Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Art of Books, part Two

In which I return to the ebook quandary!

This is inspired in part by two book-buying experiences: The Greatcoat, by Helen Dunmore (which I recommend, with a caveat that it isn’t particularly spooky), and Monsters in America by Scott Poole, which I didn’t end up buying because the price was too high.
When last I tackled this topic, Travis (hiya! Hope all’s well in London!) commented on the pricing problem, and said:

 Firstly, [the vendors] want prices that are near, or in many cases more, than trade paperbacks. We have to agree right away that this is ridiculous.”

Now, Monsters in America speaks to that problem. I didn’t buy that book, because the vendor’s price was wildly overinflated. Monsters is only available in hardback or electronic format at the moment, and Amazon’s price for the Kindle version is only a buck shy of the hardback price. That’s crazy. There’s no way a Kindle version ought to be at the same price as a hardback, particularly given that the hardback is usually considered the premium product. People want those because they want to display them, and they’re often considered collectable because they’re usually a limited print run. There’s just no way that a Kindle version has the same value. The only possible justification for this price point is competition; the vendors are afraid that a rush to buy the Kindle will limit the demand for the hardback. That’s backwards thinking. The market for a hardback doesn’t overlap with the market for electronic. People expect completely different things from a hardback than they do, say, a paperback. Paperbacks are bought to read, and carry around; their covers will get torn and battered, their pages creased and folded. They aren’t expected to be put on display. Nobody’s going to care that their dust jackets are slightly foxed or that the binding is beginning to separate. Whereas a hardback is bought to keep, and is often kept carefully, because their condition speaks directly to their perceived value.
But then, this is the Amazon price, and my take on it is that since Amazon just aren’t booksellers, (though they obviously want to be), they don’t understand the book market well enough to accurately price their stock. Clearly there's also a market war going on which is only going to get hotter, and that will have a knock-on effect on price that has nothing to do with demand for ebooks. Amazon want to sell Kindles, so they make the price of their ebooks attractively low. Meanwhile Barnes and Noble wants to sell Nooks, Apple iPads, and so on and on. I must admit, this is where I start to think that the market has lost its collective wits. Why would a bookseller like Barnes and Noble want to sink their R&D budget into a new electronic toy, when the electronic goods manufacturers are coming out with tablets by the bucketload without needing the impetus of book sales to drive demand? It's like Ben & Jerry's trying to increase market share by inventing the perfect spoon - but I digress.

Going back to price, there’s also the point that, as discussed by Dan Gilmore of the Guardian, publishers don’t like discounting the ebook price too much, and publishers have a big say in how their wares are priced. Gilmore attributes this discount dislike to the publishers’ fear that consumers would become too used to underpriced books, thus reducing demand for anything other than electronic. I’m sure that plays a part, but I tend to agree with the thesis that there’s more to a book’s price than just the cost of paper. There’s editors, proofreaders, marketers and marketing, and a host of other expenses most of which are invisible to the consumer. These costs are fixed, fairly high, and have nothing to do with the format the books are published in. And that, of course, is before we even get to the question of the author's advance. I'm aware that there is mathematical justification for arguing that you don't need all that, that an author can self-publish with nil marketing at a minimal price point and make money. However even a glance at some of the stuff available out there at low-or-no cost shows the benefit lost to the creator in not having a good editor, or proofreader. Much of it is just trash. There may be a few fresh ideas in them, and with a bit of luck someone who really deserves to succeed will do so through ebook self-publishing. Most won't.  

For those who really want to frighten themselves, check out Ewan Morrison's take on where self e-publishing is headed.  I don't think he's wrong. This bit in particular strikes a chord:

"And what has happened to all those new authors who were told they could make money from epublishing? Well, they are working entirely for free (on spec) on the promise of those big 70% royalties on future sales. They write their books, they blog, they net-network and self-promote; they could put in as much as a year's work, all without payment."

On the whole I would agree that the current price of ebooks, as exemplified by Monsters, is crazy. However I don't think we can expect the actual ebook price to fall much below the paperback cost, which is where Dunmore's book comes in. (I bet you thought I'd forgotten about that!) Dunmore's Greatcoat is part of Hammer Horror's new publishing experiment; they seem to be aiming for a more literary style. The Woman In Black is another in this vein. Where this ties in to the current discussion is this: the Greatcoat's price tag was roughly the same as the paperback version, and the decision to buy was made all the easier since there doesn't seem to be a paperback version available via the States. I was happy to buy at that price, in a way that I wasn't for Monsters, and of course the instant delivery was a plus.

Given that the costs to the publisher are more or less fixed, I suspect we can't hope for a significant drop in ebook price below the paperback price point, unless we're prepared to accept a sharp reduction in quality. I also suspect that most consumers are willing to pay paperback prices for ebook versions, though I agree with Travis that it seems only logical for there to be an ebook version bundled with every paperback sold.

However price wasn't the only thing Travis talked about. He also mentioned ownership:

"Secondly, they want everyone to buy, but no one should own. Try loaning your ebook to a friend. Sure, Amazon will let you do it for a limited time, as will B&N, but both also for a limited number of people. And don't forget, you DON'T OWN the ebook, you are licensed to read it."

I agree, this is a problem. However I do wonder how much of this is an actual problem, and how much a problem of perception. Put it another way: did we ever own books? Could we dispose of them precisely as we pleased?

Not quite, I'd argue.

"All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form or binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser."

That version of the caveat is taken from the 1999 Harper Collins paperback, Flashman at the Charge. In some variant forms the prohibition specifically warns purchasers that if they buy the book without its cover (stripping, it's called), they're buying stolen property. Admittedly this is more of an attempt at moral 'suasion than an enforceable prohibition, not unlike the bit at the beginning of the DVD when some spokesman says, more in sorrow than in anger, that you really shouldn't pirate movies. Even so, it still represents the publisher's contention that ownership has its limits.

The publisher has always asserted their ownership of the words within the book, and ebooks haven't changed that. We bought the husks that the words came in, and when we tired of those we lent them on, or gave them away, or sold them. There was no way the publisher could stop us doing that, short of coming into our homes and posting guard over the bookshelf, and that assumes that they wanted to stop us. I suspect that most publishers accepted the second-hand trade as a useful adjunct to their own business; publicity that they didn't have to pay for, which increased the demand for their own back catalogue. Yet there were probably some who resented the percieved loss of revenue, just as video game publishers lament the perceived cost to them of second-hand sales.

The chief difference between the trade in ebooks and the trade in the physical version is that where the publisher could never control what happened to the words after they left the shop, now they can.

Give someone, anyone, control, and they tend to want to exercise it. They would justify this as acting in their own self-interest, though frankly I doubt that many of them'd think very carefully about where their true self-interest lies, never mind about wider problems of the market and future growth of the business. There has always been a short supply of Timoleons. Besides, it's always easier to say No than Yes, because No has a definite, quantifiable result, where Yes could go almost anywhere. Yes could end up floating around on the net for free, which I suspect is the publisher's real nightmare.

I do see this ownership issue as a problem. People have become used to being able to lend or give their words to others, and a change in format isn't going to change this. Eventually there will have to be a system in place that allows an ebook, once bought, to be transferred to another user. However I also think that we're in a transitional stage. We still haven't got a reliable cross-platform delivery app for ebooks that can be read by all tablets and operating systems; the equivalent of having plenty of words, but no paper. How then can we expect to have a lending system in place?

I think this is a problem that time alone can solve. That shouldn't stop people demanding the service, of course, but we probably ought to accept that this particular demand may not be met quickly.

That's it from me on this topic - at least for the moment!

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