Bootleg Trollope


I occasionally turn to the Darkweb when I look for something legitimately and find that it is not available anywhere. Such is the 1982 BBC / Masterpiece Theater production of Anthony Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towerst. I just finished Doctor Thorne, Book three in the series, and vaguely remember seeing Donald Pleasance in this when it was originally broadcast (and completely forgetting a young Alan Rickman was Obadiah Slope, the oily clergyman in the Stanhope camp.)

While I am sick and in search of comfort viewing, I sought this out. I had been watching the first few episodes of Monarch of the Glen as unchallenging material for slipping in an out of consciousness. What I didn’t realize until I looked this up is that Susan Hampsire, who plays Molly on MotG also plays Signora Neroni, the weirdo ingenue of Barchester Towers. I’m just suprised Hellen Mirren isn’t in it, since it was a British production from between 1975 and 2015. I thought she was required by law to be in them all.

And I didn’t realize until looking for the links for this post there is a brand spanking new production of Doctor Thorne, with Ian McShane as Sir Roger and Alison Brie as Miss Dunstable. Holy cow!

Attempting Normal on Sale

For those of you who are fans of Marc Maron’s podcast, his book Attempting Normal has been out for a few years but the Kindle version has been over $10 for all that time. Right now it is on sale for $1.99 and there is never any way of telling for how long so if you have an interest in the book I’d suggest getting it sooner than later.

No time like the present, friends. I just bought mine because my experience in these offers is there are two primary time periods for them: now and never.

Scott Sigler 10 Year Anniversary

Today is Scott Sigler’s 10th anniversary since he entered the new media world, podcasting and giving away his fiction. It’s worked for him, and he is celebrating with a special deal. For TODAY ONLY – which is code for “don’t dawdle” – he is giving away 10 ebooks for his 10th anniversary. This is all five of the published GFL novels, the three novellas set in the GFL milieu and two of his short story collections.

I have a blog post percolating about the fiasco that lost me access to GFL books 3 and 4. It’s a story of my being a serial idiot. I got them as a package deal with the hardcovers but had completely lost the ebook files. Now, I have them back. It’s a great day for my Kindle.

I recommend the GFL series and it is even safe for middle school and up. I read a lot of SF books and a lot of sports books as a kid. I’d have loved to have this mix back then in between my Heinlein juveniles and the formulaic stories of football championships won or drag racers peeling out.

Don’t forget, this offer is for TODAY ONLY.

Soaking in Game of Thrones

I’ve spent since Thanksgiving reading A Song of Ice and Fire. I finished Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows and now I’m a third of the way through A Dance with Dragons. Three books in 4 or 5 months is pretty good for me in recent years. However when you consider this is 3,000 pages which is 6-10 of the kind of books I normally read, it’s phenomenal.

I’ve now also seen S1E1 of the TV show. I bought the first two seasons on DVD/BluRay during a Gold Box special recently. Having immersed myself in this world in multiple media, I thought it would be a great time to start listening to the Beyond the Wall podcast as I watch the episodes. Basically, I get to relive 2011 with everyone else. When I went to try it, the first few episodes are no longer there on the site. The posts exists but the media files give a 404 error. Do they exist somewhere that I can get them? These are the dangers of living your media life half a decade off of everyone else.

SciFi Tavern in Charlotte

Here is a Kickstarter I can get behind, even though I am not a direct beneficiary of it. A guy is trying to raise money to start a science fiction and fantasy bookstore tavern in Charlotte NC. Even as Borderlands in San Francisco is planning to shut down, that some crazy bastard is willing to tilt at this windmill all over makes me happy.

I would like the idea of this place getting off the ground. I try to get to Charlotte for Heroescon as often as I can so if it does open, I will need to put this on the agenda. Fellow members of the SF tribe, do what you can. Especially as I have so many friends located around the south, please support this if you have the means and at least spread this if you don’t. Let’s see it happen!

Ebook Errors?

People who know about the inside working of big publishing, I need your help.

I have been hearing people talk about ebook editions that appear to have OCR type errors in them. This sounded suspicious to me, in that “publishing can’t possibly be doing what I think they are doing” type way. I have now some examples in captivity. I own all of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books in hardcover but I am reading them on my Kindle. Who wants a 10 pound book smashing their face at bedtime? I noticed these errors in the passages of the kingsmoot, where Balon Greyjoy is referred to many times. There is a stretch of two paragraphs with half of them “Balon” and the other half “Baton.” If the image is too small to read, follow to the blog post and click it and you’ll see a pretty large version of it. I highlighted the passage on the Kindle just to make it extra obvious.

The question is this: do the big publishers prepare their texts for commercial ebooks by scanning and OCRing typeset versions of the text? In other words, is there no way for them to capture the final edited version in a soft copy that could then end up in the ebook version? I’m withholding judgement until I understand this better but it seems remarkably backwards to me. If the electronic copy can introduce additional errors from the paper versions, something in the workflow seems amiss to me.

Octonauts FTW


Punkin has really taken to The Octonauts cartoon. These things come and go in waves (no pun intended) but this one seems to be sticking. We had Octonauts stuff at her birthday party and she spent her birthday money mostly on various Gup vehicles.

What I really like about the show is that every single episode is doing stealth teaching. There is always at least one animal fact or aquatic bit in each cartoon. The other day she used the words “kelp” and “krill.” When I asked her, she was able to correctly define what each was. I would put this as the best cartoon she watches for that reason. Add on that I enjoy it as an homage to all forms of stiff-upper-lip British military fiction (for me, that includes Pertwee era Dr. Who). This show is educational to kids, enjoyable by parents. That’s a win on multiple fronts for me. Now we need to hunt up some of the original books that the show was based on.

The Adventure of English


I am a listener of the In Our Time podcast from BBC Radio 4. It makes me feel marginally smarter and more informed on historical events that Americans seldom know. I really enjoy the host Melvyn Bragg. Through January 26th, his book The Adventure of English is on sale on the Kindle store for $1.99. I enjoy a good etymological yarn as well as the next guy if the next guy is a really boring egghead like me.

If you are a fan of Melvyn Bragg and his work, why not get this while it is cheap? I did.

Storm of Swords and Beyond


I finished reading A Storm of Swords last night. I was a little surprised that I read this nearly 1200 page book in six weeks (the long holiday break helped a lot.) It took me longer than that to read Tasteful Nudes, which was a fraction of the length. It went to the top of my pile mainly to mitigate spoilers from the TV show that are seeping into ubiquity in pop culture. The fact that I was surprised at major plot twists is evidence of success in that plan.

My original plan was to read something a little lighter (and shorter) before getting to A Feast For Crows. However, fumbling with my Kindle I accidentally ordered it 20 seconds after finishing A Storm of Swords and the momentum of the last few chapters has me dying to find out what happens next. So I think I’ll jump back into another few months with George R.R. Martin.

Ebook Pricing Wisdom vs The Humble Bundle

Periodically I have posted about ebook pricing, the most linked to and discussed post being the one where I analyzed JA Konrath’s sales data to determine optimum price to maximize revenue. The take home lesson I try to impress over and over is that the number I arrived at in that analysis is unimportant and not applicable to a general data set – it’s the method I used to arrive at the number that matters. I think anyone involved in the sale of digital goods should do the same kind of experimentation in order to determine their own optimum price.

I still see defenses of higher ebook prices. In practically every case, the person presenting the argument has some kind of investment in the way business has always been done. They have done their time in legacy paper publishing and present this experience as a reason why their opinion is informed. In reality, I think this mindset probably blinds them to realities and frames their thinking in ways that makes it difficult or impossible to think outside that frame. In other words, that lifetime of experience and all that hard won knowledge is probalby doing them harm, which is not something anyone wants to consider. “Hey, all that stuff you’ve learned your entire adult life, throw it out and start over.” I blame no one for having a hard time reframing their thoughts.

The first and most harmful bit of the frame is what I call the “Unit Price Fallacy.” The classic justification of ebook prices takes a unit, and breaks down the costs. Printing is $1-$2 per book, so the conclusion is that ebook prices should be a few dollars cheaper but not radically cheaper. I’ve argued against this many ways, but here is where I am at now: you don’t get to discuss unit prices and unit costs for units you don’t handle. Publishers effectively sell a single unit to Amazon, where black retailing magic occurs and then money is shuttled back the other way. There is no unit cost at all involved in any sell from the publisher end. Using the accounting methods derived from shipping boxes of books back and forth to B. Dalton’s does not apply in this situation.

The other giant portion of the frame that does harm is the “Inelastic Demand Fallacy.” The publishing world seems to feel that they are doing a holy mission by bringing out this literature, that they are a hedge against the darkness of ignorance. In a sense that is true. Coupled in all this is a belief that when a book comes out from an author, readers want *that book from that author* and will pay what it costs. That is undoubtedly true for very specific authorial brands in the bestseller category, but for the vast majority of books available to be purchased, that isn’t true. The books are a commodity. People want to find a book to read, and if book X looks interesting but is priced too high, they’ll move on to book Y which also looks interesting but is priced more reasonably. No author wants to think they spent a year or three writing a novel that is a replaceable commodity in the eyes of purchasers, but that’s exactly where we are at. Fighting the fact won’t change it, accepting it makes it something you can work with.

Recently long time agent Richard Curtis wrote a two part article on Digital Book World defending ebook prices – Part One and Part Two. In Part One he explained that it would cost approximately $1600 to get the final copyedited book into clean digital form. I hope he is talking about books from before, say 1990. My reaction to this was one of horror. “WTF? No one has a digital copy of the final text of the published book? This isn’t standard practice for every publisher?” This is one of the reasons publisher cost justifications are so unconvincing. They are full of costs that make any outsider scratch their head and say “Why would anyone do business like that?” His Part Two is absolutely full of the Inelastic Demand Fallacy. He compares how many copies it would take to recoup the fixed upfront costs but with no mention whatsoever of what that change in price does to the demand for the book.

Compare this to the recent experiences of the inaugural Humble Ebook Bundle. There were an initial six books being bundled, with two additional added on for above average contributions and then another five. You can purchase the bundle by naming your own price and even determine what fraction goes to the authors, the charities and to the Humble organization to keep the site running. At the time of this writing, just under $970,000 has been paid in by just over 70,000 purchasers paying an average of $13.76. Breaking these numbers down, if everyone left their division of money at default and we assume $1,000,000 in final amount (it will be higher but that makes the math clean) that would mean Humble brings in $150,000, the charities divide $200,000 and the books get $650,000 or $50,000 apiece. The per book price is ridiculously low – just over a dollar a book with each book clearing just over $0.65 per book per sale.

According to Richard Curtis and the unit price thinking, this is terrible. People should be paying more per book, because a dollar a book is too low. It is low, very low. However, despite being low each author is bringing home a $50,000 bucket of cash per book. Note that Kelly Link, Zach Weiner and the Penny Arcade guys have two books apiece in there. You could apply a unit price thinking and decide that this is a terrible deal, or you could look at it as $50,000 in sales that didn’t exist for these books a month ago. The latter mode is more productive. I’m not saying Humble scales to all writers, particularly self-published ones. It is its own thing with its own built-in publicity machine and branding. I’m using it as an example why unit price thinking is harmful. Think instead about the bucket of money that comes out the other end of any given decision and sales process of a digital good. Don’t think about it as if you had to pack each envelope and drive them to the mailbox because that doesn’t happen. Margins are abstract concepts, not some kind of money that is coming out of your pocket directly. You’ve already incurred all your costs by the time you deliver the book to the etailer, so it’s all 100% margin after that point.

I’m still working on my first novel, which I will self-publish electronically. (I’m writing this instead of proofing it, bad author!) My initial price will probably be $4.95 for an ~100,000 word book. I will also be experimenting to the extent I have possible with changing the price periodically and seeing what that does to sales. Writing this post notwithstanding, I’ve stopped being an evangelist for ebook pricing. I’m no longer much concerned with convincing anyone to change their business practices. In fact, I’ve come to believe that I don’t want them changed by the big publishers. When my book comes out, priced in the low single digits I’ll be competing with those novels from the big publishers. I will get the best looking cover and best written copy I can in the stores, and then I’ll be fighting for the same entertainment dollars from the same readers. Go ahead, price your ebooks at $14.99. Those ones from Stephen King will of course get sold for that. All the rest, when the readers say “Naaaaw” to them, my book will also be in the store, priced at 1/2 or 1/3 the cost and will also be a pleasant way to kill a rainy afternoon. I’m not bothered by writing a commodity novel, I’m quite fine with it.

And with that, I’m spending the rest of my lunch hour reading over Chapter 25 of my novel, Replaceable Commodity Entertainment You Could Easily Live Without But I Hope You Don’t *. By Dave Slusher.

* title subject to change

Pragmatic Programmers Black Friday Sale – Now with Dropbox Support!

On Friday, here’s a Black Friday sale you can take advantage of without having to find a parking place. Pragmatic Programmers will be having 40% off of all their books for that one day only. I’ve been a customer of theirs for some time, having bought a number of Ruby books that I have read on my Kindle. If you purchase either the ebook or ebook/paper combo, you can get the books in DRM-free ePub or MOBI. Use them with whatever device you might happen to have.

I recently made an order with no coupon, so I’m pretty good on their books at the moment. However, I think I’ll buy Build Awesome Command-Line Applications in Ruby: Control Your Computer, Simplify Your Life by David Bryant Copeland. I am doing an ever larger set of command line Ruby scripting, mostly without any sort of automated testing at all just eyeball verification. If I get get out of this book some best practices for testing these scripts, that would be well worth the $12 it will cost after coupon.

Also, in going to the site to assemble these links I just learned something completely new and cool. Pragmatic Programmers now has Dropbox support. They periodically update books that you have purchased, and you can configure your account to have them update your books via Dropbox whenever a newer version is available. That is a killer feature. I’m off to set that up right now.

Using Google+ For Authors

Over on his A Simpler Way blog, my friend Evo Terra has a guide to using Google+ for the publishing author. It’s an interesting guide, applicable for anyone whose primary use of Google+ is as a touchpoint for a creative presence. I would think this would map well for musicians, cartoonists, podcasters or anyone whose primary motivation in G+ is to simultaneously engage with and promote your work to interested fans.

I’d urge anyone whose interests lie that way to check out his post. Even if you don’t agree with his advice down the line, it’s an interesting and effective looking approach to managing one’s G+ presence.

Paper Books Deprecated in My House

This was originally a post on Google+.

Ebook detractors say “I want the [feel | smell | ability to read in the bath] of a paper book.” Example from my life earlier today:

I was walking past Books-A-Million and they had the sales racks rolled out in front of the store. These books are priced at $3.97 and they are buy 2 get 1 free. I browsed them for a bit and realized that even if all these books were free, I would not bring any of them home. That’s because the stop energy on paper book purchases doesn’t come from the sale price, it comes from my willingness to bring One More Book into my life. For the kind of bullshit on the clearance rack, that willingness was zero.

Conversely, my stop energy in buying an ebook is completely based on price to value ratio. If the book is priced above my impulse buy trigger for that work, I’ll think about it. If the decision is no, that book is done. If it is below the impulse buy trigger, it’s bought without a second thought. In between, it’s a maybe (but usually no.)

It’s just the way my buy finger goes nowadays. If the book is in paper, it better be special. If it’s electronic, it better be reasonably priced. I have thousands of books in my to-be-read queue and every one of those is a reason not to buy your book. You can overcome that but you need to do the right thing.

Rejected Arguments in Ebook Pricing Debates

I discuss ebook pricing and publisher adoption/non-adoption of ebooks on this blogs. There are a few anti-patterns in the comments I get, so I’m posting this as documented and published ground rules for these debates. If you make one of these points, you’ve already lost.

Arguments Rejected Out of Hand

Argument 1: “Just check it out from the library”

Anytime I ever discuss an overpriced ebook, someone says this to me. 100% of the time, I have already checked my local library prior to blogging about it. If the book was anywhere in my county’s system, I would have already placed a hold on it instead of making the blog post. Sorry, you aren’t helpful but thanks for the implication that I’m too stupid to use a library.

Argument 2: “If the ebook is priced higher than the paper book, just buy the paper book”

I don’t want any more paper books in my house. Every single bookshelf in my house is full, and many have books stacked horizontally on top of the books on the shelf. My cases with paperbacks are stacked three deep so that finding a specific book can be a challenge in search management. At this point, it is a rare book I’m willing to allow into my house in paper. I want many fewer books in paper, not more. If this book scanner were on the market today, I’d be scanning books off my shelves and donating them to my local library as fast as I could move them through.

Both of these arguments bother me in that they are presumptions from people who don’t know me or my situation about how I should make decisions. Is it so much to ask for you to respect that I know what I want better than you do?

More Lost Ebook Sales

Here’s yet another story of a lost sale. These are starting to pile up. Book publishers take note. I heard an interview with Gary Taubes on episode #153 of Skepticality and I was interested in his new book Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It. I went to see if it was available for the Kindle and what the price was and guess what, it’s yet another one where the Kindle version is priced higher than the paper edition. I know some of my friends say that when that happens, they just buy the paper edition. Not so for me. It makes me angry enough that I buy neither one.

Let me reiterate that Gary Taubes did this podcast interview, I heard it and got interested in his product which is part of why he would spend his time doing the interview. I got all the way to the purchase page and I have a surplus of credit in my Amazon account. The only thing that stood between me and the “Buy it Now” button was Knopf’s pricing policy, and they fucked it up. As always, I’m not jonesing for things to read. I have over 100 unread books on my Kindle. I didn’t buy this book and really, I’ll never miss it. Instead I’ll read something else, and in all likelihood, I will never think about this book again.

Publishers need to understand how tenuous this window is where they have my attention, they have my willingness to buy, they have me where they need me. If you don’t convert at that point, you won’t forever. In some cases, you’ll do worse than not convert – you’ll begin to build up brand contempt. Knopf didn’t just not get my money, they twigged on my radar as a vendor to be avoided. Think of the last few books you read. How many of them could you even name what publisher put it out? The only recognition individual publishers are getting from me lately is as bad actors. That’s not what you want.

Also, to head off the highly predictable asshole comments (like, 100% of the time I’ve made these lost sale posts) this book is not available from anywhere in my county’s library system. People always reply with “just check it out of the library” which I find dickish and aggressive when you don’t have any idea whether a book is actually available for any individual. If you have a well stocked library system with all of these books, good for you. Horry County, South Carolina isn’t as well stocked as you.

Why I Never Trusted The Big Publishers with Ebook Agency Pricing

This subject has become my hobby horse lately. While we’ve got it out, I might as well ride it until I get splinters in my butt.

One of the rationalizations from the Big 5 publishers who are doing agency pricing with the ebook editions of their books was that “they would be able to better respond to the marketplace and adjust prices accordingly.” Macmillan’s John Sargent, he of the opposing side of the infamous Amazon delisting crisis of 2010, made a post to his blog that included this paragraph:

For physical books, the majority of new release hardcovers are published in cheaper paperback versions over time. We will mirror this price reduction in the digital world. It is too early to estimate the timing of the price reductions for those cases in which we do not issue a paperback edition. If we do issue a paperback, we will drop the digital price to $9.99 or lower at publication date (if not before). The price differential between the book and the e-book will become smaller at the lower price points.

That sounds great, if it were actually to be happen. My faith in that was close to zero. One of my takeaways of the whole struggle as someone totally on the outside is that the publishers wanted more control of the retail experience in the case of ebooks, and that this probably was going to end poorly for them. My take was and is that publishers think they understand their customers, but in fact have spent the 20th century isolating themselves from them through the layers of distribution. (For writers, add one step further away from the endpoint of the customer.) Their self-image of an industry is that they understand the customer and have a relationship with them, but in practice they don’t. Here’s an example – suppose Macmillan wanted to get in touch with people who have purchased a Macmillan book in the last year and offer them special deals. Could they do that? No? OK then. Could Amazon or Barnes and Noble? To some extent they could, the latter if you were a B&N club member I’m guessing and the former for books bought through them. The publishers, not so much.

Here’s another concrete example of price policy gone awry, since I’m enjoying presenting these. I’ve been a fan of Max Allan Collins since I was 12 years old and he was writing the Dick Tracy comic strip. His mystery novels are some of my comfort reading – not high art but they don’t have to be. I just enjoy them. I happened to notice that his novel A Killing in Comics is available on Kindle at the price of $11.99. This is a book that was published in 2007. Worse than that, I bought a paper copy in remainders for $2.99 right at two years ago. Whatever it’s reasonable print life might be, that is over enough that the publisher sold it to a book discounter for less than a quarter on the dollar yet at time of this posting the ebook is still priced at $11.99. Now, this book is Penguin so I’m not blaming Sargent or his organization directly as responsible for this particular instance. I am pointing out that agency pricing was sold by the big publishers as A Thing That Will Happen and It Might Smell Like Medicine But Is Good For You, You Fussy Children AKA “our customers.” It doesn’t take too many of these examples where I begin to build a brand contempt for the companies who claim they are ultimately helping me while clearly price gouging me.

I never believed Sargent’s statement because I doubt anyone at these publishing houses 1) cares much about lowering prices 2) is getting paid to lower prices of books or even make sure they are appropriate with the lifecycle of the print version or 3) even have that much control over their catalog. If I hazarded a guess as an uniformed outsider, they splat it out there and then generally leave it for all but the most high profile writers. The midlist writers like Collins probably don’t get a lot of attention in that process.

One of the big debates is “if books are self-published how do I know they aren’t crap?” Well, big publisher books can also be crap and the Kindle version can cost four times what a lot of the self-published books are. Maybe you come out to the good by getting four rolls of the dice for your money. That’s why the sample was invented.

Chronicles of Lost Ebook Sales

Since this week I made some waves about ebook pricing, I wanted to blog while it was fresh another example of exactly what I was talking about, how money I was willing to toss a publisher’s way stayed in my pocket.

Chronicles of Lost Ebook Sales

This morning I listened to Edward Champion’s Bat Segundo Show #367, on which he interviewed Susan Straight. Her new book is Take One Candle Light a Room. From hearing this very interesting interview, I learned the novel is set in and around New Orleans before and after Katrina, and deals with troubled people trying not to screw up their lives. If you know my life history, my interests and taste in reading, you know this is basically a made sale. I spent a few years in Lafayette LA going to graduate school, visited New Orleans frequently and have a great affection for the region. Also, as a barely functioning fuck up myself I love stories about fuck ups. OK, let’s light this candle.

I went to Amazon, searched on her name and pulled up the novel. The price for the hardcover is $17.13, the (not yet published) paperback is $15.00 and the Kindle edition is $14.27. Oh boy. I was so willing to buy this book and now I won’t. The odds of me ever remembering to check back later when the price is more reasonable (if ever) are so small you can assume it is zero. Pantheon Books could have gotten some money out of me but the $14.27 is just too ridiculous.

At the time of this writing, the sales rank for the hardcover edition is #184,115 and the Kindle edition is #38,665. I don’t know what expectations were for this book and how it has performed for them in the 3 months it has been published but I think you can safely assume this is under the blockbuster level. For promotion that was to them effectively free – a podcast interview – they could have made a sale to me on a book that is not burning up the Amazon charts. Because of the pricing policy, they didn’t. There’s money that fails to go to Pantheon Books and Ms. Straight. Sorry, y’all.

Chronicles of Lost Ebook Sales

“Would you like to buy a box of Thin Mints from the Girl Scouts?”
“OK, that will be $8.25.”
“Ummm …”

I can afford $14.27 for the Kindle novel and I could afford $8.25 for a box of cookies. Will I pay that? Barring some freakish external circumstances, no, not either. If I were desperate for either, maybe my perceived value would rise. As the 200th novel bought on a whim on a Kindle chocked full of stuff to read – no thank you.

After the thought that went into this weeks previous pricing blog post, as well as the comment thread on Teleread’s republishing of it, I realized there is an important flip side to my data argument. If I don’t like the pricing policies of electronic books, it’s really incumbent on me not to pay them. Otherwise, I become one of those data points on the higher end and I become part of the reason justifying the higher prices. I spent a lot of time and words telling publishers they should analyze that data. If I want to like the conclusion they reach, I have to make my tiny portion of the data match that conclusion. So, rather than loosening up I’m clamping down on the perceived value argument.

Ms. Straight, your books sounds wonderful. I wish your publisher did better by you. Good luck out there.

PS – Want to read a really great book that is reasonably priced? Try by Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge. You’ll be glad you did.

Other Quick Ebook thoughts

All ebook self-publication discussions eventually include the phrase “If it isn’t from a major publisher, how do I know it is any good?” It’s like the ebook version of Godwin’s Law. The people who say this are adorable, and have clearly read fewer shitty books from the Big Six publishers than I have. How do you know self-published books are any good? The same way you know those Anne Rice, Piers Anthony, Dan Brown and V.C. Andrews (TM) books on the best-seller lists are good.

The literary world wants you to know two facts: 1) If you open an independent, non-chain and non-corporate bookstore you should be supported. 2) If you publish your own work as an independent, non-chain and non-corporate publisher the book is clearly bad and should not be supported. It’s so obvious. Hustling to sell other peoples books == good. Hustling to sell your own books == bad – but only when you are making most of the money. If you hustle to earn 15% of retail price, then it is back to good again. Authors hate money or else they wouldn’t be authors. Otherwise they’d spend that time doing something more lucrative like … anything.

I’ve spent years interview authors via radio, podcast and print trying to help sell their books. I love authors and I want them to make as much money as possible. For approaching two decades I’ve been hearing stories of publishers failing to fulfill contractual obligations, pulping unsold books rather than offering them to the writer, failing to deliver on promised promotion and marketing, paying slowly and sometimes never. Despite all these kicks in the teeth, authors sit down and write their novels again and again. Their resilience is admirable, their spirits indomitable. And after all that, they still would rather deal with the publisher/distributor/retailer supply chain taking 85% of the money and are contemptuous of making 70% of the money for themselves. I admire them and I weep for them at the same time. Stay strong, you tough minded and underpaid beautiful bastards.

Ebook Pricing vs Revenue

Konrath Data Ebook Sales Curve

It’s amazing how often I see some variant of the phrase “We can’t afford to price our ebooks lower because we have costs to recoup.” 10 minutes ago I saw that in the current Locus magazine interview with John Picacio. He in general seems like someone who gets it, both here and in the Sidebar podcast interview with him that coincidentally I listened to last week. This is not to single him out, he is maybe the 10,000th person I’ve seen say this, only the most recent before I type this up. In his interview he says:

If pricepoints for e-books are forced down, do publishers simply slash budgets to achieve their margins? Does that inevitably mean a dramatic slash in quality of experience for the reading audience in terms of things like cover art, copyediting, and other services that readers take for granted?

This reflects a point of view so common in the publishing world that is received wisdom. No one questions whether or not lowering the prices of ebooks will make them more money in the end. They all know it makes less money.

I’m attaching to this post some graphs I generated. I did this early in 2010, based on then recent data that J. A. Konrath had posted to his blog. He’s a decent test bed for these numbers, as he had a number of ebooks out, some self-published and some published by a major publisher. These were priced all over the board. At the time, he was pricing his self-published books at $1.99, and the major publisher books were as high as the $8 vicinity. The commonality here is that none of them were getting much of a promotional push. There was no book tour, no advertising campaign so these numbers should be a realistic look at how price affects unit sales. It must be noted that I dropped two data points. He had two self-published books at $1.99 that sold so anamolously well that they blew out the chart. I dropped data to make the curve fit but the data I dropped would have biased this even farther to the low end of the curve. At the time, even Joe had no real explanation for why those books sold so well. He has since raised his price to $2.99 which is the same conclusion my data would lead you to. He’s a savvy cat, I’m guessing that sometime between then and now he also ran these numbers and raised his prices accordingly. (Update: yes, he did raise prices based on his observation of data.)

Konrath Data Ebook Revenue Curve

Let me disclaim my analysis by saying I am not an MBA or a business guy. I am however a scientist, once a chemist and now a computer scientist. I know a little bit about numbers. If you think I have a flaw in my analysis, please tell me where you think I’m wrong in comments. Civilly. Don’t bother flaming for I have a hard heart and admin rights.

Every single time I’ve heard anyone defend higher ebook prices, they cite the fact that “just because the publication is electronic, that doesn’t eliminate costs.” This fact is what I like to call “true but useless.” Yes there are costs associated, but all costs in ebooks are fixed. The publisher does whatever they need to do editorially, formatting wise, etc. When that is done, they push a file to Amazon/B&N/Smashwords et al and that is that. Whether there is 1 sale or 1,000,000 unit sales, the costs are identical. I’m treating promotion as a fixed cost although I can be argued on that. Regardless, the costs of promotion do not rise as a function of sales. They may drive sales, but if you sell 10x what you estimate, your promotion costs don’t expand ten-fold.

Since all costs that go into creating the publication ready file are fixed and there are no variable costs associated with providing copies to the market (from the publisher – Amazon et al are paying them) by my understanding the only factor that should be important is total revenue. If you lower the price of the book, you run the risk of pricing lower than a purchaser might have been willing to pay. That is an opportunity cost but not a hard cost. It’s not like in the paper world when publishers sell the remaindered book at less than the hard costs associated with the manufacture and shipping costs of those copies. That’s not possible in the digital world. Instead what is important is pricing the books so that the total revenue is maximized.

I took the Konrath data and did a logarithmic regression. You’ll see that the R^2 = 0.96, which is a pretty darned good fit. Then I used that equation to plot out the line that predicts the sales at any price point interpolated or extrapolated across the range and a little higher. I then made a second graph of the price multiplied by the unit sales (aka gross revenue) against the price. What you’ll see from the graph is that just a little over $3 per copy is where revenue maximizes. When you get under that, the per unit sales rise exponentially, but the price is low enough that the revenue drops. Around $3 is the sweet spot, again which I stress is for the data set that I have.

Now, I acknowledge the limits of the data I used for this analysis. Even better would be if I could get all of Konrath’s data for his history but a publisher or e-retailer could do much much better. Let’s suppose the standard price for a given Kindle book is $9.99. Have Amazon show 55% of the users that look at that page the $9.99 price. Randomly assigned, 5% of users each would see a price from $0.99 to $8.99 in $1 increments. Analyze that data for the conversion rate to sales at each price and you could generate much better statistics than I have because all of those numbers will be for the same book at the same time. This is ultimately my larger point – in digital sales, this kind of experiment is possible. If the major publishers haven’t done this and don’t understand what this curve looks like for their books then they really have no excuse for stating definitively why they can’t lower prices.

The assumption under all those statements is that the demand for these books is inelastic. If you price it at $14.99 you’ll get about the same sales figures at $9.99 or $6.99 or $2.99 so pricing it high maximizes revenue. For certain well known marquee writers this might be true but my suspicion is that the market is far more elastic than any publisher would like to think. I think that’s the root of this mindset. Publishers and authors ultimately have a worldview that is the opposite of this analysis. They don’t want to believe that they have a commodity product that is price sensitive. No one sits down to spend a few months or years writing a novel thinking “wow, if this book is priced too high the Kindle readers will just move on to another book priced more reasonably with which they’ll be just as happy.” I feel for them as a person who has tried to write fiction and will do it again. That’s a hard fact to face but I think accepting it would make everyone more money.

Let me state this one more time: I don’t think lowering ebook prices costs anyone money unless and until they drop under that magic point. I think authors and publishers would make more money if they’d understand these principles, experiment to determine the revenue maximizing points and then price accordingly.

Here’s a real world example from my life on how this principle worked for me and how I hypothesize it works for more of my fellow Kindle and Nook readers. I am interested in Greg Graffin’s book Anarchy Evolution. I heard the interview on Skepticality and went to buy it for my Kindle. At the time I looked, it was priced at $14.99. I came, looked at that and said “Well, screw this. That’s more than the book is worth to me. Pass.” I closed the tab in my browser and never thought about it again until today. When I needed a book I had previously passed on for high price for this anecdote, I thought of this one. Until assembling this post, I hadn’t even realized the price has been lowered to $9.99 for the Kindle version. HarperCollins had my attention months ago, got me to the page to purchase it but an excessively high price kept me from buying it. Iif the average book is priced above my impulse buy threshold, the purchase ain’t happening. If it were not for writing this post right now, I wouldn’t have ever thought about the book again so the one and only chance to flip me to a paying customer would have passed without conversion.

Publishers seem to fail to understand the low friction digital marketplace for ebooks. This is an impulse-buy driven mode. I am a reader of books and a lover of books but my wife has threatened physical violence if I bring in any more paper books without getting rid of some of the thousands that fill every available bookshelf in a house too big for two people. You will not sell me paper books except for those very few novels by special writers I must have in paper. On the Kindle, though, it’s fair game. The sad truth is that for my whole life, in any given time period I have always purchased more books than I read. Even though my physical capacity is exhausted, I still want to buy them. Even though I have every single Anthony Trollope novel you can get from Project Gutenberg on my Kindle, I still want more books. I’m a hoarder. Publishers have a chance to get my money even though I have more paper books and ebooks than I can reasonably expect to read in this lifetime. They have one and only one way to blow this, when I come to look at the page and there is a price above my impulse buy threshold for that item.

Publishers and authors continue to try to make this a moral argument. “What, you cheap bastard ebook readers don’t think we should get paid for our work?” I think if they suppress the ego driven umbrage reaction and instead get down to the realities of the market they are in, everyone can make more money and be more happy. The artistic goodness of the work isn’t tied to the price point, so don’t be offended if you make more money at $2.99 than $9.99. Instead, shut up and cash the check, friend.

I listened back to the first few minutes of a panel I moderated at Balticon 2010, and in my introduction I used the phrase “I’m done begging people to get in the lifeboats. If they don’t want in, that’s on them.” I’m not beating my head trying to evangelize to publishers why they should price appropriately. Some are and some aren’t; some will and some won’t. I have enough faith in the marketplace that in the long term it will all shake out. The question is, how much money are you leaving on the table while you get your shit together?

There are people who understand the dynamic of this marketplace, J.A. Konrath being one of many. He periodically posts about some of the other self-published authors who are following the same path, pricing reasonably and moving thousands of units per month. (Side note: the Nathan Lowell mentioned in that Konrath post was also on that Baltcon panel with me. He’s a talented, hard working guy.) That translates to thousands of dollars per month in the pockets of these writers, since they are keeping the full 70% of the retail price by self-publishing. These people are out there, they are filling niches in the marketplace. Established writers, you could be doing this. Existing publishers, you can be pricing to fulfill this demand and bringing in more money. There will be a day in the future where I will be one of those self-published authors. Will my book be as good and successful as Joe’s and Nate’s novels? I hope so. I’m willing to fill that niche at that end of the pricing scale. Are you?

Updates: Paul Biba at Teleread asked for permission to reprint this post, which I happily granted and that is online here.

It’s a failure of clarity in my original article, but I’m not advocated for $2.99 as the perfect One True Price for all ebooks forever. That was true for this data set, which is already a year old. This might well change over time, differ from author to author, genre to genre or publisher to publisher. What I do want injected into the thinking is that these numbers are calculable and measurable. No one needs to say – as did Lou Anders later in the Locus Magazine I reference above – “We can’t lower prices because we still have costs.” How do you know you don’t gross more money if you lower prices?

The other big point is that unless your price is so low as to be left of the curve, you lower your total revenue by raising prices. J.A. Konrath was to the left of that curve at $1.99. I highly doubt HarperCollins is left of that curve with any $11.99 books.