Mar 27 2011
Last week I blogged about value as differentiated between price. Many other readers chimed in with their own value scale. What I read in the comments to last week’s post and that of Nadia Lee’s post is that a) readers will pay a lot for authors that they love and b) readers are reluctant to pay much for authors that are unknown to them. It is also important to note that with ebooks readers cannot share, resell, or lend a book. These rights that are built into the paper book but do not exist for the digital book.
Not spending a dime on new (e)/books at this point have become the right price for me since ebooks can't be swapped or given away and I'm done reading paper books
The reason that Steig Larrson, Nora Roberts, and John Grisham sell well on the ebook platform is because they are a known and enjoyable quantity for most readers. The risk to these readers buying in excess of $9.99 is low. First, readers are used to paying hardcover prices for those books. Second, these books are often discounted to 40-50% off the cover. Third, if you resell or share these books, you are still paying close to $9.99. I.e., if you buy Treachery in Death (a really good addition to the series) from Costco at 15.99 and resell it to the usedbookstore for $4.99, you are out $9.99. Paying $9.99 to $12.99 for a digital book that you can’t resell but theoretically you can keep is even odds.
However, most everyone else is in the unknown category and for most readers that means the book has low to zero value. This is why the freebie works to promote backlist sales and why the $.99 book is attractive to readers. This is why availability of digital books at the library is important. The risk of entry is low. (This is particularly meaningful for series books because readers can be reluctant to start a series by an unknown author. Is the first book going to deliver a full story or will it end with a cliffhanger that will require additional time and money to get a satisfying read?) The higher the risk (i.e. price), the less likely the reader is going to take a chance on a new author and for the majority of authors out there, most readers are unfamiliar.
When Zoe Winters talks about attracting the “right” kind of reader by a certain price point of her story, she takes a chance that she is not getting the new-to-her reader. These aren’t the wrong kinds of readers, they are just unfamiliar with her work. Because as we witnessed from the comment thread last Sunday, readers are reluctant to spend time and money on a digital book from an unkonwn author that they have few rights to. For example, Amy said:
I'm willing to pay close to the paperback price for authors I really like; but I have to truly *love* an author in order for me to pay full paperback price for an ebook. Few authors fall into that category -’ right now that includes Nalini Singh, Julie Anne Long, and Jo Goodman.
And Sandy wrote:
I search out new authors when I'm browsing at the book store, because I've sometimes been pleasantly surprised. Also, every author was new at some point, right? I like fresh voices and new ideas. Yes, sometimes I get burned, but that's what Paperback Swap is for.
As Kate said, “I think we need to have two scales, and digital books would have their own metric.” The reason for this is that paper books have more value that digital books because of the rights readers have that flow with the paper book. These rights are embodied in the First Sale doctrine of the Copyright Act. The First Sale doctrine allows the reader to do anything she wants with the copy she bought. She can sell it. She can lend it. She can put it up for trade on paperback swap. She could paper her bathroom with it or use it as the base for her daughter’s pinata. The paper product has utility beyond the content and thus the price we pay includes that a valuation of the extra utility.
Further, years of used book purchases and coupon usages have fueled certain expectations about the costs of books. Built upon these past expectations and valuations of paper book are the expectations of readers that everything digital should be cheaper. The lack of a physical product decreases value and so does the declining concepts of ownership. No one wants to pay the equal price for something that they are only borrowing for a period of time rather than outright owning it. This is why so many readers balk at paying front list prices for backlist titles, particularly when they are self published. I’ve fielded many an angry reader complaint about the $9.99 digital backlist prices particularly from Warner and the frontlist prices of self published backlist titles.
Prices for fiction books, the books that we read here at Dear Author, are measured against other entertainment options. Some authors have equated their books with albums rather than singles meaning that their books should be valued at $.99 a chapter and that readers are getting a bargain at $7.99. Other authors argue that their books are worth more than the price of a movie ticket. Still other authors have argued that readers should pay something for convenience, the privilege of shopping in your pajamas and having immediate access, much like you pay for your food to be delivered at a cost.
Regardless of whether these reader expectations are wrongheaded or full of entitlement, the problem that publishers and authors face is this. Expectations of consumers are almost impossible to change. In order for publishers and authors to get readers to pay more for a product, the value of the product has to be increased in the reader’s minds. Currently the digital book has a decreased value for readers. It is decreased because of the lack of utility as compared to the paper product, the ephemeral feelings of the product, and yes, the decreased quality. Let’s face it. The digital book has come a long way but it still doesn’t live up to the product in terms of quality. I was dismayed when I learned that the digital book of Jaci Burton’s Perfect Play did not include the cover image even at the price of $9.99. Digital books are poorly edited, often have egregious typos even in the “big” books.
Publishers talk about enhanced books as if it is the holy grail of digital publishing, as if throwing in a video of the author will raise value in the eyes of the reader.
What publishers and authors will have to do to increase the value of digital books is the following:
a) increase the quality of digital books so that the content is equal or great in quality to paper books.
b) increase the utility of a digital book by allowing lending, reselling, trading or swapping.
c) increase content access. When I was at a local business meeting this week, I was told that what we once sold, we will give away for free and what we once gave away for free, we will now sell. Videos and the like where promotional tools but maybe we will pay to get that kind of access. It is possible that a book could be given away for free, but that updates are for subscribers only. For instance, a number of authors are writing extended scenes as promotional items. In the future, a reader might get access to a book for free and then if she wants those extended scenes, she would “subscribe” to that book’s feed and be eligible to read new content. (This is what O’Reilly does for its technical books).
In the meantime, without these types of improvements, I believe that a number of us will always be the “wrong” kind of reader. High prices of ebooks will do a couple of things. First, it will increase sales of known quantities because if readers are going to spend money, it might as well be on guaranteed reads. Second, it will decrease the chances readers take on new to them authors (midlist and debuts). Third, it will drive readers to lower priced goods in the market. This is not to say all books should be priced at $.99 but using a paper price scale for digital books is wrongheaded because it totally goes against consumer expectation. It’s swimming upstream. Eventually the current will carry you under.