||[Jun. 12th, 2012|01:58 pm]
I get a lot of questions and comments about e-books in my daily load of email. The bulk of this post will be about e-book pricing, but just to clear up a few things, I'll start with one of the commonest questions (which happens to conceal a couple of misconceptions in it.)
Why don't you let your books be made into e-books? To which the answer is 1) All my novels are available as e-books, in multiple formats. Information about them is on my website and on the publishers' websites. 2) All current book contracts with traditional publishers cover release as an e-book (usually in addition to release as hardcopy. E-book publication is now standard and universal among traditional publishers, at least for fiction.
If you can't find a current book from a traditional publisher in e-format...you're not looking in the right places. (But you should be aware that Amazon.com has de-listed books for a variety of reasons, including an argument with a publisher. Most such de-listings have been temporary, but might convince the unwary--who look only at Amazon--that a given edition does not exist. Try something other than Amazon to check (the author's website is a good start, as are author pages at publisher websites.) If you have a brand-new-shiny e-reading device with a proprietary file format that doesn't match any other, however, you can expect a lag (as publishers scramble to figure out how to format files to display correctly on that device) before the first e-books show up with it. (And if you think that's not a real problem, you haven't talked to the people doing the work. I recently read David Rodin's War and Self-Defense--an Oxford University Press book--on a friend's Kindle, and the formatting was...difficult to read in places, is the kindest way to put it.)
But now to the main point of this post--which is the source of many questions and complaints: e-book pricing. Since I have already demonstrated a willingness to make waves, I'll start by dropping a very large rock in the pond of assumptions about e-books....that they "should" be cheap, like potato chips...that pricing them even as much as a regular mass-market paperback is too high (one of my correspondents announced angrily that he would never pay as much as that and huffed away.)
E-books are now considered a desirable format...for many reasons. One reader can "contain" hundreds of books--so that many books are easier to store (never mind that Amazon and other suppliers can snatch them off your e-reader as fast as they downloaded them in the first place--and Amazon has done so), easier to carry around. One e-reader clearly weighs less and takes up less space than the number of books "in" it. Since e-readers are expensive (for most of the people in the world, out of reach expensive), they're a luxury item--entertainment electronics. Now in most of the first world, if you want more convenience....you pay more for it. If you want the latest thing right away...you pay more for it. If you want it delivered to your door, rather than going to a store to buy it...you pay more for it. (Free shipping is sometimes available, but not always, from all suppliers.) If you want the sparkly/shiny/newest/most fashionable....you pay more for it. Whether it's a more efficient automobile, a car with all the latest electronic connections, the best sound system, that parking assist thingie....you pay more for it. So--given that e-books are a luxury, a highly desired format for many affluent readers--why all the outrage if an e-book is priced higher than a paperback? Why are some readers not willing to pay for the convenience, the compactness, the immediate gratification of a download? Where did they get the idea that luxury should be cheap? Good sheets aren't cheap. Quality china isn't cheap. Organic vegetables aren't cheap. Why books?
Behind that demand--besides the sense of entitlement to "what I want, when I want it, how I want it, for free" is lack of understanding what costs lie behind every book, including e-books. From the point of view of the people behind the curtain--the people who write and produce books--every book has certain fixed costs, regardless of the format under which it's released, and some books have additional costs in some formats.
Author Costs: Writing a book takes time and effort. How much time varies, depending on the length of the book, the writing speed of the author, and the other obligations (day job, family, etc) of the author...but in my case, which I know best, a book takes me a year of considerably more than 40 hour weeks, with no vacation time. Some of those weeks reach 80 hours; I'm guessing the average runs somewhere between 60 and 65. The same hours of my work go into the book, no matter what format it comes out in: hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, e-book. The effort--what it takes to think up the characters, the story, to generate those words every day, day after day after day--is impossible to make clear to those who haven't tried it. Yes, it's exhilarating when it comes together (and it's a mental crash when it doesn't.) But it's also the long slog through all those words, making sure that they make sense, that cause precedes effect, that characters keep acting like themselves, that punctuation is not just correct, but clarifies meaning, that the reader knows who's talking not only with attribution tags, but with vocal tone and physical gesture, and so on. Some days this part is easy. Sometimes it's the proverbial sh*tting bricks. But the important thing to realize (besides that it's work--real work) is that the reader gets the same story, the same words, no matter what format they come in. I have put as much into the research before and during the book, into revisions, the edits, the copy edits, proofreading...the same effort to promote it (maintaining--which includes paying for--the websites, writing the blog entries, visiting bookstores, going to conventions) without regard to what format the publisher uses. Why should I be paid less per copy for a version that is a luxury item in the first place, and much-desired in the second?
Publisher Costs. Producing a book to professional quality takes time and effort...and because the people putting in the time and effort must be paid, it also takes money. To get a good book at the end takes eyes on the page all through the process, and those eyes have to be paid. There is no automatic process that substitutes for eyes--human eyes, trained human eyes--looking at every symbol, every letter, every punctuation mark, every margin, every word on every page. And they must be different eyes, because humans get bored and skim over something they've seen before. So the first--and very necessary--cost to the publisher is the cost of hiring those human eyes: editors, copy editors, artists and book designers, production personnel to set up files for typesetting, proofreaders. It takes longer to do a good job of editing 800 manuscript pages than it does to edit 500 pages. Every cost-cutting measure that leads to fewer eyes on the page will result in additional errors. Whatever the format in which the book finally appears, the up-front cost of producing a book well has already piled up fixed costs, and those fixed costs are the same for all formats. All books, in traditional publishing, go through editing, copy editing, book design (font, margins, etc.), conversion of the incoming word-processing file to the out-put file that "sets type" and goes to the printer to be run through that printing machine.
This conversion is not mere button-pushing--not all writers use the same software (or the same edition of the software) and every software has peculiarities (as does every writer.) For instance, there's the big argument about spaces after sentence-ending punctuation (one space or two?) and the argument about tab v. automatic indentation at the start of paragraphs. (I can attest to the fact that some releases of MS Word are not reliable about indenting at the beginning of paragraphs after a carriage return and occasionally require a manual tab, which you had better have set to the right size ahead of time. Production may hate to see tabs--since unlike on typewriters, the code is different for a five-space auto-indent and a five-space tab and their software balks--but in my opinion someone needs to write better software for both writers and typesetters/printers.) It may be less arduous than the older process of setting lead type, but the conversion still takes eyes on the page, all the way through the page proofs.
Once the book is typeset for hard-copy printing, there are only one or two formats to consider--two, if the book first comes out in hardback and then a year later in paperback, or one, if the book is issued as a paperback original. Reformatting from hardcover to paperback is relatively easy these days.
E-books, however, are a different kettle of fish. Thanks to the bright ideas of e-reader developers, there is no single standard. file format that will work with all e-readers, and file conversion is--once again--not as easy as some readers think. (Note the comment above about the Oxford University Press edition of Rodin's book...something in the software occasionally combined words intononsensewords or divided words into sen sele ss blocks of letters...just like that, and separated by more than one space.) Once more, eyes on the page--only this time, reading the entire file on every single reader, to see if the formatting "holds" all the way through. The initial presumption--that publishers could take the writer's cleaned-up/edited digital file, plug it into a machine, and get a clean, perfectly formatted digital output--turned out to be a very false hope. (We knew that already for the scanner-to-OCR-software-to-spell-checker conversions from paper to digital...an early experience for me that turned "soldiers" into "sold hers" all through one book. These errors--as the spell checker chooses real words--can be harder to find when reading proofs, though "Twenty-five sold hers came out of the woods" is pretty obvious.) So e-book production--the behind-the-curtain stuff you don't see happening--has the same basic "get the manuscript edited, copy edited, ready to publish and typeset" cost as a paper book, and in addition has the cost of converting it to however many e-formats the publisher can afford to support.
Once the e-book is formatted, it has to be stored--and the storage itself has to be maintained. Sure, most books take up less than a Mb of storage space, a tiny fraction of today's storage space on a commercial server....but the server takes up a whole lot of kilowatts of electricity--and so does the AC to keep the servers cool. Redundancy--so if one bank of servers goes down, the book will still be available to readers somewhere else--is necessary. The website from which the book is downloaded has to be built and maintained. So once again, humans come into it, and they all want to be paid for their work. None of that is free--not the work to build the site, not the servers, not the electricity that powers them, not the software that runs them.
Friends of mine who have begun producing their out of print books themselves--converting the digital file (if they had one; scanning the book if they didn't) have reported that it takes hours (during which they're not writing) to do the publisher's job. They get faster with practice (they know the typical errors that creep in) but still...hours go by in which a chapter (or two, or three) could be written. It's now possible to pay someone to do the conversion for those who don't want to climb the learning curve to doing it but that adds to the up-front cost of being your own publisher and producing your own books..
All of which is why I am not overly sympathetic to those who complain about the price of an e-book and insist it should never be more than (whatever they think, which has ranged in emails I've gotten from 99 cents to $5) because (as one said) that's how much they can drop without even thinking about it.
There were years when I didn't have the money to buy new books. I'm an avid reader and re-reader; I treasure the books I now own, from Misty of Chincoteague on up to the latest purchase (Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's Free Range Knitter, if you must know.) There were (and still are) free libraries, where I could borrow them. As I made a little more, I could buy paperbacks (so I was reading the latest Dick Francis a year or two after it came out--so what? It was new to me.) I bought used books (at one time all my hardcover purchases were from used bookstores and library sales.) And when I could, I bought new hardbacks (or got them as presents--super-yay for that!) So I've been through the "I can't afford books" thing myself and support libraries that lend books and used bookstores that sell them.
What I don't support is the notion that new releases in the most desirable edition--the e-book--should be priced below the cost of production--at a level where the people who made the book--from writer to editor to printer to binder to cover artist to bookseller--can't make a living unless the writer is at the very peak of bestsellerdom. Whether it's Amazon using its muscle, political and economic, to complain about trad publishers "price-fixing" (as if it weren't Amazon who tried to force the publishers to accept its price, without regard to existing contracts or the cost of production) or individual readers.
So: if the price of e-books annoys you, don't buy e-books. Go to the library, buy used copies, wait for the paperback. Don't gripe at me. Especially don't make it clear that you think my work--word for word the same--isn't worth much if anything in e-book form, just because you can fit it into your e-reader without your arm feeling the strain.
And now...back to work on the edits of the 800+ pages of the next book that someone thinks is worth less if it comes in a more convenient package. Maybe I should try telling the grocery store that I'll only pay the per-pound price for pork-on-the-hoof for that bacon in the convenient one-pound package. Er...no.