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The Entitled Reader

The Entitled Reader


Although I’m not exactly a devoted reader of John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, a Twitter retweet last week drew my attention to a recent post, in which he announces that readers protesting ebook prices on his “Big Idea” posts will have their comment deleted:


Why? Primarily because here at the tail end of 2011, I find the subject boring and I find the people who get huffy about an electronic book not being [insert price you believe for whatever reason an eBook should be] are exhibiting a particularly tiresome sort of entitlement, to wit, that owning an electronic book reader means that you are possibly obliged to announce your opinion on book pricing at every turn. See, the thing is: You’re not. You don’t have to. At this point, I wish you wouldn’t.

But it doesn’t stop there. Scalzi goes on to insist that such complaints are “kind of mean to the author,” and that

. . . going into a comment thread of a Big Idea and making a big show of why you’re not going to buy the book because of a price point that the author very frequently has absolutely no control over kind of makes you a dick. Authors are already neurotic and twitchy about how the book is going to be received; you going in and announcing “I will not buy your book for reasons entirely unrelated to your writing and about which you were given no say” is really cluelessly rude. If you want to complain about the pricing, please do — to someone who actually has the wherewithal to do something about it, namely, the publisher. They are not hard to find and e-mail.


Without a doubt, Scalzi has the right to delete comments on his blog, and at least he’s giving people fair warning that he will do so in certain circumstances. That’s not what irked me about the post. What irked me is this belief that readers who protest book prices to the author are “entitled,” a word that in the context of his post suggests that we are somehow overstepping and over-reaching beyond what is our right. That, combined with Scalzi’s belief that readers have easy access to publishers and that not utilizing it is “mean to the author,” struck me as just plain wrong. Numerous supportive comments to his post honestly surprised me, as did a point Scalzi brought up to me in a long Twitter exchange, namely his belief that the big 6 publishers regard readers as their customers – which stands in contradiction to what even the publishers themselves say. And while I certainly understand why authors would get frustrated and even resentful over reader complaints about pricing, I think Scalzi’s argument is, at best, myopic and mistaken in regard to readers, authors, and publishers.

The Nature of the Book

There is an ongoing tension around whether books are the same or different from other consumer goods. Is the book a sacred cultural artifact or a commercial product akin to a vacuum cleaner or a kitchen appliance? The rise of digital books suggests that even within the realm of books there is a hierarchy of cultural value. Eloquent eulogies to the paper book abound, elevating its status and calling into question whether something that’s not printed and bound can even be called a book. Publishers currently treat digital books differently from print books, both in royalty structure and pricing (i.e. no so-called agency pricing model for print books). Scalzi argues that “eBooks are not special snowflakes; they’re just books in electronic form. As someone who prefers to read in eBook form, you are not substantially different from someone who prefers hardcovers, or trade paperbacks, or mass market paperbacks,” but what about books in general?

The Nature of the Reader’s Relationship with the Book

My own view is that books are both a commercial good and a cultural artifact, which means that behavior toward them will be a hybrid of consumption and critical engagement. And one of the biggest aspects of the commercial nature of books is the price. Under the current so-called agency pricing (Charles Petit does a great job explaining why it’s not really an agency model), big 6 publishers set the price of books, but consumers still primarily acquire books via retailers, which have long been considered the customers of publishers. As cultural artifacts, books are creative products, and readers are conditioned to identify them primarily with the author’s name on the cover. In the broad universe of books and readers, what is the likelihood that a reader will identify a book with its publisher?  I know for myself that even now I’m much more likely to know a non-agency book’s publisher than I am one from the big 6. Some of those non-agency books I purchase direct from the publisher (e.g. Harlequin), but most I still buy from a retailer.

The Nature of the Reader’s Relationship with the Author, the Retailer, and the Publisher

When I learned that publishers don’t view readers as their customers, so much made sense to me. My inability – until very recently – for example, to find a contact link on the Penguin publishing site; Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s failure to include readers in his letter on the agency stand-off with Amazon; the seeming hostility to digital demonstrated by big 6 leaders like Simon and Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy, who unselfconsciously explained the practice of “windowing” digital releases, admitting that,


“The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback. We believe some people will be disappointed. But with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”


Hachette CEO David Young added, “We’re doing this to preserve our industry. I can’t sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices. It’s about the future of the business.” And the big 6 business model is built around the hardcover, something I do not believe reflects the priorities of the reading public as a whole.

I know it’s not personal; I understand that publishers, like all commercial businesses, are profit-driven; I don’t doubt that publishers know consumers are end-users of their products. However, their business model has not included readers as customers. Digital growth is beginning to challenge this tradition, but as the publishers themselves admit, it’s a challenge. Part of the problem is that big 6 publishers have decidedly not made themselves accessible or even recognizable to readers. Frankly, I’d love to know when it became easy to contact publishers directly, because that certainly has not been my experience.

Consumers sometimes vent their complaints about a product directly to the manufacturer; however, as gazillions of Amazon reviews demonstrate, the retailer is the likely first stop for the consumer, because they have a direct customer relationship with the retailer. And as readers, especially readers online, we identify books with their authors, more and more of whom have websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts. In their own way, authors have become like direct marketers of their literary products, not necessarily selling books directly, although more and more authors are, in fact, publishing their own books and selling them via retailers.

Which brings me (FINALLY!) to my central question: why is it inappropriately entitled behavior for a reader to complain about ebook prices to or in the presence of the author?

If ebooks are not “special snowflakes,” then why wouldn’t we expect readers to act any differently from other types of consumers? Consumers complain to the store; book consumers also complain to the authors. But, Scalzi says, authors can’t control their book prices, so it’s “mean” to complain to them. I’m not going to debate the question of whether authors can or cannot control prices, because for me that’s not the point (although clearly self-publishing indicates that author can create an environment in which they can control the price of their books). Rather, I’ll focus on this: among retailers, authors, and readers, the only party not in contractual privity with the publisher is the party Scalzi insists has the burden of dealing with directly. This just strikes me as fundamentally illogical.

Even if I accept Scalzi’s assertion that big 6 authors can’t control price, as contractual partners with publishers, does that invalidate the reader’s right to protest? Authors make choices in what publisher they contract with, and maybe some authors want to know the deterrents readers face in buying their books (this goes for geographical restrictions, too, for example). As Dan Gillmor, director of ASU’s Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, pointed out in his recent Guardian blog post,


Sure, I can afford the higher prices. But the greed of the publishers has inspired me to make different plans. Now I reserve bestsellers at my local library – run by people who love books: imagine that! – and read them whenever they are available. What were impulse purchases of books that sent revenue to publishers are now impulse reservations that do not. If I have to wait a few weeks, no big deal. I should have remembered that all along.


How many readers are now forgoing purchase of big 6 books because of so-called agency pricing, even if they can afford the higher prices? Is this something authors want to know? As authors continue to reach out directly to readers to market their books, I don’t think it’s reasonable to view readers who complain to the author about prices as misbehaving. Because as popular as it is to say that the reader rules, if that were truly the case, I’m not sure the big 6 would even exist, let alone have been able to establish so-called agency pricing.

And do I even need to address the question of whether it’s “mean” to complain about prices to the author? The person who has commercially sold his book in the hopes of making money from it? The person whose name is figured most prominently on the book itself?

Why Shouldn’t the Reader Complain to the Author?

I’ll give Scalzi this: he’s right that I don’t “have to” complain about the price of digital books. What I think he’s dead wrong about, though, is that complaining about the price of digital books is a form of illegitimate entitlement.

When I purchase a digital book from big 6 publishers, which I do infrequently if the price is not reduced, I am denied the right of first sale, which is one of the most fundamental copyright principles. More and more, I am also being denied the kind of editorial and formatting quality I associate with a higher book price (even print books have declined in size, paper quality, and editing, which creates another pricing issue, but I’ll leave that aside for now). But to abdicate my own rights under copyright law in purchasing a digital book means that I am ultimately buying a lesser or at least more limited product. And just as I don’t think it’s anywhere near reasonable to pay $15 or $20 to rent a movie, I don’t think it’s reasonable to pay print prices for DRM’d digital books.

So what about publisher costs? The current print model demonstrates clearly that price is not determined purely by the cost of producing an item, so I don’t find that a helpful argument in determining the cost of digital books as compared to print. With the big 6 business model built around the hardcover, the growth of digital books is not a good thing, which means that publishers do not have much incentive to promote their growth unless the model is changed. With debates over whether so-called agency pricing has helped or hurt authors, it’s unlikely that authors will stand united for or against the practice.

All of which makes it more likely than not that if readers protest digital pricing, they will do so to authors. Even if authors feel that is unfair. Which, in some cases it might be. And perhaps it’s not the most effective venue of protest, although I don’t think it requires subtle interpretive tools to read Scalzi as dismissive of readers who protest digital prices period. But how does lodging the protest with the author’s online book marketing presence make the protesting reader a “dick”? How is the reader’s frustration about an ebook price any different from an author’s frustration over, for example, a royalties structure? I know there are authors who forward reader comments to their publisher. Not every author does this, nor should readers expect it. I think we all have to accept that for the most part people act in what they perceive to be their best interest. The question here, I think, is whether pricing is in the interest of the author, as well.

Without a doubt, the primary perceived interests of readers, authors, and publishers are not always in alignment. But when we have direct evidence that digital book pricing is aimed at slowing digital growth, which in turn potentially slows digital sales for authors and deters readers from buying their books, I think price is a shared concern between authors and readers, one which we are all reasonably entitled — and perhaps should be encouraged — to discuss. Except, of course, at Scalzi’s blog.






Readers’ Rights to Buy When, Where, and in What Format They Want

Readers’ Rights to Buy When, Where, and in What Format They...


Last month, Sunita sent me a link to a book inspired by a schoolteacher in Paris named Daniel Pennac. Pennac had created a readers’ list of rights to encourage young people to read. This list was combined with illustrations by Quentin Blake and then published. The U.S. version has only black and white illustrations, but the international version can still be had by U.S. and non U.S. readers. She said that each “right” could be the topic of a blog post. So true (if you want to write one, let me know)

The concept is that you, the reader, hold your own reading universe in your hands. You control what you read, how you read, when you read. You control what you say about the book, what you don’t say, how far you read, how much it affects your life. You utterly control your interaction with the book.

I would take that further. I think that readers control where they buy the book, when they buy the book, in what format they choose to buy the book, whether they choose to trade for the book or check it out from the library.

And when a reader exercises her rights to purchase or not to purchase, she should not be qualified as a bad reader or even a bad fan. There are so many decisions that go into purchasing a book and not all of them have to do with the author herself.

Telling readers that if they really care, they’ll buy a certain way and in a certain format is akin to saying If you really love me, you’ll –insert action most favorable to me–. (As an aside, is this a SFF thing? Seanan McGuire purportedly gives helpful instructions on how to keep her writing. Rob Thurman does this too, only she’s more militant and also wrong**).  Gail Carriger says on her blog:

What to do if you really truly want to help an author. (I’m talking specifically first week here.)

I write this, not only for myself, although Gail’s continued subsistence is, naturally, of primary interest to me. I write this for all us authors ~ for the brand spanking new writer with her first book soon to appear, for your old favorite who has been writing for years or decades in a solidly mid-list manner. If that author is alive and kicking, the best thing you can do to keep them writing is the following . . .

1. Buy her new book, dead tree style, from a brick & mortar bookstore, within the first week of that book’s release. Go Indy if you can.

2. If chains are all you have and you can’t find it at Big Chain Bookstore B1, then go to Big Chain Bookstore B2, not B1 in a different area.

3. Remind your friends and fellow readers that the book is out.

4. If you would rather read online or digitally, but have the funds to be kind, buy the paperback and give it to a friend or the local library. Then buy the ebook version. (Often the ebook comes out after the paper copy anyway.)

But you know what really got my dander up about these instructions? The justification is completely wrong, Gentle Reader. These instructions and the explanations lead to comments like this:

I had no idea that eBooks didn’t count! Although it’s such a large part of the market now, it really should. I know when I finished reading Soulless on my Kobo app for my iPhone, I immediately bought Changeless and then Blameless. Instant Gratification! But I will buy Heartless in print now that I know it will help you.


Gail, the author, gives reasons for these instructions.

1. Because paper sales count “most” toward the NYTimes.

WRONG. There are now five main lists in the Times: Hardcover, Trade, Mass Market, eBook, and eBook + Paper. Further, not all indy booksellers report to the NYTimes. Only a select number of indy booksellers are store reporters, those stores that send a list of books to the Times. So buying indy to get on the list could be an utter fail.

2. If the Big Chain isn’t shelving or distributing the book you want to buy, you do need to punish that chain by going to their competitor, rather than online. Of course, you never read it here, but independent bookstores are particularly responsive to your needs. Particularly responsive.

As long time romance readers know, many independent bookstores are not only NOT responsive to our needs, they can be downright snobbishly condescending about our needs. Further, who is paying for my gas as I drive all over town trying to “punish” the chain?

3. Because, under most current active contracts (to which I have been privy), an author’s ebook doesn’t count as much toward primary sales so far as royalties and NYT are concerned (again see comments below for more), and rumor is they aren’t being reported accurately on royalty statements anyway.

Under current traditional contracts, most authors earn 8-10% off the cover price of a mass market sale and 25% off the net (often 17.5% off the cover) of a digital book. Thus, the author’s ebook sale actually earns the author a bigger royalty off the digital book sale. What Carriger may be saying here is that her print run was so voluminous and there were so many returns by the bookstore to the publisher because readers bought digital books, that her subsequent bookstore orders were smaller. Smaller orders often mean smaller advances as publishers haven’t figured out how to best incorporate digital sales into their advance calculations. But more digital units sold means the author gets more on the back end of the contract. And Carriger’s doing all right. According to Publishers’ Marketplace, Carriger’s sale of HEARTLESS and TIMELESS was a “good deal” which is between $100,000 and $250,000 for both books. I think that information should be included in the “BUY HERE, BUY PRINT, BUY NOW” post.

Readers don’t need to be responsible for whether an author gets more on the front end or the back end. That is the job of her agent who seems to be doing very well for Carriger.

Further, the italicized “rumor” bit was added after Gail Carriger and I had a little exchange on twitter. It wasn’t there initially as you can see by the screenshot below.

Screen shot of Gail Carriger post

I found it interesting that Carriger is a client of Kristin Nelson who not two weeks ago claimed that it was FACT that publishers were underreporting royalties.

Screen shot from Kristin Nelson's blog

Carriger admitted that she hadn’t done an audit, that she was waiting for a writer’s organization to do this, and that she was getting her information from one Kathryn Rusch, who, as I pointed out to Carriger, doesn’t even have the same publisher as Carriger.  I’ve sent an email to Hachette asking them about this issue.

ARGH! again. All this misinformation. I had one reader on Twitter ask if she should cancel her Kindle order because obviously she didn’t want Carriger to be cheated out of any money. When authors and respected agents make claims that publishers are cheating authors, readers want to respond positively. They want to be helpful. In light of what happened with digital publishers in the past or with Dorchester, online readers are paying attention and want to know that the money that they spend will go to the author, not eaten up by a publisher in some shady accounting scheme. If authors are going to make the claim that they aren’t getting the money due them from ebook sales let’s have some proof to back up that scare tactic because without proof, it is a scare tactic and a pretty distasteful one.

Apparently authors are comparing their Amazon Kindle rankings for self published books against the rankings for their traditionally published books and finding the sales figures don’t match up. There are so many variables in the rankings, such as who else is being sold at the time, how many digital readers today versus six months ago, and that Amazon and BN haven’t ever told ANYONE how their rankings work and therefore who knows what those rankings mean from day to day, month to month, year to year. If there is underreporting, then contracts allow for an audit.  Readers do want their money to go to the authors. They don’t want authors cheated.

However, the reader is the ONLY PERSON in this transaction that makes NO MONEY. Why are they being the ones ordered about? Why prey on their natural instinct to be helpful?

Readers, don’t feel guilty about where you buy, what format you buy, when you buy. Just enjoy your damn book. Or don’t enjoy it. It’s your money, your time, your book. You can still be a TRUE FAN if you buy in digital and five weeks later. I know I am all lathered up about this, but this whole “buy x at y time because of totally incorrect information that I am passing off as fact” gets me going like few other things. We all have our hot buttons and this one’s mine. Rant off.

Sigh. I feel so much better.

But should authors be able to ask for readers to help them get to the top of the list? Probably but I wish it was done in a more honest way and without the dissemination of inaccurate information. I think  it would not have bothered me so much if it was stated something like “I want to move up the bestseller list and here are the ways that this can be accomplished” rather than couching the plea in the ‘if you really want this series to continue, you’ll need to do x, y, z and jump through a hula hoop.’

I understand wanting a book to succeed. I understand wanting a series to continue. I have those series myself.   We are constantly giving away books to promote those titles because we want the fire of excitement for that book to catch hold and spread.  But I’m not out there telling readers to buy this book right now or else they don’t love me or the books I am supporting enough. These pleas really bother me because there’s no acknowledgment, it seems, of being appreciative of the reader who loves the books, regardless of how those books are obtained whether it be from the library, the used bookstore or in trade, or purchased digitally or in print.

Use the comments to let me know what you think? Am I being too harsh here?

** Rob Thurman once told her readers that presales did not count toward the bestseller list and she also complained that her royalty check put her in a lower earning bracket than the fast food worker:

All right. I received my royalty check (which puts the KFC worker I saw today with her polyester pants so tight I could see her thong in a better earning bracket than me.)

No mention of her advance, of course, and what tax bracket that put her in.