 1984, was the electronic equivalent of a couple of big men shoving inside your house, snatching the book out of your hands, and informing you that they will do it again, anytime they want to. It's bad enough when DRM treats every customer like a potential pirate. When the big companies start acting like the Mafia enforcer who knows he owns the Chief of Police and the DA, people get upset.

That the books were low cost doesn't come into it. I happen to know some very good authors who give there's away, free.

It's the idea of having paid all this money for a device designed to be hacked and your stuff taken.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, I'm not going to try to change your mind, especially since I still feel the way you do about Amazon removing 1984 and the other books. That really did leave a bad taste in my mouth and points out, to me, a major flaw in the system. That said, I've been more than a bit surprised by how much I like the Kindle and how much I can do with it.

I understand about reading slush on the computer and it does bring up one observation. I have, at Sarah's suggestion, started uploading my current projects onto the Kindle. Yes, it means I can't edit directly, but I can highlight and make notes. Also, seeing them in what is very similar to book format has seemed to make me more critical of what I read and, hopefully, it makes my edits tighter.

As for the free books, oooooh yeah. I loves them free books ;-) That is the bulk of what is on the Kindle now. In fact, I think I've paid for exactly 2 of the more than 100 books currently housed on it and neither of those cost more than 4 bucks.

Again, I don't like the ability for Amazon to reach in and take away anything I've already bought. However, considering I buy so little for it, it is something I'm willing to live with. Especially since I don't like reading books on my computer, eee or, heaven help me, my cell phone.

Dave Freer said...

:-) figures vary - but costs with electronic for a publisher should be the same as for orignation of a paperback - 12%-25% of the cost of a paperback. Call it a $1.75 on reasonable size run. part of the problem is of course that e-book runs are not guaranteed reasonable - the only thing i could say in defence of the high prices wanted. I'd say $5 (or 4.99 if you want to be stupid about it) with roughly 50% for the author would be a working model for me as a writer. 2K books would see most newbies earning more than advances for most newbies are. And to be honest if I could 5K of anything I write (and no more wasting time on proposals and worry), I'd be coping. Anything more would be nice.

Of course the right answer would be a flat origination cost, and once that is paid, all parties get some share of the rest. I have no idea what that flat would be - editing and proofing and art and cover. How many books can one such team do a month and how big does it have to be?

John Lambshead said...

Amazon intend to sell Kindle in the UK with an American plug on - no kidding.

Also, it is not clear that the wireless download system will work and there are rumours of a soppecial extra charge over and above the American rate because, well, just because.

I do not predict a runaway success.
John

Amanda Green said...

Dave, thanks for your input. You have a better feel for this from a writer's point of view than I do. I agree that there should be a flat origination cost. My question is, how should that be portioned out when the book in question is being published both as an ebook and as a hard copy? It seems to me that much of the same work needed to prepare a book for dead tree publishing applies to e-publishing, especially with the advent of .pdf files. From the creation of the .pdf files for printing to the translation into other ebook-compatible file formats wouldn't take much more time or effort. So, how do you charge that out?

Amanda Green said...

John, I'm not sure how much of it is Amazon and the Kindle and how much of it is British publishers. I'll be honest and say I haven't done much research yet into the issue. What a quick Google search turned up is an article on the TeleRead Blog (http://www.teleread.org/2009/10/08/amazon-kindle-international-publishers-screw-readers-again/)by Paul Biba:

According to the Bookseller publishers are insisting on territorial rights with the issue of the new international Kindle. UK publishers are insisting that these rights be observed if they are to make their books available. In a statement that is patronizing, at best, the UK Publisher’s Association said that they want to be sure that “… consumers will buy works appropriate to the country they are in.”

Evidently Amazon records your country or region when you first buy content, and then, according to Amazon, when you travel your ability to buy books will be determined by your “… home country, not by the country you are traveling in.”

Naturally this has complicated Amazon’s negotiations and undoubtedly delayed the introduction of an international Kindle. Evidently Random House UK, Macmillan and Oxford University Press are still holdouts. I wonder if this is part of the problem with the Kindle in Canada. Can you imagine how difficult this must have been for Amazon to negotiate on a worldwide basis....


Addendum: Yes, overseas customers will pay more for downloads than US customers. Part of the reason is because of the additional cost of the international operations and part comes down to taxes. "International customers do pay a higher price for their books than US customers due to higher operating costs outside of the US," said the spokesman. "Additionally, VAT rates in the EU are higher on ebooks than on print books." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/oct/09/kindle-charges)

I have a feeling it is going to be like everything else. It's going to depend on how the technology progresses, how the negotiations with the publishers turn out and how the consumers vote with their wallets.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda- origination cost (free of the costs of paper, binding, shipping returns) should be equally apportioned it seems to me. No, I know this is not the case. I know that some of the 'costing' is for things like premises, and debt servicing (ie - that fat advance they gave John Nurkle - you're being billed for). My own feeling BTW, is that co-op way forward will involve subcontracting these people on a small flat fee - including the site operator, proof reader, copy editor and artist (which is what gets paid for first) whereafter THEY get a small royalty, and the author a large one. And if said Editor/artist/proof-reader do a cr*p job - they ALSO stand to lose money, besides not being used again. I am a little tired of every crash is driver error.

Brendan said...

In relation to the Kindle and costs. The Kindle is just coming to Australia and Amazon has done some funny things with it's release. There is a higher than expected postage cost, the actual unit is going to cost more than someone in the US can buy it for and the cost to download books is going to be higher. Amazon and their carrier aren't going to licence out transmission locally and so any Kindle here will be forced to call the US for any downloads required at local mobile rates.

I have an iPod Touch and am loving having over 200 books in my pocket.

Kate said...

My view is pretty simple. If you like the thing, great. I"m holding off until I can get something with the features I want at the price I want, preferably after ebook formats have standardized and the "it must have DRM" people have lost.

They lost in music, and I now download large amounts every month from eMusic (it's a subscription service. Pay $x a month, get y downloads. I log in once a month and blast through my download limit, depending on what's in and what I'm looking for add a bunch of other albums to my save for later list, then log off and copy the files to where I actually keep them).

Of course, me being me, the music collection is a) large, and b) eclectic. So is my reading collection. Right now my "to read" pile includes Machiavelli, Reinhardt, some "Life in xxx" books, a couple of political books, Gandhi's autobiography, some science books... Fiction tends not to make the pile because it trumps everything else.

Anyway, what I want is no DRM, commonly accepted format (can you say VHS vs Betamax. Or in the more recent incarnations, DVD+R vs DVD-R, Blu-Ray vs HDDVD...), external storage, Linux compatible, easy and effectively unlimited bookmarking and/or annotation, and preferably below $200. Oh, and I do not want my books tied to a device. Ever.

Other than that, I can see how effective they are. The idea or replacing most of my huge quantities of books with back-up-able, easily-portable ebooks certainly appeals.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Nah, you're not irrevocably corrupted. One thing to keep in mind is that, while Amazon can take the stuff you buy at Amazon off, they can't take the stuff you buy through Webscriptions off -- and if they did, I'm sure Arnold and Toni would have a few choice words with them.

Myself, I've got a Sony Reader (PRS-505), and in the past year I think I've actually read more e-books than dead-tree books! The one nice thing about this reader is that it's less sophisticated than the Kindle -- I have to use a USB cable to load books to it, so if someone wants to pull books off of it, they're gonna have to work at it.

Oh, and an awesome community to get into now that you've got an e-book reader is the MobileRead community at http://www.mobileread.com. They've got a huge forum and discuss pretty much every reader and every e-book format under the sun. They have dedicated subforums for most of the major book readers (Content, Accessories, Troubleshooting, etc). So, if your Kindle ever starts acting wonky, there's probably someone on there who could save you some time sitting on hold with customer assistance.

BTW, speaking of publishers and stupid pricing tricks -- most of the Discworld books available through Fictionwise have recently jumped in price from $7.99 to $14.99. They're charging $7 more a copy for an e-book, when you can go to a bookstore and still buy the MM Paperback for $7.99! Electrons costing damn near twice as much as dead trees??? Sounds kind of a raw deal to me.

What the hell's up with that, Harper Collins?

Amanda Green said...

Dave, sounds like a workable plan to me. Of course, that means the big houses will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming -- possibly tasered and gagged -- into the current century before it happens. In fact, I have a feeling we are going to see a number of the co-ops spring up and start making waves before the major houses even consider changing their business plan.

And a big YES on how to pay the behind the scenes folks. Give them a stake in the financial gain of the product and maybe they will take more of an interest in how good the product is before it leaves the "house". At the very least, QA should improve.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, I think Amazon is missing the boat with how they are handling the international version of the Kindle. I just don't know how much of it is due to corporate greed, the desire to do the least amount of work necessary to do the job or the issues of trying to get workable agreements with the international publishers (see the links I put in my response to John).

I have a number of friends who are using their iPhone as an ebook reader. It is just another indication of how publishers need to finally realize that ebooks are here to stay. My problem is the screen is just too small for me to read from.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, you know my feelings about DRM -- I hatez it I doez. It is yet another idiotic invention I think will fall by the wayside eventually. At least I hope it is. I've been burned too many times in the past by DRM and do my best to avoid it now, by whatever means possible.

Amanda Green said...

Bob, that is why I love Webscriptions. It is also why the majority of the books on my Kindle come from there. And I can just imagine Toni's and Arnold's reaction of any ebook supplier started pulling off books bought or downloaded in good faith from Baen without warning or compensation.

You're right about the Mobileread fora. Lots of good information there and folks who are more than willing to help if you have a problem. Thanks for the site.

As for PTerry's books, who knows what the house is up to. I hate it though. I'd like to have his books in eversion but not at those prices. Somewhere, there is probably some little fellow saying, "Let's see if they'll pay this much. If they do, we make lots of money. If they don't, we can say they don't like ebooks and won't have to offer them any more." Sigh. GRRRR.

Anonymous said...

This thread has been very helpful to me. I've been lusting for an e-book reader (no telling when I'll be able to afford one) and have been on the fence about Sony and Kindle. I do tend to like simple electronic things. I only bought a microwave without a dial instead of the pre-programmed push buttons when I couldn't find one anymore. In this same vein, I don't feel the need for internet purchasing of books. Loading them here at home is fine, and I discovered today in this thread the added benefit of ownership privacy. I like the idea of an independent unit that's not accessible by someone else easily. I'm leaning toward Sony.

Linda Davis

Amanda Green said...

Linda, the selling point for me with the Kindle is the ability to load on my work in progress, or someone else's that I'm beta reading, and not only read it but highlight where needed and annotate passages, making notes. It really does come in handy.

Chris McMahon said...

Probably committed to staying a Luddite for now. Reading stuff on-screen is too much like the dayjob. I'm sure I'll come round eventually -- the typical curve is about ten years behind everyone else. [Sayeth Chris who still useth the VCR]

Amanda Green said...

Ah but, Chris, can you programmeth thine VCR?

Chris McMahon said...

Verily so, with much prayer and contemplation-eth.