Monday, March 29, 2010

E-book pricing

Some of the discussions on e-book pricing can get very tedious and insider-baseball-ish, but even if you're not in the industry, if you love books, it's an issue worth considering. A lot of commentators are economists or production people getting into the weeds - again, important, but not worth everyone's time.

A good overview - albeit with definite opinions - comes from the ubiquitous digital-issues gadfly, Cory Doctorow - he of Craphound and even more notably, BoingBoing, and an author himself. Here's a 40 minute plus video, which I found posted over on Ted Striphas' blog, in which Doctorow speaks about ways in which we can all think thru e-pricing, from a pop culture perspective, author perspective, even publisher perspective.

Cory Doctorow - ebooks from Bloomsbury on Vimeo.

(I should comment on how easy it is to now embed video - incredible. We do it all the time, so who're you calling techno-skeptics?!)

Doctorow is speaking to a crowd at Bloomsbury in the UK, and they don't seem to be down with his jokes, but perhaps they're open to his message. (It's a tough room.) I find him very funny and easy to listen to, with references ranging from sci-fi novels to Gilligan's Island to music industry history to tech issues. He's well versed, comfortable, and clearly curious quite widely. I have a lot of respect for Doctorow, and I also feel I should defer to him on some issues.

But I get frustrated by Doctorow's endless siding with the reader/listener/user. I know he's doing this as an artist/author/producer himself, but I still call foul. Early in this talk, he says readers don't care about how much a book costs to produce - that won't justify a high price for the book, to the reader. This is the same argument used by Walmart - we give it to you cheaper, so like us more. And many of us have decided no, because we know Walmart cuts corners on labor and other issues to get to that price. As I've mentioned here, a big fat biography of a notable figure should cost more due to the labor of the author and the high production quality. Should we be siding with a reader who says I'm not buying that just because I know I could get a cheaper book in the bargain bin at Borders? Is that sustainable?

I also don't love, I should note, his coziness with Bezos et al over at Amazon. Sorry, pal, but there's something to be said about the company you keep, and I'm not convinced what Amazon does is helping readers and authors everywhere. It's certainly not helping the independent bookseller community.

I'm more on Doctorow's side with his frustration over restrictions on his books and other products, and his willingness to kind of allow for piracy as a way to get more readers. I can see what he means there. He mentions something he calls "Dr. O's Law," meaning "when someone locks something of yours and won't give you the key, they're not doing it for your benefit." Well said.

He also usefully breaks down two scenarios, pulling in other venues for stories:

1) readers are over-saturated with material, or;
2) there are ever-more readers to find.

Around minute 33 or 34, Doctorow talks about what he heard from someone at Tor, his main publisher. This guy told Doctorow about the distribution system once in place, which had about 400 distributors that got books into non-book venues - grocery stores, drugstores, etc... These were mostly independent businesses, rather than chains, and were mostly unionized, so shelf stockers had job security and stuck around, and took bonuses for selling certain titles. These venues captured those folks who might not define themselves as book readers, who found titles in these non-bookstore venues and then maybe got hooked, and moved down to the bookstores. Then big box stores demanded national distribution and the network of small distributors collapsed. So non-readers don't really discover books outside of the massive B&Ns and Borders in the mall. But they're online, and they don't know they're readers. How do reach them? (This is leaving the lack of ethics from big box stores vis-a-vis labor alone - ahem.)

Doctorow has me, right? Then he drops this in (to paraphrase): so why not worry about capturing all those folks rather than bickering over pennies of price difference in e-books? But my reaction is, but more people go into bookstores than ever, because they are not small and intimidating, but huge and welcoming, with coffee shops, not to mention a certain cultural cache. You hear people throughout these giant stores (I can tell you from having worked in them) on their cellphones, proudly announcing, "Oh, I'm in the BOOKSTORE." It's like sitting in a coffee shop, post-Friends. These could be the same folks that started with the spinner racks at the local drugstore - just now they jump right in, starting at the oversized B&N while they wait with their family for a table at the Cheesecake Factory next door. I don't know about this sea of folks who don't know they're readers yet, whom publishers need to find.

He goes on to offer models that we might look to for successful ways of dealing with pricing. Again, though, I have to throw down a flag. He mentions airlines, comparing Jet Blue and others to less efficient airlines such as British Airways - ironic, given that BA is currently striking due to changes to working practices. Doctorow best be careful, for he runs the danger of wanting to cut labor short in order to get customers cheaper and cheaper - if not free - e-books. His point, however, is about price discrimination, a theory I don't feel I can explain accurately but which he explains nicely.

But I'm still figuring this out. Doctorow says you - the royal you, us publishers - want a "diverse, competitive, disorganized channel," so you can play parts off each other to get the best terms. He goes on to say John Sargent at Macmillan should have challenged Amazon's insistence on having publishers create e-files only readable by the Kindle, as Amazon would have had to come out and take a moral stand in support of books on the Kindle only - something they just couldn't do. It's a fair if somewhat in-the-weeds point.

He ends by talking about how publishers can make themselves useful going forward. One area is in social media: helping writers navigate this world so as to sell more books, since some fail miserably at it while others find great success there. (I'm still a bit perplexed as to how - or if -this actually sells books.) Well, I'd like to think publishers could do more than that. He also talks about publishers finding a way to keep options open, so authors can explore multiple platforms as they come on board, without the restrictions currently found in contracts.

I'm sad that there isn't a sense of collectivity in Doctorow's message. He says publishers have to maintain their autonomy, and have to help authors do the same. But what about partnerships that benefit multiple parties? What about successful authors helping up-and-coming, and successful publishers introducing new voices to readers who learn to trust said publishers? He's railing against big corporate publishers to a point and then stopping.

But if I think about it a bit more, I'd say he's probably working to keep everyone happy. He is criticizing the Kindle, but not making a broad-based attack as he's happy to have that as a venue for sales of his own work. Fair enough. But I'd like to see someone come out swinging as thoughtfully as Doctorow, but maybe a bit harder, to take on some blatantly unfair practices without being as delicate.

If nothing else, it's an interesting video, if you have 45 minutes to spare. (And no, I didn't have them to spare... oops...)

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