Are books becoming a race to the bottom?
The recent lawsuit by the Feds against book publishers amounts to “c’mon, your e-book prices oughtn’t be that high.” Hand in hand with that complaint is the common-sense judgment that e-books don’t require the same production and distribution costs as as tree-books.
I’m supposed to have an opinion about this — if nothing else, the bulk of my royalty income for Q4/11 came from e-books — so I’ll try and articulate a train of thought more complex than “I want more money.”
The issues as I seem them are, in descending order of importance:
- Readers don’t want to get ripped off. Of course, when you see an e-book going for nearly the same price as a trade paperback or a deep-discounted hardocver, you feel ripped off, right? It’s hard not to imagine the crazy fat margin somebody’s making off of that e-book.
- To do a book right, you need more than just an author and an agency of whatever kind. At bare minimum, you need two editors — one to manage the pacing and the other stylistic particulars of the content, and another to clean up the prose line-by-line — along with a designer who can typeset the thing worth a damn. You really do need one of those. Plus ça change…
- To sell a book right, you need more people still. Even if you’re taking the self-publication route, are you going to do all of the promotions yourself? That adds up to an awful lot of time on Facebook and Twitter and trying to wrangle broadcast media appearances — time that most writers can spend far more productively doing what they’re best at, which is writing longer-form copy.
- The time all of those people put in can be measured by a dollar cost, and the traditional publishing model has been tuned over four centuries to maximize the benefit gained by author, publisher, and retailer from paying that cost. Then e-books come into the picture and throw sand in the gears of everything. Editors and designers and marketers and agents aren’t going to be any cheaper just because they’re working on an e-book.
- E-books alone are not the problem; Amazon and the other online retailers typically demand and get the lowest wholesale cost for the books they sell, without regard to medium. Thus the “agency model” — if the retailers want to sell it cheap, they should eat the discount. I should add that Amazon’s practices are inextricable from this entire mess; they demonstrate at every opportunity their enthusiasm for smashing the existing business model, and they’ll eventually hit the right combo. Traditional publishers need, meanwhile, to figure out how they’ll manage to stick around beyond that.
The ideal outcome is minimum opportunity cost. Authors — certainly this one! — want more royalty income. Publishers and retailers want their preferred combinations of increased volume and margins, in tandem with reduced production costs. Readers want cheaper books.
I recognize two questions that need to be answered to solve this puzzle without misguided litigation over rent-seeking behavior.
- What cost will the market bear? …A rather miserable one, and this is the biggest problem. The market recognizes that bits can be copied at an infinitesimal cost, and they’re already paying for their piece of the network. Those who want to take that sentiment to its logical extreme can always hit the shady download sites for their fix. I tolerate the fact that those sites distribute my book on the understanding that the ones who like it will ultimately pay for it.
- Is book retailing a zero-sum game? My experience leads me to believe that the answer to this question is yes — when somebody else wins, somebody else loses. Readers buy Book A instead of Book B, or buy it from Retailer A instead of Retailer B, because neither money nor time are as limitless as bits.
Amazon and Apple have already decided how they’re going to survive in the e-book jungle, while traditional publishers have settled for putting their proverbial fingers in their ears and going “lalalalalalalalala we can’t hear you!”
Finally there’s the question of where writers stand in the midst of this. Many if not most of them love what they do, to the point that they would work for food if the drive to acquire nice things (like, say, effective health insurance) wasn’t so strong.
What will stop writing from turning into a race to the bottom? I don’t know.
Finally, there are literary agents, whose role is critical to product quality. I don’t think there will be many of them left once Amazon’s achieved their goals, and that’s a very bad thing for everybody but Amazon.
If I was a full-time writer — which I am not, out of necessity and proclivity both — I would be working on building a small nucleus of fans of my work, from whom I can draw suitably talented people to fund the (usually necessary) advances on royalties and provide (at a fair wage) the technical assistance required to deliver good product in marketable form. Some of these fans will in fact be corporations other than Amazon and Apple that specialize in turning a given book into the Next Big Thing.