First off, if you’ve come here expecting a ranty moan about ebook pricing, this probably isn’t the blog post for you. If on the other hand, you’re interested to hear what I learned from speaking to a work colleague who has started pirating books at 64, read on.
Let’s kick it off by saying that I do like ebooks, and whilst I’d like them cheaper I still think they are pretty good value for the hours of entertainment they provide.
I’ve noticed in the last month – since Xmas really – that a LOT of people are getting kindles. We’ve gone from none in my place of work to at least 4 (which is about 10% of the workforce). In chatting to those people, I feel I’ve been given a better insight into the issues ebooks face moving forwards.
Take person X, we’ll call him John. John is close to retirement and likes Bradbury and Harry Harrison. He’s a big reader and bought a kindle for he and his wife to share (which she hogs all the time). He likes it so much, he may buy a second one. John knows nothing about publishing and he knows nothing about my writing (I go all Clark Kent at work, it’s a long story).
But John has an issue with ebooks and told me the other day how he’d committed his first illegal download. I can’t remember which book it was, I only know it wasn’t genre as it was one of his wife’s favourite authors. He’d managed to find a torrent or a download of the book.
“It’s not been out that long and it’s already out there,” he enthused.
But why download? I mean, for all Amazon’s evils, they do make it so it’s incredibly easy to add books to your kindle. It was all down to pricing apparently. The hardback had been heavily discounted by Amazon so that the “This price was set by the publisher” kindle edition was more expensive.
“It’s a rip-off,” John told me.
Now this got me thinking. You see, I don’t have an issue with an ebook being more than a paperback (or even a hardback) so long as it’s good value. But to John, the fact it was more was a major issue. I told him that ebooks have VAT but he didn’t care.
“You’re getting less, why should you pay more.”
Now the arguement to that is that books aren’t free to produce. We at all levels of the publishing industry know this. So what’s the problem then? Why can’t John see this?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot and came to the conclusion that it’s one of perception.
I think if I make the statement “something is worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for it” I’m not being controversial. Worth is not primarily derived from cost, although it does play a major factor.
Let me give you an example. You know those amazing resin busts of Marvel and DC charcters you can get for about £60? Well I remember one company telling me the reason they preferred to produce those than action figures was because they were comparatively less to make. With an action figure, you make lots of little parts and then have to put them all together. With a bust, because it’s usually a single piece, it needs a bigger mold (and those molds are very expensive) but the profit margin is far, far greater. Why do people pay £60 for them, then? Well because those things are bigger than an action figure and must therefore be much more expensive. Size plays a factor in worth.
Now look at the hardback novel. Never mind that it’s always discounted, a hardback novel costs more than twice that of a paperback, and the reason the public accepts this, is because it’s bigger. Now, I’m not trying to attack the hardback pricing model and I’ll hold my hand up and say I don’t know all the details, but I’d wager that just like the Marvel resin models, hardbacks probably have a greater profit margin.
Whatever the business model, whether I’m correct or not, the point I’m trying to make is that the general public has come to accept that how the book is bound affects its worth. In short, it’s helped build the myth that manufacturing costs form a large part of the cost of a book. If a hardback costs £20 and a paperback £8 then they assume manufacturing must cost a lot, otherwise where is that other £12 going? Again, I’m not attacking the business model, I’m just saying where people’s perception comes from.
So remove the binding, the public perceive the book should be cheaper. It’s all the fault of hardbacks.
It gets worse When I try and tell John that by downloading the book he’s denying the author money. I do slip in the old “most authors earn less than…” routine. But John’s opinion is the pricing IS the fault of the author.
You see he views the author as the one with power. If an author “gives” their work to a publisher who “screws” the public on pricing, they are an accomplice to the “rip-off”. ‘Ethical’ authors (apparently) should withhold the manuscript if they feel their readers are going to get screwed. Again, it’s a case of perception. To John, 1-starring an amazon review because of ebook pricing seems entirely justified because the author “isn’t doing anything”.
Now we all know that authors have no real power, and to be fair I don’t think £8 for a new novel is bad, whatever the format. But if piracy is going to be minimised then authors and publishers have to realise they are playing a game of perception. Say that books cost nothing to produce and, at best, Joe Public thinks publishers are lying, at worst they feel people have been ripped off for years over hardbacks. Say that authors have no say over pricing, Joe Public will just perceive authors as mealy-mouthed.
Now I’m not saying the answer is to drop ebook prices, nor to lay a book’s P&L on the line. In fact I’m not sure that I know what the answer is, just that a 64 year old has started filesharing simply because they don’t feel the current pricing models are justified. I’m sure John’s not the only one, but at the same time I accept this isn’t an epedemic. Not everyone thinks like John. But it’s going to continue until perceptions are changed. And currently, the arguments don’t seem to be working.
I used to love ebooks. When I got my first ebook reader, a Bookeen cybook, I used it all the time and swore it was the future. I used to buy all my books from a place called Fictionwise that used bizarre economics whereby I always got more back in credit than I spent (to date I still have $100 in credit). And those I did buy cost me just a couple of dollars. I loved that place.
But then their stuff started getting region-locked which meant that I couldn’t get 99% of the books I wanted. Also publishers seemed to drop support for the mobipocket format in favour of epub. This was to be expected. It was like the early days of MP3 vs AAC vs WMV.
So I went back to books. Good reliable bulky books. I missed ebooks but Fictionwise burned me badly
The iPad and iBooks seemed to suggest that epub would become the dominant format. Whilst I never planned to use the iPad as a reading device (I don’t like backlit screens over e-ink), I did think it would give epub enough of a dominance to overtake Kindle.
But it never happened, Apple never pushed iBooks enough, never really took the fight to Amazon. Instead they were content just for it to be another bulletpoint on what the iPad could do. Amazon fought. Amazon put the Kindle reading device to my phone, my iPad, and my computer. They did clever things like syncing and I watched as my friends have almost all gone over to Kindle.
I worry about format lock-in, but whilst it was a pain, I managed to take all my legally bought Mobipocket books, de-DRM them and convert to epub. I suspect if enough people use format there will always be tools to crack and convert.
So I’ve been looking at the Kindle since before Xmas, would have asked for one from my parents if the snow hadn’t come and deliveries gone up the chute. I even went looking for them in John lewis after Xmas (the only place to sell them other than Amazon) only to find them sold out. But PC World and Currys now do them, and so the other night I used my Xmas money to go and get one.
On the surface it’s just an ebook reader like any other but I think the clever stuff is behind the scenes, like how I can buy from Amazon and it’ll push the novel to whatever device I want without me having to hook things up or download. It’s a iPod for books. I know some will resist it because of its market dominance but I gave iBooks 9 months to get their act together.
I do find that I’m already reading more, as evidenced by a couple of late nights and exhausted mornings. I got a light for it, so I can read in bed without having to get up and turn the lights out when I’m finished. I love it, like being ten again and reading by torchlight.
I’m trying to resist the urge to go out and buy a lot of books for it. Instead, I’ll buy them as they’re needed. I have started an Amazon wishlist though and have been trawling the site adding books to it.
With space a consideration, it feels good to be back in the digital era. I just wish it was easier to transfer books between devices without feeling like a criminal.