"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Friday, April 6, 2012

What price e-books?

I promised you all a report of what Left Coast Crime was like, but truthfully, I'm still sorting it out and I'll get to it eventually. It was, as Jean Jenkins told me, very casual and relaxed, and I met a lot of very fun writers who wanted to talk about their books and my books and the future of publishing. And I met some engaging readers who wanted to talk about everything. I'm a little afraid that if I start naming names, I'll miss someone and they'll get their nose out of joint, but you know how it is when you're running through a weekend at warp speed, right?

What I've been mulling over today is a conversation a group of us had at lunch on Friday. Seven or eight of us sat around a table at PF Chang's and we were talking about the prices of e-books and the lawsuit against Apple and all the publishers who are "suspected of colluding to raise e-book prices."

As a former engineer, I made my usual whine about how e-books are uploaded once by the publisher and then sold over and over and over without any more cost to the publisher's wallet. Not to mention the fact that e-books are not actually "sold" - you are sold a license to have them on your device. You don't own your Kindle books, or your Nook books, or your name-your-reader books.

(Didn't you know that? It's all well and good until the publisher starts a fight with the e-reader company and forces them to remove their books from the site and the book you've "bought" disappears. Yes, you get credited the money - I think - but still.)

At any rate, one of the authors says, "But you're paying for the intellectual property rights." I admit, this sounded like a So What argument to me. But it planted a seed.

Days later, I begin thinking about the way we who embrace e-readers compare their advent to the changes in the way our music is delivered. "The content is the same. It's just the delivery method that changed."

When I was young, I bought vinyl records. If I recall, in the late 60's you could get a 45-rpm for about 80 cents and an album (33 1/3-rpm) for less than 5 bucks. I know this because my weekly allowance was $5 and I could get the latest Monkees album with it. I nearly died of shock the day I went into to Sears to get their latest album and the price had risen to $6.99.

8-tracks were cool.
As the years passed, album prices rose. At their peak, most of them were, I think, around $15. Then the media changed and everyone was going to either cassette or 8-track tapes. It seems that 8-tracks came first and didn't last. The prices stayed about the same for vinyl or tape and we accepted this, because there were still materials and labor involved in pressing a record or winding a strip of magnetic tape.

Then Compact Discs came along. They were priced about the same, which is shocking when you consider how much time had passed without inflating the price of music. There were still materials and labor to produce a CD, so it was still worth the $15.

Enter MP3 World. The iPod and other players let us have instant access to music from our computer. I did a little recon in iTunes and found that most albums go for anywhere between $9.99 and $15.99. The song/album is downloaded to the store once, where it is sold over and over and over. There are no more materials involved.

We are all okay with this. Not only are we okay with it, some of us have bought the same album in each format as it comes out.

I'm slowly beginning to change my mind about the price of e-books, although I haven't quite reached the point of some publishers, who think they should be priced higher than the paperback. I started out thinking that everything should just be 99 cents, because you're selling the same damn thing over and over.

Now I'm in a struggle - I've raised the price of my books a little (I kept my short story at 99 cents), but not nearly as much as others. It's hard to know what to do, since there is really no model to follow. Traditional books can't be used as a reference, because the publishers are using a standard that includes the cost of their doing business. Self-published books can't be used because they're just all over the map and there's plenty of swill out there I don't want to compare myself to.

So what is my intellectual property worth? Does it come with mineral rights? And can I install a jacuzzi?


DeAnna Cameron said...

Great post, Gayle, and a great topic. Pricing for ebooks is such a murky business. I can see the logic on both sides of the price high/price low debate. Which only makes me dizzy when I think about it...

Peg Brantley said...

I have talked with a few readers about how they feel about ebook pricing. The general consensus seems to be that as long as they can download a free sample, they're willing to pay between $2.99 and $4.99 for a book from a new author and up to $7.99 for an author they read everything from. Much higher than that and they tend to get downright snippy toward the publishers.

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