A heads-up from Ben Johncock tells me that no less than Nicholas Clee has been writing in the New Statesman about the transition from tangible to electronic books. (I’ve been struggling to find an official link to the piece; here’s an unofficial-looking one.)
It’s fair to say that Nicholas Clee is traditional in his perspective.
Ebooks are destroying this economic model. …Will 99P become the optimum price for an ebook? If so, who is going to make any money out of publishing or writing books for such a market?
I agree with the first point here. The ebook is a disruptive entity. But anybody who has been around since the early 1990s has seen, in the music industry, an example of electronic merchandise destroying an economic model based on the physical. Perhaps ‘destroyed’ is the wrong term to use in this context. The market is still there. But how much growth does the CD market have? How much in the hardback market?
The second point speaks to a fundamental issue of business. One should not ask ‘How are all the employees of the legacy publishing industry — from receptionists to the CEO — going to maintain their income?’ because this leads to the problem that afflicts all publishers: they decide as a group, implicitly or explicitly, to act as a cartel. Prices are kept high. This creates situations where the electronic version of a book costs the same as or more than the tangible. Try explaining this to a consumer. It’s hard. ‘We need these prices because of the way our business was set up’ makes for poor advertising copy.
Now for the part that mentions your humble correspondent:
As for the financial implications — on the Me and My Big Mouth blog, the novelist Ian Hocking … has confided his sales figures and revenues from self-publishing ebooks with Amazon. Two of them have sold more than 8,000 copies. This is a figure that many conventionally published novelists would envy. But Hocking’s profit to date is only just over £300 (his revenue is just over £2,000).
Had Hocking chosen a conventional publisher, he might well have sold fewer copies, but he would have earned more, thanks to the publisher’s advance.
Yes, my profit is just over £300, but this figure is essentially meaningless (the revenue is more informative) as a proxy for success. First, I’ve ploughed virtually all the money from the first book into the second, and so on. ‘Profit’, then, in this context, represents the amount that I’ve decided not to spend. I might have adjusted that up or down arbitrarily. Second, my science fiction novels continue to sell in greater number each month, and unless I can find other book-related expenditure, this ‘profit’ figure will rise sharply. Overall, I believe it was more sensible for me (as a writer nobody has heard of) to price low and sell in quantity than opt for the preferred option of a legacy publisher, which, perhaps, is to price high and sell few.
The question of the publisher advance is an interesting one. It would certainly be in my short term interest to land a large advance, which I may not earn out. But, if I may say, the industry-wide behaviour of doling out these advances is one of the reasons the business model is unsupportable.
To return to this question: Is 99p too cheap for a book? I really don’t know. If you’re employed by a business that requires the new Ken Follett book to be £16 or more, you’ll probably think it’s too cheap and consider me an upstart who is undercutting you. If you’re an individual, creative person who is putting out a product and is in control of the consumer experience, you will think carefully about the impact that your price will have on the perception of the product. I think 99p for Déjà Vu represents good value. After all, you can get it from a library for free, and that doesn’t lessen its worth. Neither does picking up a second-hand copy from the church bazar.
Last word from Mr Clee, which requires no comment beyond a brief nod to its past tense:
An industry that paid unrecoverable advances for books, and then published them in formats that the public thought too expensive, had its eccentricities.