Q. How can the book publishing industry justify a price of $9.99 for an ebook version as well as $9.99 for the printed paperback? Why can’t they cut us readers a slack and offer the ebooks for cheaper?
A. The tl;dr version of my reply is this: It’s because book publishers actually do care about their authors, and know just how little money we authors actually make.
Here’s the long reply:
In many ways, you’re quite right about the costs of ebooks seeming a bit high. But please remember that there are a few things going on in the background. First, the system is still new, and standards are only just now starting to be developed and adhered to. Second, things move slowly in the publishing industry. What might take months or a year or two elsewhere can take two or four or more years in publishing circles to settle.
Third…they’re finally giving authors 25% of ebook sales, instead of the 8%-10% found in paperback royalties, because the publisher can indeed cut out the printer portion of those book sales (and printing is very expensive). But there are still a lot of people handling each ebook: copy-editors, publishing editors, the art department still has to come up with a cover that’s ebook-reader compatible, plus the addition of coders for six or more different ebook-reader languages, and the usual PR agents. They all still need to be paid for the work they’re doing on the author’s behalf. The costs have gone down a little, but there are still plenty of expenses left, and the publishers have chosen to pass that extra cash on to the author.
Of course, that may seem like a cheat to you: Why should an author get 25% instead of 8%-10% like usual? Shouldn’t the reader get the discount on the price? Let’s look at the sales prices of various books versus the actual amount of money the author receives per book. On a $15.00 trade paperback (the slightly larger format), I receive approximately $1.15. On a $8.99 mass market (that’s the normal size) paperback…I receive approximately $0.85. If you average it out, I get $1 per book. That’s it.
Now let’s look at how long it takes me to write a novel: Approximately 4.5 months…but let’s short-sheet it and call it an even 100 days…and I don’t work 9-to-5, Monday through Friday only. But if I did, and did that for 100 days…minimum wage in Washington state is $9.19. (It is expensive to live anywhere near Seattle.) So I’d make about $7,352 in 100 days of minimum wage working, say as a stock clerk for my local grocery store.
That was slightly less than my entire last royalty cheque for an accounting period of 6 months. More than 100 days, even including the fact that we’re talking about only working 5 days a week when in fact it’s more like 27 days out of ever single month. And that, my dear reader, includes the 25% in ebook sales, which would be a bit more than $1 average per book. More like $2.50 for a $9.99 book.
Now, I am not a flash-in-the-pan author. I have 15 books out, most of which have been bestsellers, plus 2 single-author anthologies (a bit of a coup in the writing world), plus I have short stories in multi-author anthologies…which almost never pay out royalties because the number of books bought just barely cover the printing and initial advance cheque costs.
Yet I am making less than minimum wage. The only things keeping my finances afloat are if I can keep at least 3 books under contract at all times, and the fact that I had to take in roommates so I wouldn’t lose my house. (Luckily the 3 of us get along great. Can’t say the same for our 3 cats. *sigh*)
Then again, my next 3 books under contract will be ebooks…and my advance on each one will be less than 1/3 what I normally get for a paperback advance as a multiple best-selling author, simply because it’s going straight to ebook and not print. That is not enough to keep me from losing my house. I am therefore also taking up contracts to write more printed books as well.
This means I am double-booked on work from now until January 31, 2014, when my current run of print-based manuscripts is due…and when I get that next contract for print books, I will be double-booked through to October 31st of next year, not this year, because I will be writing stories for ebooks and writing stories for print books at the same time. I have kissed outside-the-house activities goodbye, and I have seen exactly 2 movies in the last 6 months out of the 15+ I wanted to go see in the theater. (The Hobbit, and Iron Man 3, both of which I recommend.)
So no, I am not giving up that 15% extra found in the difference between paperback and ebook royalty prices. Every. Penny. Counts. In my budget. If I could handle all the work the publishing house does, the promotions and the networking and the costs of all the coding, I’d go self-published and get 50%. But all I know how to do is write stories. Thankfully ones which people enjoy.
…I can understand if for financial reasons you have to buy used copies. I’ve been there. I lived for years on $35 a month plus cooking and cleaning in exchange for room and board and the occasional bit of new clothes while living at my parents’ house…because I could not get a job thanks to the Catch-22 of not already having that job. I would carefully reserve just enough money for one new book in a month, or 2-3 used books, and I’d have to save the rest of that tiny bit of money because I’d have to pay for bus fare to get to a bookstore in the first place, plus save up money to buy anything else I needed that wasn’t food or clothing. I actively encourage people to read my books via their local library, because that was where I got most of my book-reading habit sated, even if I couldn’t keep those books forever, as I often wanted.
I am now a multiple-times-over bestselling author…and I still don’t make minimum wage, even combining the advance cheques with the royalties I get. (Oh, and the “advance cheque” is just that, it’s an advance on the royalties, so I have to make more in book sales than the advance amount, before I see a single dime of royalty money. If the advance is $2,000…I have to sell 2,001 books to receive $1 in royalties, or sell 2,035 novels to receive $35.)
So, I am going to ask you for a little favor:
If you like my books, then please encourage others to buy and read them. Don’t talk about the price, just talk about the fact that you enjoyed them, and how much you’d recommend them, whether that’s recommending a particular book just a little, or a whole lot. I am very glad you’re enjoying my novels, too, and I hope a lot of other people will get the chance to enjoy them, too.
Let them decide if the price is worth scraping together enough money over the course of a month, if it’s worth forgoing 2-3 cups of coffee at Starbucks, a pleasure that would last them an hour or so at most all told, in exchange for buying a book they can enjoy for hours on end, over and over and over. Please don’t sour their opinions and make them prejudge whether or not it’s worth “zomg that awful high price!” Someone else may decide that it’s worth the price, or they may decide that it’s not, but it all depends upon their financial situation, and not yours.
Just tell them that you liked it, how much you may have liked it, why you’d recommend they read it, too…and that’s all I’ll ask you to do.
At a rough estimate, for every 30-40 people you tell, a couple of them might actually go out and buy 2-3 of my books. That’s another $2-$3 in my pocket for the paperbacks, presuming they buy new, not used. That’s not much, and at this point in time, paperbacks are still outselling ebooks, so that’s maybe 1 ebook sale for every 30-40 people chatted to, for roughly $2.50 of income for me, off a $9.99 mass market paperback/ebook price…and my mass market books actually sell for $8.99, so technically it’s a little less than $2.50 an ebook being sold at the same $8.99 paperback price.
Ironically, word-of-mouth advertising, this exact sort of advertising, telling people about something you enjoyed? That is the single most effective form of advertising out there. People wonder why I hesitate to shell out $300 or more for website ads that might be seen by 3,000 people. To recoup that money, I’d have to nail at least 1 book sale out of every 10 people who looked at that ad. (I could barely get 1 out of 10 relatives to buy my books, and they’re family. I know where they live!)
But if you complain about the cost to anyone but me (and I do honestly sympathize), then they’ll prejudge the book, looking at it with the thought of “this is going to be too expensive for me, too.” That’ll sour their first impression, and I won’t get 2-3 book sales out of 30-40 people you talk to. I might get 1 in 50. That doesn’t seem like much: $1 in book sales versus $2-$3 in book sales…but when you add it all up, if 7,000 people who buy my books in the span of 6 months only buy 1 book apiece, that’s $7,000. If they each buy 2 books apiece, or if it’s 14,000 people who decide instead of just 7,000, that’s $14,000.
That is a huge difference. Every. Penny. Counts. And good publishing houses, big and small, know this. They honestly do care about how much we authors are making, but they have to balance all the other hidden costs the readers never see, versus how much the readers are willing to shell out for a story. So they’re going to take that roughly 15% in “savings” found by not printing a book and pass it to the author for every electronic sale made.
Most of us aren’t JK Rowling or Stephen King. We’re not the 60-foot-tall Cthulhu-tentacled-with-frikkin-laser-beam-eyes mutant giant cockroaches of the publishing world. (This parody-style comparison is made in a loving way, simply because I find the concept an amusing visual…and it helps me get over my frustration of not yet hitting the right combination of viral-ness in order to mutate and join them, myself. Though I think I’d rather be a giant 60-foot-tall Cthulhu-tentacled fire-breathing laughter-devouring immortal butterfly, myself.)
The economy has already hit all of us hard enough. Every little bit helps, so please, be positive when talking to others. If you inadvertently talk them out of buying my books by complaining about the price, sure they may save $9 or $15 or whatever…but they’ll lose out on maybe, just maybe, having a really good, enjoyable read that they can re-read whenever they need a pick-me-up. A story which they can keep reading for the rest of their lives.
I hope you continue enjoying the rest of my stories, new or used. That’s why I write ‘em. If I was in this for the money, I’d have moved on to any other job by now… so every single penny counts, because I am not making minimum wage without your help…and if you don’t like one of my books in particular, which is perfectly fine, as it’s your opinion and no single book is ever going to satisfy every single person on Earth 100% of the time, then as I like to tell everyone (in a fake Jersey accent, because it sounds funnier that way) “Eh, just keep yer mouth shut, an’ let it die a quite death.”
I do this simply and purely because I love what I do. I’d like to make a livable wage at it, too.
Wouldn’t you, if you love what you do?