Jenny & me talk ebooks, part 2

This is part 2 of my conversation with Jennifer Crusie about ebooks.  Tomorrow, there will be a part three on editorial considerations posted at her website, Argh Ink.

Jenny: Yesterday we talked about practical considerations, the things writers need to know to make author-originated-digital publishing work.  But the thing that’s most interesting to me is the emotional reaction writers are having to this.  The way readers feel, the way writers feel.

Barbara: Okay. Let’s start with that.  Writers are absolutely exhilarated for the most part.

Jenny: You told me yesterday that I was envious, and I am.

Barbara: It has put a lot of the fun back in publishing for me.

Jenny: “Back into”? When was publishing ever fun?

Barbara: I used to think it was a blast when I first started.

Jenny: I hated it from the beginning.

Barbara: It was so amazing that I got published and people could buy my books and they PAID me to do this! I loved every bit of it.

Jenny: I’m not good with authority. “Change this please.” “No.”

Barbara: The cover worksheets, the author bio, meeting an editor.

Jenny: See all of that made me itch.  I didn’t want the attention. I liked the money, though. I like working under the radar. One of the reasons I like my pseudonym.

Barbara: I’m Little Polly Sunshine most of the time.

Jenny: From now on, you are Polly to me.

Barbara: I’ll take it. LOL. There must be something dark we can call you, something growly.

Jenny: Meg used to call me Eeyore.  “Yeah, I made the bestseller list, but my tail will probably fall off.” But enough about me.  You seem so thrilled with everything you’re doing. Tell me about that.

Barbara: Rather than talk just about my own experiences, which I will, I would like to start with the fact that writers in general have very little control over the flow of their careers.  So many things are just completely out of your control…the covers, the placements, the fact that something like a railroad accident or a bad weather January can kill your numbers.  You’ve spent a year on a book, poured everything into it, polished, edited, etc, and in two weeks, the thing can be dead in the water and THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. Right?

Jenny: Yes, with reservations (g).

Barbara: I’m willing to hear the reservations.

Jenny: Publishing is a casino for us, certainly, but it is for the publishers a lot of the time, too. You just roll the dice. I’ve heard authors say that their publishers could have made them bestsellers if they’d wanted to, but I’ve never met a publisher who wouldn’t have made a bestseller if it could.  So nobody really has that much control. But within what you’re talking about–lousy covers, placement, that kind of thing–I agree.

Barbara: It’s not about blaming publishers at all. I agree, they want us all to do well. What’s the point of buying us to let us fail?  I think it’s possible you’ve had a wee bit more support in your career than the general run of writers. But anyway…

Jenny:  I know I’m spoiled by SMP. Especially on things like editorial support and covers.  I have an ideal situation.  But SMP is not the only publisher I’ve worked with. I have scars.  I was the one who threw a fit on the internet and called one of my publishers the Evil Empire, remember?  It hasn’t all been roses over here.

Barbara: Right. It’s just not the same thing to be a NYT best-selling author with a massive fan base and the workaday writer that most people are. But you have had a lot more POWER than most, and that’s what I’m talking about.

Jenny: The other argument–not yours–that I have is with people who say that authors are powerless and the publishing houses hold all the power. As long as you can say, “No” and walk away, you still have power over your career. But if an author wants to be published at any costs, yep, powerless.

Barbara: The writer’s lack of power is what makes the digital revolution so incredibly appealing. It’s real power. You have a chance to genuinely affect the outcome of things.

Jenny:  Yes. And that is exhilarating. I’m excited about it and I’m treated very, very well by my publisher.

I can only imagine what it’s like for authors with grievances.  But I still say that my power came from my willingness to walk away.  If publishers really want you and they know you’re willing to go unpublished rather than sign a contract you don’t like, that gives you all the power. The problem is that they have to REALLY WANT YOU. Which doesn’t happen all that often.

Barbara : This might be a side argument, but I think you’re speaking like a royal. It’s easy to say you’ll walk away when you know they’ll never let you.

Jenny: I walked away from HQ. Went without any publisher at all for nine months. And during that time I turned down three bad contract offers from other publishers.

Barbara: I remember. Because you knew what you wanted. I remember. I was there.

Jenny: I know. You were wonderful. Thank god for supportive author friends.

Barbara: It was bold and brave and I’m not discounting it. But things have been different since then, and most writers have not had that advantage. Which is why they are so empowered by indie publishing.

Jenny: But my point is, if my career had ended there, and a lot of people were saying it did, I still would have preferred that to signing a bad contract. All writers have that power. All they have to do is want a good contract more than they want to be published. My mantra has always been, “I don’t care if I’m published, but I’m passionate about being published well.” And as you say, that’s what the e-revolution is doing. It gives writers the power to choose to be published as they see fit, as they define “well.” Well, that’s one thing the e-revolution is doing. It’s doing a lot of things.

Barbara: I know an awful lot of writers who have had just rotten luck, over and over, and should have had more success than they have.

Jenny: Sure. A lot of this business is being in the right place at the right time with the right book. That’s not going to change with e-publishing.

Barbara: It might.  I’m not sure it’s great for the industry overall, but I also don’t think it can be stopped. A lot of writers are out there swinging.

Jenny: I think author-originated publishing is good for the industry, actually.

Barbara: That’s not what I would have expected you to say. How so?

Jenny: I think that anything that upsets a long standing apple cart probably shakes out a lot of rotten apples. Not rotten in the sense of cheating and lying but just business practices that have been set in stone.  Wearing away at stone like water on a rock doesn’t change things fast enough.  But if something comes along and smashes it, you can pick up the valuable stuff and leave the rest behind. (Give me a minute and I’ll think of another metaphor to cram in there.  Mix much?)

Barbara:  Like the idea that all publishing must be based in New York City (an old fact I think is hurting the industry desperately at the moment).

Jenny: There are good reasons for that, though. Tell me why you think it’s bad.

Barbara: Not bad…just crippling. Manhattan real estate is horrifically expensive. We’re all on computers now…there’s no reason for agents to have to take a train into the city, or editors to have to go to the office.

Jenny: Ah. Good point.

Barbara: It would be much more sensible if they all worked from home and came in for meetings once a month or something.

Jenny: See, there I don’t agree.

Barbara: The computer industry is dumping real estate like crazy and people telecommute.

Jenny: Yes, but computer people aren’t book people.

Barbara: But why do book people need to be face to face?

Jenny:  Because they’re book people, because they are in an emotional business. It’s not just balance sheets; that kind of thinking is what got publishing into the mess it’s in today. Books are about people, not numbers, and selling books is about selling emotion, not balance sheets.  The social network in publishing is crucial I think.

Barbara: But isn’t it the words and stories that sell the books? I have never sold a book face to face. Social networking can be done online.

Jenny: I don’t think so. I think something is lost.

Barbara: The difference could mean the survival of some companies. Telecommuting as a part of the industry would be helpful.

Jenny: Yes, but not the editing and sales part.  I don’t care if the lawyers and the number crunchers telecommute.  They deal in facts. But I want my agents having lunch with my editors. I want my editors hashing out what makes a book appeal in person.

Barbara: There could still be gatherings on a regular basis. I don’t talk to my editor in person when she’s editing me.  Why would they need their own expensive offices in the city to have lunch together? They occupy these tremendously expensive buildings. That’s really old school.

Jenny: They need to be able to walk down the hall and talk to each other.

Barbara : Why?

Jenny: Because that’s how synergy happens.

Barbara: Why can’t they email each other?

Jenny: Jen walks down the hall to Matthew’s office and says, “I just thought of this,” and they sit down and hash it out. They stop by a bar for a drink on the way home and come up with something brilliant for marketing my book. It is not the same online. The synergy is lost. But I will give you this:  Those horrific rents are part of the overhead problem, definitely.  So move everything but editorial and marketing somewhere else?

Barbara: New ways of doing that would arise. That particular cost, coupled with the price of shipping books, is one of the things crippling traditional publishing.

Jenny: I agree.  Plus warehouse costs.  And of course the return policy for bookstores has always been insane, but there’s nothing that can be done about that now without destroying the bookstore business which is already reeling.

Barbara: And IMO, it’s one of the most difficult and most important things that have to shift. Indie skips over all of that. ALL of it. I would love to see traditional publishing benefit from the freedom of some of that, too. Again, we’re dealing with paradigm shifts, which are very, very difficult for people to manage. It’s hard to think outside of the ways we’ve always thought.

Jenny: Meanwhile, the light and fast author who is publishing herself in e-books moves like the wind with comparatively little overhead. It’s the British against the Spanish Armada.

Barbara: Laughing. Yes.

Jenny: And if you’re a writer who feels screwed over by the Spanish Armada, it must feel pretty damn good. I can understand the crowing some people are doing (not you, you don’t crow).

Barbara: I don’t feel screwed over by the Armada.  I love it.  I am a writer who likes to experiment, and this is a lot of fun.  It’s west coast vs east coast, though I know you don’t like that comparison.

Jenny: I think there are differences between the coasts. I just don’t think it’s Harvard types vs free-spirits.

Barbara: Not at all.  It’s flexibility vs old guard. One of the other things that’s so exhilarating for writers is actually having hard numbers.

Jenny: The numbers thing is huge. One of my royalty statements has numbers for the royalties, but not for the number of copies sold.

Barbara: Real numbers, every day. This book is selling better than that one by x number of copies. Why? If I shift the cover or tweak the blurb, will it change things?

Jenny: Oh, that would be fun. Hell, just royalty statements you can understand would be great.

Barbara: Plus, you know exactly how much money you will get in 60 days. For a lot of writers, that’s a kind of freedom we haven’t had in a million years. We have what Christopher Robin calls, “Advance addiction…”

Jenny: He’s right.

Barbara: We’re all strapped for cash about half the time.

Jenny: Well, so is most of America.

Barbara: But most of American gets paid every couple of weeks or once a month. Not every six months. That regular money is very freeing for some people.

Jenny: Depends on whether they’re on salary or commission. We volunteered to go into publishing and to be paid twice a year.

Barbara: Yes, we volunteered, but that doesn’t mean all parts of it are great.

Jenny: No, of course not. But print publishing can’t give that salary unless we agree to work for a salary instead of a cut of the profits. In print publishing, we’re not employees, we’re partners in a gamble.  I agree that publishing ourselves digitally gives us something that regular publishing can’t, but it’s “can’t” not “won’t.”

Barbara: Not saying traditional publishing should be different, just pointing out one of the reasons some writers feel freer as indies.

Jenny: Right. Sorry. This is my emotional reaction to this, I think. I’m annoyed at people (not you) who are crowing that traditional publishing deserves this because they screw authors over. So I over-react.

Barbara: NONE of this is meant to be a criticism of traditional publishing! I say again: I LOVE my career, love traditional books and paper and the old way of doing things.  I also think it’s fun to play with the digital model.

Jenny: That part I get. I want to try this with non-traditional projects. Just the thought of it is exhilarating.

Barbara: I hope that some of our play will end up helping the traditional model, too. (Which is a classically female way of dealing with change…I will go on a quest and find the answer and bring it back to the tribe, my people!)

Jenny: LOL. Yeah, our tribe could use some help.  I think the traditional model is toast.

Barbara: It doesn’t have to be toast.

Jenny: I think it does. Not traditional publishing, the traditional way traditional publishing has published.

I think the smart publishers are looking the e-revolution and saying, “Okay, saddle up, we need to change.”

And the hold-outs are looking at it going, “How can we control this?”

Barbara: I think so, too. Exactly.  We all have to think in new ways (including new ways of creating synergy, maybe).

Jenny: Basically, my emotional reaction to all of this is Janus-like. On the one hand, I’m really annoyed with all the writers who are saying, “Yay, traditional publishing is dead and it deserves to be” while riding on everything traditional publishing has done for them and sending newbie writers into uncharted territory.

On the other hand, I really WANT to drink the Kool-aid. I want to try this, it sounds freeing and exhilarating and fun.

Barbara: Maybe it doesn’t have to be either/or.

Jenny: Oh, absolutely. I’m like you, I want both. But I’m surprised by how emotional my reaction is to all of this. And how conflicting my emotions are.

Barbara: Most of the writers I know who have been extremely successful financially and critically with traditional publishing are having the same reaction.

Jenny: Usually, aside from a few rages over re-issue bookcovers, I’m pretty un-emotional about this business.  I think it’s the unfairness of some of the comments about traditional publishing that got my back up. Not that we owe traditional publishing anything in the way of staying there if we can do better elsewhere, but the unfairness of claiming success as all your own when traditional publishing set it all up for you. At least, that’s what bugs me.

Barbara: The alimony angle.  🙂

Jenny: If you say, “Traditional publishing gave me my start, but I’m building on that start and making a lot more money this way,” I say, “Good for you.” But if you say, “Traditional publishing never did enough for me, and now I’m making a lot more money and I did it all on my own and you newbie writers can be just like me” then I think you’re a dick.

Barbara: Are people really claiming the success is all their own, though? I haven’t seen that. I’ve seen writers take backlist and repackage and republish it…their original work, and see it do better than it did originally.

Jenny: Not you, Barbara.

Barbara: Okay, no, I get what you’re saying.

Jenny: Oh, they absolutely have the right to make all the money they want off their backlists. It’s the sneering and the gloating that gets to me.

Barbara: If you are playing Pied Piper to lead people off a cliff, that’s wrong. Or at least clueless.

Jenny: And that crap about “legacy publishing.” I think a lot of it may be cluelessness. Or arrogance. I don’t think anybody is trying to shaft the newbie writer. But there’s a gloating aspect to a lot of this that is pure emotion. I’m not talking about the exhilaration.  I’m good with that. Things are really exciting, people should be enthused about it. I’m talking about the people who are thrilled that traditional publishing is dead and are telling everybody to leave because the boat just hit this big iceberg.  So people leave the boat, which isn’t sinking, and drown. I’m doing a lot of boat imagery today. I like the happiness part of this, the excitement, the new worlds opening up. That’s the part I want to try. I hate the mean-spirited gloating that puts really bad info out there to people who are trying to learn what the hell is going on.

Barbara: Fair enough. I tend to let it all just roll off my back. I used to feel so exhausted by the hysterical self-promoters, too, and that feels like the same thing.

Jenny: I think part of this is that I came to this whole conversation through somebody on the forums who said, “I read this blog and I can make millions if I self-publish my first book so I’m not going to bother with traditional publishing, it’s dead.”  And several of us came on and said, “Wait a minute.”  So that’s when I started to really research this. And to talk with you.

Barbara: Really? And yet, you just said that you think traditional publishing is toast, too. So….?

Jenny:  No, no, I didn’t say traditional publishing is toast.  I said the traditional ways that traditional publishing works, that system is toast.  I don’t think the big print publishers are going anywhere,  But the ones that are going to do well are going to change radically.

Barbara: Okay. That’s my feeling, too. I don’t see books dying. I do see some enormous change required. Every writer and publisher has to figure out where they will fit on the continuum.

Jenny: But some houses are still thinking it’s just another format.  It is another format, but it’s going to eat their other formats and take dominance. So it’s an emotional thing on the publisher level, too. Do they see it as an opportunity or as something to be controlled? Are they embracing the new format or are they trying to protect their old formats?

Barbara: It is absolutely going to dominate. Eventually someone, probably Amazon, will give a cheap reader away and then everyone will have one.  Just as we all have mp3 players.

Jenny: Actually, everybody probably has one now: can’t you read e-books on a laptop?

Barbara:  Sure.

Jenny: More than that, they have a readership now that is used to reading on screens. It’s a shift for people of my generation, it’s the norm for kids in high school today.

Barbara: There’s a funny demographic in a subset of baby boomers that keeps them away from technology, as if it’s all part of The Man.

Jenny: Huh. I’m a baby boomer. I’m all over technology because it makes things easier. You’d have to be an idiot to stay away from computers because of The Man.

Barbara: But this is something I’ve observed a lot, and it seems to sometimes show up in publishing too…this weird suspicion about technology.

Jenny: Like those people who brag about not having televisions. As if that makes them better.

Barbara:  Right. What, exactly, are you getting from that?

Jenny: Well, for them, a feeling of superiority.  It’s that emotional component again. It screws up all the conversations on this topic. Not ours, of course.

Barbara: Which ties into….do you think people still have disdain for self-published books?

Jenny: I think that’s disappearing. For one thing, it’s a lot harder to tell self-published on the net. In the bookstore, the lousy production values always made the self-pubbed book stand out. Like bad teeth.

Barbara: Well, sometimes. I mean sometimes you can’t tell online.

Jenny: On the net, the covers can still hurt you, but it’s not as evident. You get a good online cover, nobody notices whether you’re self-published or not since nobody looks to see who published a book.  So it’s a leveler there.

Barbara: My friend Barbara Freethy has done spectacular job of republishing and repackaging her books. I can’t tell at all which were the originals and which were the publisher books.

Jenny: And with that kind of production, nobody’s going to check to see who published them. Nobody really cares who published them.  They care about the quality of the book.

Barbara: That’s very true.

Jenny: And since you could often associate poor writing with poor production values, the self-published book was kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But not on the net. I think the production values are going to be where the stigma is.

Barbara: Except I can see right now that there are books with bad production value selling quite nicely at Amazon.

Jenny:  Right. But we’re not talking about sales, we’re talking about self-publishing as a stigma. Once the perception goes away that a self-published book is self-published because the author couldn’t get it out there the “real” way, there’s no stigma.  So if you’re self-publishing a wildly popular book, nobody is going to say, “But she published it herself.”

Barbara: That seems to be what Amanda Hocking did for the industry, all by her little lonesome. She knocked that wall down hard.

Jenny: Yes, she did.  She’s an icon.  A very smart, level-headed, incredibly hardworking icon.

Barbara: I don’t think that wall exists anymore, honestly. People are choosing books according to their tastes and desires, browsing around for new things.

Jenny: Plus there’s the big emotional plus for readers of being able to read what they want RIGHT NOW. Browsing an almost limitless selection and getting it immediately.

Barbara: That’s HUGE. I’ve found it to be my downfall in terms of spending money on books. I buy on impulse constantly…but I’m also reading a lot more than I was because I’m buying what I want to read today, not maybe next month when I get to it.

Jenny: Instant gratification.  It’s all part of the emotional whirlwind that’s e-publishing right now.  I really do believe that the most important thing right now in understanding what’s happening is the emotional component. For writers, for publishers, for readers.

Barbara: We’re in a better place, too, than music was a few years ago. We’ve seen what happened, how that industry was transformed, and that it will happen here, too. So how do we work WITH it, rather than against it? (I buy a LOT more music than I once did, too, because I can buy a song or two and it feels like I’m not spending that much.)

Jenny: Me, too. I think what publishers and writers have to do is strip the emotional reactions out of their calculations and decisions while paying attention to the reader’s emotional reactions. Because the business is driven by readers.

Barbara: This is a critical piece, absolutely.

Jenny: It isn’t what format is most highly regarded by publishers, it isn’t what writers are most comfortable with, it’s where readers are taking the market and why.  Traditional publishing is something publishers understand, but if it doesn’t evolve, it is dead, so traditional publishing better update its traditions fast.

Barbara: Every big change brings with it both opportunity and loss. We have to keep that in mind and stay in balance. Enjoy the opportunities, but be mindful of the risks.

Jenny: Right. And don’t let the excitement of the new override the facts. The ramifications of the emotional are so important. One of the big ones is apparent value. How much is an e-book worth? That one’s giving traditional publishing nightmares right now. And the flip side, how much does discounting e-books hurt the apparent value of the story itself. You said there was howling when you priced at book at $.99.

Barbara: Well, a lot of traditionally published writers would like to form a band of “no lower than 7.99 or 3.99” or whatever their particular price point is. But that’s not realistic. The publisher prices on ebooks are too high.  Maybe they don’t need to be 99c, but some of my traditionally published books are on sale in ebook format for 14.99. Who would buy that?? This is pure capitalism. The readers are speaking. They are controlling the price points.

Jenny: There I agree with you.  I think “too high” is an emotional reaction, though. To a certain extent.  I mean if the price point is too high, they don’t buy, absolutely. But there’s also the aspect of pricing the books so low that the readers expects e-books to be less and therefore values the form less. There is a real correlation between how much somebody pays for something and how much they value it.

Barbara: I just don’t buy that argument. ha ha. Maybe because I’m a value shopper and always have been.
Books have become ungodly expensive the past few years.

Jenny: Yes. Way too expensive. Which brings us back to overhead again. Because publishers are not making much profit even at those prices.

Barbara: There is a point that’s too low, of course. But I’m not sure how you keep people from setting low prices.

Jenny: Oh, you can’t keep people from setting low prices.

Barbara: But they have to find ways to be competitive in the ebook market, and currently, the prices are just too high. I don’t have answers. It’s just reality.

Jenny: Although there are some books I’d pay $14.99 in e-book format for because I WANT THAT BOOK. Emotional again.

Barbara: That’s true. I do that, too. I try not to, but I do it.

Jenny: I think the $.99 window has closed or is closing shortly.

Barbara: Closed? In what way?

Jenny: Some very smart people (like you) did it early when it could get you on lists and get high visibility. But once everybody starts doing it, then there’s no benefit to anybody who doesn’t have a name to put you at the top of this list again. When twenty people were doing it, you could get the visibility of the bestseller list. When 20,000 people are doing it . . .

Barbara: Ah. Well, that may be true. I think mostly people think they are worth more than 99c and they think people will buy their books at a higher point. But you are probably correct, and that would be good for all of us.That’s too low, really.

Jenny: I could see it as a loss leader for a short period of time. “Buy my new X and get my backlist title X for 99.”

Barbara: I am more than happy to pay 4.99 for a book. It’s a reasonable price. Loss leaders…right. That’s the game. Giveaways and coupons, all that.

Jenny:  SMP did a nice thing when Maybe This Time was coming out in hardcover; they put Bet Me up at $2.99 in ebooks to get new readers to drive to the hardcover.  But when we asked SMP to give away the e-book of MTT for free for a week when the trade came out (buy the trade, get the e-book) and they said no because of the devaluation of the e-book format. And I think they were right. Because it would have made the trade seem like the “real” book. And the e-book like something they could give away for free.

Barbara: Hmm. Not sure I agree. I begged for that. Begged and begged and begged…wanted 99c price for Lost Recipe e-version, before HTBPL. They would not agree. They did not want to do it because it would hurt the brick and mortar stores. Which I get, too. In the end, I think all of us would have benefited…me, the brick and mortar stores, publishers.

Jenny: The perception is already out there that e-books are free to produce so why do they cost so much? The perception is that people are paying for the format and not for the work.

Barbara: That’s a good point.

Jenny: And too deep a discount on the e-book reinforces that.

Barbara: I keep saying, whatever format a book is published in, I will still have to take 6 months to a year to write it!

Jenny: For me, it’s closer to eighteen months.  I’m slow. The thing is, the argument that e-editions are cheap to produce is beside the point. They’re not paying paper or ether, they’re buying the story. So what’s the story worth?

Barbara: What the reader will pay.

Jenny: Exactly. But what the reader will pay depends a lot on her perception of worth. If she thinks she’s getting ripped off by an e-book priced at $14.99 she won’t buy it. But what if she comes to think that $7.99 is too high? Because there are all those great books out there at .99? If they can publish those books for .99, why not all of them? It’s the emotional component.

Barbara: Well, what if she does? What can be done to change that? I’m not sure it can be changed.

Jenny: No, but it can be used.  If none of my books are priced lower than $7.99 or $4.99, I can establish the premise that my books always cost that.  That Crusie does not write $.99 books. You don’t want to pay more, you don’t pay more: don’t buy her.

Barbara: But will you sell any?

Jenny: Yeah, I will. Not as many as I would at .99, of course.  Absolutely not as many. But enough that I’ll still make probably the same amount of money without devaluing my brand.

Barbara: That’s certainly one answer.

Jenny: BUT that’s because traditional publishing established my brand.

Barbara: Right.

Jenny: The thing about the .99 price point is that it was great at getting new readers when not very many people were doing it. And there are a lot of people who browse the .99 cent lists so it’s a way of getting new readers. But ultimately it’s a loss leader, and writers have to look at what it does to the perception of value of their books.

Barbara: It did work. And it is winning me a new audience of readers who have never picked up my books.

Jenny: I think $14.99 is dead in the water. But I’m not sure the .99 is really a smart move any more either. It’s that emotional component again.

Barbara: The bottom line for me, however, is that I’m absolutely practical. I’ll do what works, whatever that is. My prices are 2.99 for the most part on backlist. Frontlist is 6.99 and up (and those prices are set by my publisher. I’d like to see all but the newest titles be sold for 6.99).

Jenny:  See, that pricing makes sense to me.  I’d go 9.99 until the hardcover version is done and we move to trade paperback, but I think 6.99, 7.99 is the sweet spot.

Barbara: As an indie, I’m in control of moving that price point as I wish. I can raise or lower at will.

Jenny: I think I could go to $7.99 and still sell. That’s about my own cut off point.

Barbara: I had this conversation 20 times over the weekend. Everyone can cry about the downturn of prices, but the fact is, a lot of books sell at the 99c and 2.99 price points. As long as they do, those prices will exist.

Jenny: I think that the people who are trying to protect the higher prices—the $16.99 and the $14.99—have missed the important thing here, which is that readers have already decided what they want to pay.  People who are trying to preserve those price points are defending an empty barn.

Barbara: I agree. The consumer has already decided. Unless there is value added to the basic product, no one will pay more. I can watch as many movies as I wish on Netflix for 9.99 per month.

I can buy a song for 99c.

Jenny:  Plus readers have all those concerns about not being able to lend e-books out, about the platforms disappearing like Betamax, about the theoretically low cost of production making the higher points price gouging.   They don’t see e-books as just another format, they see them as a different format, with different pros and cons.

Barbara: Something always shows up to replace the outdated form.

Jenny: On that poll I put up on Argh Ink, only 3%, 12 people out 422, thought $12.99 was a fair price for an ebook.

Barbara: VERY telling.

Jenny: The poll asked “What’s a fair price to pay for an e-book?”  Which I think turned out to be “What’s the most you’d pay?”  The big winner with 204 votes out of 422: $6.99- $7.99.  Or mass market prices, basically.

Barbara:  Did you discover what they usually DO pay?

Jenny:  Only anecdotally in the comments to the post because actual buying depends on the book. For somebody eagerly awaited, like Pratchett, they’d go higher. For a new author, they’d go lower.

Barbara: And how many people said $3.99 or $2.99?

Jenny: 37% or 157 votes.  But I left out $4.99 to $5.99 and some of the said they’d have gone for that so it was really $2.99 to $5.99. I should never write polls.

Barbara:  I suspect that’s a bit skewed, honestly. The numbers I see in practice are pretty insistent.

Jenny: What are they?

Barbara:  That 2.99 is great, but 99c moves books insanely. I’d love to push the price point higher, but the market won’t tolerate it (at least from me), at the moment.

Jenny: Of course, my sample was skewed. It was people who read my blog, and most of them are fairly passionate readers.   3% said 99 was a fair price. 11 votes. But I think the low number means that most of them felt authors should get more, not that they wouldn’t be delighted to pay that. Which is why I think the answers were really, “What the most you’d pay for an e-book?” Because I’m pretty sure they’d ALL pay .99.

Barbara: A lot of the 99c readers are the people who once haunted used bookstores and bought books used because they are such passionate readers they wouldn’t be able to afford their habit any other way.

Jenny:  Right.  And I have my own bias.  I didn’t even put $14.00 or $16.99 on there as a choice because I thought those were insane.  But that’s what some of my books are going for.

Barbara: Some of mine are, too. Crazy.

Jenny: And then you get to the question of length.  One of the exciting things about this is that you can publish short fiction this way. But how much is a novella worth?  How much is a short story worth? : I don’t think I’d put out a short story by itself.  But a collection of shorts, that I might do.

Barbara: It goes back to “what will readers pay?”

Jenny: Is $2.99 too much? Too little?  Some of them are flash fiction. A thousand words. Some of them are really long. 10,000 words.

Barbara: I think the answer is that we all have to experiment and check it out. See what works. What flies? What doesn’t?  I’m not sure length matters as long as you label it a short story. It’s not that we are ever paid by the word.

Jenny: But I think people see value in length.

Barbara:  Meh. I’m not sure it matters that much.

Jenny: Of course, I’m guessing here; you’re the one with the real world experience.

Barbara: It matters whether it is a full-length novel or a short story, but not a short short story and a long short story.

Jenny:  Nobody in NYC is interested in short story collections because they don’t sell, which is perfectly understandable. But on the net . . .

Barbara: That’s the great beauty of this process. It’s thrilling to sell books to the people who want that specific reading experience.

Jenny:  Or to be able to write a novella and get it out there without worrying about finding two more to make a book.

Barbara: It’s thrilling to be successful selling directly to readers of a certain ilk, like the medieval readers who have been underserved in recent years.  There were markets for that long ago but not so many now. Or any.

Jenny:  Or, for me, to show people the stories I wrote to prep for a novel.

Barbara: What a great idea!

Jenny:  Or the story I wrote for SMP as a prequel to Agnes that was rejected because it was too violent.  I understand completely why it was rejected, but on the net, I can put a violence warning on it, and put it out there.

Barbara:  For me, it’s a chance to play around in any number of ways. I have always liked playing in many sandboxes, and e-publishing makes that possible. It makes my brain feel alive and real to be able to dance in the middle ages, then in the kitchens of the present, and maybe offer a collection of my columns on writing.  I can differentiate the brand to offer all of them.

Jenny: And to not worry about how many copies are sold. About earning out. That’s so freeing creatively.

Barbara: About earning out. That’s the anvil always hanging in the air. Mass market means a book has to have mass appeal, which means somehow hitting somewhere in the middle ground usually. That’s never been my strong suit.

Jenny: You’ve really talked me around on this. Which almost never happens with anybody (g).

Barbara: It would have surprised me if it had not appealed to you, the artist.  The business woman is nervous, understandably, but the artist is doing backflips. How could she not?

Jenny: Fortunately, I’m not the business woman. That’s Mollie.  And she’s all for it. Very excited.

Barbara: Yes, I’ve spoken of my support team here. 🙂

Jenny: I was really burning out, seriously thinking about quitting.

Barbara: That happens so much!

Jenny:  But now I can do non-fiction, story collections. a book on collage, anything I want. It’s not that SMP isn’t endlessly supportive because they really are. It’s that they can’t support what they can’t sell. It’s business.

Barbara: This discussion has helped you imagine ways to write for the joy of it?

Jenny: Talking with you really helped me break through that “It has to be a novel” wall I was beating my head against.  I don’t fault SMP for not wanting to buy what won’t sell, that’s just common sense.  But all of a sudden there’s a place for whatever weirdness I want to do.  And I think it’ll lead me back to the joy of writing novels, too.  We really need that variety of creative experience, I think, but when you’re writing to pay the electric bill, you get focused on what will bring in money. Tunnel vision.

Barbara: I don’t fault any of my publishers for not wanting all of my various projects, either. I mean seriously, A Bed of Spices sold 11,900 copies. That’s a losing proposition for a publisher, but I have no doubt it will eventually sell that many copies by the end of its lifespan in ebooks. It will just happen over a long period of time. Which is okay. That avenue is available because the book doesn’t occupy physical shelf space.  It doesn’t have to be moved out of the way to make room for the next wave of novels.

Jenny:  It’s actually better, the book with legs, rather than the book that hits and disappears.  I want all my novels at SMP. But self-publishing opens up a huge creative playground for me. As long as I don’t damage my brand, I can do anything I want.

Barbara: This is one of my pet subjects, as you know. That writers are creatives and we need to have space and room to let our passions fly all around. Not all projects are viable, but if we can’t play in any way, then we get stuck and cranky and unable to move forward.

Jenny:  Yes.

Barbara:  I also want the experience of writing for Shauna at Bantam and growing as a writer, because every time we do a book together, I grow. I learn more about my craft and the way readers read. I love the entire team at Bantam and they’ve worked very, very hard to get my books into the hands of the readers who love the books.

Jenny:  Yes. I’m a better writer because of Jen. MUCH better.  The thought of writing an entire novel without her . . . not going to happen.  Let alone PUBLISHING a novel without her. That would be dumb.  But these weird-ass projects that I want to do? Absolutely.

Barbara: I have four desires for this revolution.  The first is that all the major publishers hire some computer geeks and pattern watchers to figure out how to price ebooks and keep up with that trend.

Jenny:  Yes.

Barbara: The second is that publishers, writers, and brick-and-mortar stores can all figure out ways to be proactive and face into the change instead of shying away from it so that we can all thrive.

Jenny: Yes.

Barbara: The third is that five years from now there will still be many paper books, and everybody will also have a reader.

Jenny: I think your third is a given. Maybe not readers for everybody, but for the majority of book-buying readers.

Barbara : The fourth is that lots of writers will play and play and play, just to find out what gives them joy. That’s going to give ME some awesome books to read.

Jenny: That’s the exciting part, the good emotional part, watching the amazing stuff that’s going to come out of the revolution.  New ways to write books, new ways to structure books, interactive stories, animation . . .

Barbara: Voice overs, holograms (I talked with a woman who is working with that technology…OMG!)

Jenny: I feel the way I felt when I moved from an electric typewriter to my first Mac.  (Yes, I am an old.) All of a sudden there are all these POSSIBILITIES.  It’s a brand new world for everybody in publishing which I know is causing a lot of trauma, change always does, but for writers, it’s more exciting than anything else.  I don’t think it’s the Perfect Solution Writers Have Been Waiting For, I don’t think it replaces print publishing or that print is dead (and if one more person tells me I write Dead Tree Books, there’s going to be blood on the screen), but is this an amazing opportunity for creative people everywhere?  God, yes.

Barbara:  There has never been a more exciting time to be a writer, not ever.  It’s the wild wild west, and anything can happen.  I’m planning to find ways to enjoy all of it.


8 thoughts on “Jenny & me talk ebooks, part 2

  1. Suzanne

    I can’t believe the timing of this discussion. Over the weekend, I read the article on self-publishing in the Washington Post, and I was so surprised at my reaction. I felt something close to elation. I love to write; I need to write. But I can’t find happiness in this little box I have to be in in order to be published–marketed by a publishing house. For years I was tossed from one room to another: Does this writer know she writes romance? Does this writer know she writes Women’s Fiction? Romance? WF? What DOES she write?! When I finally decided to focus on single title, I wound up writing a YA. I don’t have that much control over what GENRE the story I’m compelled to write is in–the story just comes to me. Lately, if the idea isn’t single title, I’ve been sitting on it, balling it up, shoving baby in a corner. I can plot a single title out to within an inch of its life, but if I don’t feel it, I can’t enjoy writing it. Reading that article gave me hope. So much so that yesterday I set aside the single title that’s coming out only with the use of heavy forceps and started the WRONG book that refuses to sit quietly in the corner. I have no readership, of course, so I’m not saying I can self-publish my Wrong Genre book and hope to make a living. Just that–well, I don’t know what. I just know that I have a new-found appreciation for the freedom of self or e-publishing because my soul kind of popped its head up out of the mud when I read that article and took a full breath of air at the idea that I can write whatever I want to write. As long as making a living is not the objective! Hey, but at least I’ll be happy!

  2. Barbara Samuel

    Writing for a living is always tricky, but there’s something to be said for having control over the material and packaging…especially if you are one of the writers (and there are many of us) who are just a *little* bit off-genre. If you do decide to do it, keep your production values high, hire a good editor, and be patient. That’s one of the things we didn’t talk about in the discussion, the need for patience to build steam online. It takes months sometimes, so don’t be discouraged if it takes awhile.

  3. A great discussion, Barbara & Jenny! Thanks for including me in yesterday’s part of it. 🙂

    Suzanne – I had to pop on here to say that I *love* your comment about “elation”! I always use the word “empowering”. Another great e-word to talk about e-books.

    🙂 Bella Andre / Lucy Kevin

    • Barbara Samuel

      Yay, Bella/Lucy! Elation and empowerment are pretty big words.

  4. If it’s possible, I loved Part 2 even more than Part 1. Thank you thank you thank you!

    “A lot of the 99c readers are the people who once haunted used bookstores and bought books used because they are such passionate readers they wouldn’t be able to afford their habit any other way.”

    And thanks for that. Just today I blogged, a bit skeptically I suppose, about the 99c price point, and how it scared me. How I felt like a lot of people buying at that price are just hoarding and won’t actually read my story. But you’ve shown me the other side, and I think/hope you’re right. 🙂

    “But all of a sudden there’s a place for whatever weirdness I want to do. And I think it’ll lead me back to the joy of writing novels, too.”

    YES! I love that, and I love Barbara’s 4 wishes for publishing. This conversation has got me so excited and optimistic as a writer! Thanks again. 🙂

  5. Kristan (who commented above) pointed me to this article, and I have to say that the timing is great for me as well. I was recently offered a contract by a small press to publish a novel I wrote, and I don’t think the contract is particularly fair. I don’t have an agent, so I’m the one who will talk to the publisher about the contract. After reading this conversation between you and Jenny, I feel so much more confident going into that conversation tomorrow. If they don’t want to make the changes I feel are fair, there are other options for me.

    Like Jenny, I’m not saying that traditional publishing is all crap and should go away. But also like Jenny, I’d like to be able to look back some day and say, “I never signed a bad contract.”

    • Barbara Samuel

      It is never a bad thing for a writer to have a sense of calm confidence. Never signing a bad contract is very worthy goal.

  6. Good stuff, part one and part two. Thank you, Barb and Jenny!!!

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