State of the publishing nation, pt 3

There’s a lot of controversy over ebooks – particularly among publishers and published authors who a) already have a book deal and b) depend on royalties.

The controversy mostly stems from the people who are pricing their books for the very low price of $0.99 or lower. Some people have made a lot of money doing this (see John Locke who’s sold over a million copies of his ebooks), but they have to sell a hell of a lot of books. And as with hardbacks and paperbacks, not everyone is going to sell a million copies, regardless of how cheap it is. There’s also a lot of crap published now, but more on that later.

In terms of publishing, traditional publishers cannot afford to charge that little for an ebook version of their author’s books. It’s simple and I can see their point. Not unsurprisingly, they’re worried about their physical sales.

I was at a Time Out event this week called “Thriller Night” – no, not a Michael Jackson tribute night – where Tess Gerritsen, Simon Kernick and Mark Billingham discussed their writing and getting started. At one point, Tess dropped the comment that she’d had a novel optioned by Hollywood for a $1million. She’s not poor, by any stretch.

The Silent Girl, by Tess GerritsenWhat was more interesting was that she reckons last year more than 50% of sales of her books were ebooks. Tess also thinks that those sales are eating into sales of her paperbacks, but not affecting hardback sales. Her new book (Kindle version) is priced at $12.41 on Amazon.com and £7.69 on Amazon.co.uk, hardcover $16.37/£8.54, which is approximately the same price at current exchange rates.

Right, simple math says she has to sell a lot fewer copies of her books to get her royalties than John Locke with his $0.99 specials. The next question is how likely is it at this price? Personally, it would have to be one of my favourite authors or a book I was desperate to read before I’d pay that kind of price. I tend to have an upper limit of £4.99 or just over $8.00 for an ebook generally. And from the Indie publishing side of the fence, that’s a fair price.

I don’t price mine that high (although I seem to have gremlins mucking about with the prices on Amazon at the mo). As I’m an ‘Indie’ publisher I think pricing my ebooks at $3.45 or £2.99 is a reasonable deal (just realised I’m undercharging in dollars – drat!) for something that has cost me nothing to produce beyond my time and the costs of editing and producing a cover.

Complications and predjudices

What is an issue is a general perception of the people who publish their books for $0.99. “They’re trolls who can’t write for shit, hence they can’t get a REAL publisher to look at their book*” is the vibe I get from traditionally published authors. In fact Mark Billingham basically said all $0.99 ebooks are crap and whatever you do as an aspiring author DO NOT go down that route because you’ll be crap too and you’ll never get back. Gee, thanks Mark.

He’s not totally wrong about what’s out there. I recently received a handful of books via LibraryThing’s member giveaways which is a way for new authors to get their work out there and get some reviews/publicity at the same time. Of the six or so books I received, about 50% of them were dire. I’m not being malicious and I’d hardly criticise anyone for something I’m guilty of myself.

The simple fact is the bad ones could have used an editor. The others were polished, professional books that I’d be happy to pay for. The crap ones made me angry. So I can see Mark’s point. Like Desk Top Publishing did for printed material in the ‘90s, self-publishing has lowered standards across the board and we have to depend on the public to ascertain what’s good and what’s bad. Gasp!

But at the same time, the reviews and comments appearing on Goodreads, LibraryThing or Amazon are starting to reflect this, one of the most common I see being: “this book needs an editor”.

I resent Mark’s lumping me into the same category as the rest as I work damn hard to make sure my books are of a professional quality and get the attention the readers expect – no, that I expect – from a book. But at the same time, I suspect his repulsion is fear of losing sales to a medium he doesn’t know. And that’s a problem that pervades the traditional publishing sector.

They just don’t get it.

Next time: No one understands the pricing models

*All three authors admitted that publishing deals are mostly about luck – if that’s true, self-publishers are trying to eliminate games of chance from their publishing experience.