Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Buyers and Readers

Waterstones recently announced that they were doing away with their 3 for 2 promotion, which has generally had a good reaction in the publishing world. I looked at my To Be Read pile - which is actually more like a couple of shelves-worth - and realised that many of the books on it had been bought as part of the 3 for 2 promotion. I hadn't really wanted that third book, but got it any way as it was free. Having got it, however, I haven't spent my time reading it.

It's the same with my Kindle. I've downloaded lots of books - mainly the entire works by classic authors such as Henry James and Charles Dickens - but I haven't actually read any of them. The books I have read on my Kindle are the ones I paid for. And more than that, paid a reasonable sum for. (Your definition of what's 'reasonable' will probably be different from mine, but I don't think paying 99p is reasonable for a book that has taken an author maybe a year to write.)

People sometimes tell me that they've bought my books but haven't actually read them, and my standard response has always been, "so long as you've bought them, I don't mind". The flip side is that when someone tells me that they've read all my books from the library, it's hard to be thrilled. I've never been a writer who has said "I just want to be read" - I want to earn a living from writing!

But I wonder if I'm going to have to change my attitude. Someone buying a book for 99p doesn't seem much of an achievement if they don't actually read it. If they don't read it they can't tell other people that they're worth reading, and they won't bother to go and read the rest. Why should they, when they've already got a copy of one of my books waiting to be read?

It's not just about money. As a reader I'm handing over great wodges of my time to read a book. Whether I paid 99p or £7.99 for the product, it's taking up a lot of my leisure time. I want the book to be good because my leisure time is worth a lot to me.

I think anyone who says that they know where publishing is going is a fool. Things are changing too fast and what is true this week may not be true next year, next month, even next week. But a lot of the discussion around publishing - especially epublishing - is based around price. This year, when we've got new reading devices to fill, perhaps price is the key topic. I think however, that selling lots of books at rock bottom prices is a red herring.

What did I do last week? Bought two full priced books, because I wanted them. I've now read them both, along with another book that was lent to me by a friend with a good recommendation. That's anecdotal evidence. But many of the ebooks by best selling authors sell at prices comparable to their paperback price, and are doing well too.

I wonder if 2012 will see quality of reading experience coming to the top of the list, when we choose to be readers rather than just buyers. I hope so.


JO said...

I so agree that paying 99p for a book is absurd. But, says the self-epublisher - it costs to little to produce. But they are thinking only in terms of financial outlay. There is no value taken on their writing time - if they have invested hours, weeks, months - even years - into this book surely its value is far greater than 99p

Jim Murdoch said...

This is going to be something that gets debated for a long time I think. I bought my first novel as an adult in 1975. It cost me 35p and I still have it. That book now costs £7.99 and I worked it out a while ago, that was an increase of about 10% a year or something, way more than the price of inflation. I simply refuse to pay £7.99 for a book. I can’t afford to pay £7.99 for a book. But is 99¢ (not even 99p) too cheap? Does it devalue books? I’ve been using the argument that you can get real bargains in Poundland but you have to shop carefully. A couple of blogs ago I went on and on about the cost of a box of Maltesers but the fact is that Poundland are still making a profit on that sale as are Mars, Incorporated. It’s a balancing act and I see a lot of authors out there playing with the numbers. They might get two sales at $7.99 compared to twenty at 99¢ - what’s the right thing to do? Also if you have a range of books why not have one of offer and the rest at full price? You can buy a copy of Living with the Truth for 99¢ on Smashwords right now but if you want to read the sequel you’ll need to cough up a whopping great $1.99 or you can buy the omnibus edition for $2.99 which I know is a cent dearer but that’s why I had a special offer on my website for a week where you could enter a coupon code and get it for $1.99 but that only lasted a week. It’s a whole new world. I’m a writer not a salesman. I never took economics at school but I have been shopping on my own for a good forty years and if I put myself in the position of my potential customers then maybe I’ll do okay. My wife introduced me to an expression years ago – what the market will bear – which I’d heard before but she really explained it to me and it stuck. At the moment there is a huge novelty factor to ebooks and people are buying them as if they’re going out of fashion – “Books for 99¢ or even free! Oh, my God!” – and then they find they haven’t the time to read them. Soon they’ll start to realise what they’re doing and be a little more selective. But at the moment it’s only pennies and most people spend more on daily papers let’s be honest. My wife is in the States just now and her daughter has just got an ebook reader of some sort and Carrie asked her if she wanted a copy of my books to read. “Oh, it’s alright, Mom, I’ll just buy them. I’ve never downloaded anything yet so it’ll be fun.” Not sure if they were the exact words but basically she thought nothing of forking out $2.99 simply for the experience. Fine by me. I’m also looking for a fresh batch of reviewers and some bloke in Australia said he’d love to read the book and had gone ahead and bought himself a copy. I would have sent him a free copy (and surely he must have realised that, it’s not as if he’s just started reviewing) but obviously it was no big deal to him. Like you I’ll be interested to see how things pan out.

Olivia Ryan said...

Very interesting, Sarah. I didn't know Waterstones were stopping the 3 for 2 promotions. Like most of us, I've bought loads of my books this way - that's how the authors whose books are chosen for the promotions become so successful! Publishers had to pay a huge amount of money to have their authors' books in them.

As for the cheap e-books; I agree. But the problem is - having now published my back list (Sheila Norton titles) as e-books myself - everyone wants something for almost nothing these days, and if they can get books for 99p, a lot of people won't pay much more. Look at the top 20 e-books - they're almost always all 99p or thereabouts! That being the case, if you publish an e-book at £7.99 you're just not going to sell. I priced mine at £2.29 hoping this would be cheap enough to sell, but bearing in mind lots of £2.29s are better than nobody paying £7.99 - if that makes sense!

Likewise, I'd rather people read my books from the libraries (getting me PLR) than not at all - or from second hand shops!

As you say, publishing hasn't been in such a state of flux since the advent of paperbacks. Exciting times!

Martin said...

Like CD's replacing records some people want to upload all their books but are stopped by the price. 99p for old titles would be very handy. As for paying the full price of a paperback for an ebook lets get real it costs less to prep and deliver an ebook, there is no stock, no sales staff not evern a paper bag to carry it home. ebook prices should be lower but not rock bottom.

Sarah Duncan said...

The price debate is one that's going to go on and on, but I think people will pay for quality sometimes, go for lowest price at others.

The biggest single chunk of the cost of an ebook OR a conventionally published book goes to the retailer, not the author or the publisher. Try telling Amazon that they don't need sales staff or a bag!

It costs just the same to prep a book ie write and edit, design a cover, proof read etc regardless of the format. What has changed is that it is possible to put books out with minimal or no editing etc.

If you are charging the lowest prices, you're not going to be spending any money on buying in expertise so the quality is likely - although not automatically - going to be lower.

If I buy a T shirt from Primark, I don't expect it to be the same quality as if I bought it from Harrods, and I don't expect it to cost the same.

Actually I don't buy from either Primark or Harrods - I expect I'm in Olivia's £2.99 range. Interesting times indeed.