What Price Digital?

What price digital?

That’s the big question these days, it seems. What price is a reasonable one to charge for an eBook? What are people willing to pay, and what is sustainable under the flurry of different distribution models that have been flying around?

The answer most people are going to tell you is obvious: Not a whole lot. And that’s a problem.

See, Amazon has started setting expectations that new eBooks, eBook editions of current bestsellers and such, cost $9.99. That’s not so bad, really – the Big Six are, of course, irate about this, and want to price eBooks as they see fit. That’s all well and good, but $9.99 isn’t such a bad price, when you get down to it. I’ve paid plenty more than that for a book I really wanted to read, and paying that for something I can start reading immediately is a pretty good deal.

However, a lot of people think that $9.99 for something with no physical presence is too much. There’s a lot of digital publishers out there who sell eBooks for much, much less – topping out at $4.99, say.

This is a problem. Because, you see, the arguments that are used for digital books needing to be dirt-cheap don’t really hold up when you look at them hard.

What are these arguments? As usual, Charlie Stross has articulated things better than I have, in his post on eBooks. But what it boils down to is this: eBooks still cost money to make and, therefore, need to be priced accordingly. They can’t be priced at the very floor, because then no digital publisher will ever be able to get out of the red.

But why do eBooks cost money to make, you say? It’s not like you have to pay for all that paper and printing and warehousing and distribution! It’s just pixels on a screen! I can throw a file up online for everyone to download – that’s no big deal, and hosting is cheap! So an eBook should cost, what, 99 cents? A dollar? Two dollars? Why are you charging $10 for this?

The answer is simple: production values.

Paper books and eBooks take the same production path. First you have to find the manuscript. Then you have to read it. Then you have to edit it – several times, in most cases. There are rewrites and revisions. There’s copy-editing.

And then it goes to layout and design. Someone has to choose the font and layout, and design the book. Someone else has to typeset all that lovingly polished prose. Someone else still has to create a beautiful, captivating cover that makes the average reader, inundated with images and books and media of all sorts, want to pick this particular title up.

All of this has to happen in order to have a lovely eBook, and a good digital reading experience. We firmly believe that digital books don’t have to look like a word processing file – in fact, they really really shouldn’t. Digital reading is a different beast than reading paper, but there’s no reason it can’t be just as enjoyable, albeit in a different way. And in order to be enjoyable, there has to be thoughtful editing, good design, and a commitment to visual clarity and quality.

All of that takes work.  Sweat, blood, and tears of red ink.

All of these people doing that labour need to be compensated for their hours and hours of work.

At a small press like Candlemark & Gleam, there’s no such thing as wearing a single hat. The publisher is also the acquiring editor and the chief cover designer, not to mention the layout artist and typesetter. There’s a small, overworked cadre of copy-editors and proofreaders, the Strunk & White Impropers, who graciously devote time to making sure that errors are obliterated and tenses are correct. For now, it’s a labour of love…but hard work deserves payment, and that means making some money in order to send it out again.

Which means charging for eBooks. And charging sensible, sustainable rates.

We think that eBooks should be cheaper than paper copies – because you’re right, there isn’t any of the materials cost or overhead that goes into creating a physical object. But that is the only difference between an eBook, properly created, and a physical book. All of that other work, the production that happens behind the scenes? It’s the same for a physical book and an eBook.

So when you think of a Big Six publisher simply converting an existing print title to digital, then trying to charge full price for it – yeah, that’s unfair. But for a digital-only publisher, all the costs are still there up front, inherent in creating a quality piece of media for you.

All of this, to me, means that there need to be many prices for eBooks, not just one. $9.99 works for Amazon – and, honestly, it works for us, too. Candlemark & Gleam titles, at least initially, are going to be priced at $10 (that pesky penny is silly, and we won’t be having with it). We’re going to play with some other pricing models eventually, especially with serials and other innovative distribution methods, and we’re definitely going to be bundling down the line, but for now? $10 it is. That lets us take care of production costs, and also give authors a reasonable amount of money in royalties.

But what of other publishers? Well, there are those – like the erotica houses – that sell so many eBooks they can afford to make up on volume what they might not get individually. For them, $4.99 eBooks might make sense. Great! I’d love to lower our prices…and someday, maybe we’ll have that kind of volume and recognition. Other publishers might want to start their eBook prices higher, like the Big Six publishers who’ve been talking about starting new bestsellers at $14.99 digital/$24.99 hardcover. If they want to try that, go right ahead. We’ll see what works through experimentation.

In the meantime, when you see an eBook price, just remember: Unless this is something that’s already been readied for print, and has the backing of a powerhouse behind it, it probably wasn’t as cheap to produce as you think….

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4 Responses to “What Price Digital?”

  1. Jason May 21, 2010 at 2:38 pm #

    People also tend to forget that all publishing endeavors are to some degree a gamble. A book has to sell X copies at Y price just to make back the initial investments of time and effort, to break even – and there’s no guarantee a given book will sell X copies. As you publish more and more titles, there’s a greater chance that, on average, your titles will sell a certain number of copies, but the pricing has to be built on the assumption that title A may have to cover the loss on title B.

    Again, with big houses that are just translating bestsellers and popular titles to a new format, they’ve hopefully recouped their initial investment already, and they can assume a certain average amount of sales for the whole catalog based on previous performance in the hardcover and paperback markets. When you’re bringing out a new title, particularly from a new author, it’s much more guesswork and gambling. That level of risk has to be built into the pricing much more strongly.

  2. Kate May 22, 2010 at 4:31 pm #

    That’s precisely what the publishing industry was meant to be, really – a way to hedge your bets and distribute the risks of publishing a new title. Authors assign the risk of editing, typesetting, marketing, etc. to the publishing company, in exchange for a reduced percentage of the proceeds. It all works out well…as long as everyone understands that this is all a gamble. Nothing is guaranteed except maybe a James Patterson novel…

    …and that can be an issue, because more and more, the big publishers aren’t taking the chances they’re meant to, and only buying things they “know” will sell. Which makes it a lot harder for authors, and makes me cranky because they’re charging these prices for books that they’re not taking that much of a risk on. But that’s another rant…

  3. Jason May 28, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

    *cough* So I didn’t check this for replies… when can we expect that other rant, then? After the publishing demystification? 😉

  4. Kate May 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm #

    That pretty much WAS the other rant, heh – when you’re producing both electronic and paper editions, I really don’t see why you’d split them up and charge exorbitant amounts for both. We’re going to be doing bundling – you can buy just the eBook, always, but whenever you buy something in print (when that happens), you’ll get the eBook for free.

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