Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More about E-books

Okay, some more about e-books from SFWC and beyond...

I guess I'll start with some more about Smashwords 'cuz Mark Coker (founder) was at the conference (the presentation audio and slides can be accessed via Mark's blog). Smashwords has been around for about a year, and claims to have published 387,372,989 words as of tonight. They list 16 fiction categories in their catalog, and ten in non-fiction (including poetry ... which strikes me as kind of odd, actually ... I'm thinking W.B. Yeats, "Who Goes With Fergus," for whatever perverse reason ... or Ovid ... or ...). 3,567 authors. 7,807 titles. As I wrote in my last post, the drill is to upload electronic manuscript and Smashwords converts it ten e-book formats, then lets the author set a price.

So one of the questions that's begged here is whether people buy e-books. Another has to do how an author ought to set a price for her/his work.

Do people buy e-books? The jury hasn't been fully polled on this one, as far as I can tell. According to Mark Coker, about 2.3% of the market last year was sales of e-books. Jeff Bezos of Amazon said last month that where both e-books and printed formats are available, 6 e-books are sold for each 10 paper copies. E-books seem to be an impulse buy (cheap, easy, fill up your nifty new device). Coker's nifty graphs showed wholesale e-book revenue coming in at $100M in 2008, and an estimated $200M in 2009. E-books, Coker says, are "the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry." You get published instantly. You never go 'out of print.' You can publish at any length (short stories, a poem, a 100,000 word novel).

Some of the most provocative ideas Coker put forward had to do with pricing. For example, he suggested that higher prices may encourage piracy: if it's cheap, why go to the trouble of moving a file from one device to another, just download another for cheap? (I will say, in counterpoint, quoting a certain sophomore at UC Berkeley who will remain unnamed in this blog, that "college students never pay for downloading music" ... and if that's so, the "people don't share e-books" trope is probably not far from myth).

But this was really interesting: in a (very small sample size) experiment in which books were offered for whatever a consumer chose to pay -- where free is an option -- 85% didn't pay anything. But. 15% did, and they paid an average of $3.20 (a $3.00 mean for the statisticians out there). When you average out the price paid among those who paid nothing and those who paid something, the figure came to $0.49 per copy distributed. Coker's suggestion: that's not so bad at all if you can get your book read, which is often an author's principal goal ... and it's lucrative as anything if you can get it read widely. His rhetorical question was a little, well, rhetorical, but when he asked who would take $0.49/copy if they could get a million readers pretty much everybody in the room put their hand up.

One of Coker's best soundbytes was this: "An author's enemy is obscurity not piracy." That's worth a second thought.

Smashwords, of course, is not the e-author's only option. Scribd publishes your electronic manuscripts as web pages. Amazon lets you publish for the Kindle. (And there's the print on demand universe too, through avenues like; the ubiquitous Amazon through their subsidiary, CreateSpace -- now incorporating what used to be BookSurge; or another SF Writer's Conference attendee, AuthorSolutions.)

Food for thought.


  1. I know a certain PhD student who will remain unnamed who downloads thousands upon thousands of pirated, DRM-free PDFs from Scribd. To find the gems, he spends a lot of time sifting through page after page of crap, but for him it's worth the trade-off because the scholarly reference material he's getting is either A) unavailable as PDFs-- which is actually a more convenient form than paper for those kinds of works; B) DRM'd, and since he accesses his reference material as-needed, from whatever computer he's on, and keeps his files in the cloud, that just doesn't work.

    He's not opposed to buying things at a reasonable price; I'd cap it at maybe $12-$15 for one of the thick reference books that will run you $40-$70 at the prices-only-a-library-can-love they tend to run for. I bet if there was an Amazon-easy way to buy a DRM-free PDF of the book he needs, when he needs it, he'd be a pretty reliable customer.

    Somewhat tangentially, I'm not convinced of the "DRM restrictions + low price = multiple sales". My gut reaction is to be even a bit offended by the suggestion-- I pay for something, and you want me to pay again for every new device? Even if I were willing to pay for something with DRM the first time (maybe if I really needed it immediately) I would absolutely spend the time to find a pirated version for subsequent copies, out of spite if nothing else.

  2. Smashwords is on your page re: DRM, Quinn: "We think DRM is counterproductive because it treats lawful customers like criminals. Consumers value non-DRMed content and there's a growing body of evidence that digital content producers who have abandoned DRM are enjoying greater sales. Many buyers of ebooks resent DRM because it limits their ability to fully own and enjoy their digital book. At Smashwords, we only publish DRM-free works. By the same token, we strictly discourage illegal pirating of an author’s works."

  3. I'm glad Smashwords has seen the light with DRM, but that really makes me question the "why go to the trouble of moving a file from one device to another, just download another for cheap?" pricing pitch. Maybe that scenario might work for the most profoundly lazy rich people, but seeing as moving files around (or simply storing them in the cloud) is a fact of life, I can't imagine who on earth would pay twice if there's no DRM making the file-moving experience a non-trivial chore.