Letters To The Editor For February 24th

EBOOK PRICE-FIXING: Who Gets Hurt in the End?

Angela:

You continue to do a great service by keeping us informed of the doings of Amazon and the state of the book business. The news of the past few weeks is somewhat encouraging.

The news that Macmillan had forced Amazon to back down shows that Big Publishing might be awakening from its slumber. BookLocker’s triumph over Amazon was a David v. Goliath thing, but Macmillan v. Amazon was Goliath v. Goliath. Then came the news that Harper & Row, a Rupert Murdoch property, was not willing to play Amazon’s game. Whatever anybody might think of Murdoch, he is a tough businessman who didn’t get where he is by letting others push him around. But let’s keep our guard up: Goliath has backed off, but he isn’t down for the count.

Amazon’s attempt to get a stranglehold on the ebook market with its “everything for $9.95” approach shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what books are about, one I hope most book buyers don’t also suffer from. This Wal-Mart-like approach, as you aptly called it, works with commodities, by which I mean widely distributed, everyday items distinguished mostly by price. If Amazon wants to turn books into commodities, it means the company assumes, or is trying to convince buyers, that books have no value in themselves, that they are disposable. This might be true in the case of titles that are largely full of information to be absorbed and used toward some end — business, for instance. It is certainly not true with literature and non-fiction that we will read over and over. I am 50 years old; my family still has books my father bought before I was born. One of them is a copy of “The Desert Music” by William Carlos Williams, with the author’s autograph, made even more historic because Williams had had a couple of strokes by then and the autograph is in a jagged scrawl. That’s no commodity. A book can be valuable as an object, even if its content is widely available. How much is an original Gutenberg Bible worth today — hundreds of thousands? millions? Even a book with little economic value can have sentimental value; maybe because it was a gift from a special friend, or because it awakened something in the reader, or your parents read it to you when you were a child. It’s hard to imagine sentimental moments with a Kindle.

I’m sitting here happy to making $18,000 a year (well, maybe just content for the moment), doing what I was born to do. With cutbacks all across the parent company, I’m too valuable. My skills are worth money. But how many writers out there are struggling to make even less than I do, and feeling coerced into accepting $15 assignments? This goes way beyond Amazon. The Internet-based race to the bottom for the written word, along with Amazon’s strategy, threaten THE ABILITY TO MAKE A DECENT LIVING THROUGH THE WRITTEN WORD. It takes a combination of innate skill, training and years of often tedious work to become a good writer, which is to say, a writer worth paying. The same goes for all the other people involved in the publishing business, as you pointed out last week. The price of writing and books should be determined in a free market in which those who will pay more for quality can do so, while lower-priced products are also available. We have to believe that there are still people out there who will pay for quality written work.

There is reason for hope. Companies from BookLocker to Macmillan are rising up. History shows us that attempts to form monopolies don’t succeed. Remember when the fear was that IBM would completely dominate the PC market? IBM doesn’t even make PCs anymore. Microsoft’s power has diminished with the proliferation of platforms. The break-up of AT&T unleashed an explosion of telecommunications innovation. It’s unlikely that Amazon will succeed in its attempt to own the book market. Publishers like making money, and people like paying for quality (said with fingers crossed). Amazon isn’t the only fish in the pond, and the pond is mighty big.

Victor Kulkosky
http://outofmymindblog.wordpress.com

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I agree that there should not be a price fix as every ebook is different and comes into play in different ways. Not every book is the same and I feel that it has already started, the move away from “so called traditional publishers”. It may be that some of my college was in business, I do not know, but if someone wants all the rights I believe in asking for a licensing fee. I think everyone needs to set their own prices for things, especially books and ebooks. I will never buy a Kindle as sometimes books get there from those not holding the copyright.

George Arnold Hall
Writer / Developer

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Granted the iPad costs more than the Kindle but it can read PDF files so indie publishers should look into formating works for the the iPad. According to most reviewers the iPad is too big for a pocket computer but is just about right size for a wireless reader (think Star Trek data pads).

Of course, (Steve) Jobs wants to drop the price to iTune/iPod standards…but the Apple music player gave birth to cheaper, less restricted MP3 players. Now even my cellphone plays music.

So I reckon over the next 2-3 years, the iPad will generate another set of knockoffs which will play nicely for your company and authors of ebooks.

Just my 2 cents.

Chancer Reese

STILL THINKS EBOOKS ARE TOO EXPENSIVE

Hi, Ang,

E-books all over the place are going at hard cover prices. I cannot see paying $15 or $20 for a new release, or even a five-year-old release, and I’m seeing it everywhere, not just in the news between Random House and Amazon. I can’t see paying that much for a paperback, let alone an e-book. I’ve checked the prices and they’re not good. I avoid e-books that cost as much or more than paperbacks. Granted, I’m just getting up to speed on the whole e-book thing, but I’ve read plenty of PDF review copies over the years I’ve been a reviewer, and most of them are crap no matter who is doing the file.

This whole issue of price fixing is more about the deal between Random House and Apple than about Amazon. Apple wants their iPad to outsell the Kindle and they’re manipulating things with Random House to do so.

J.

Angela Responds:

When you buy a book, the vast majority of what you pay for is the labor involved in bringing that book to market. A tiny fraction of the price is for the paper, ink, and glue.

Traditional publishers who print thousands of books in a run may pay less than $1 for mass-market paperbacks that come off a traditional printing press. However, they will charge $7, $12, even $15 for that book. With that money, they’re paying for all the investment they put into the book before it was even published, along with the ongoing support for that book (the author’s royalties, their ongoing business administrative expenses, etc.).

Assuming a book is only worth the paper it’s printed on (or the bytes its transmitted on) is the wrong way to go about valuing (or devaluing) a book. And, it’s pretty silly if you really think about it. When you buy a book, you’re buying the content and the production costs associated with bringing the book to market. The cost to actually print and bind the book are the smallest part of the price.

Therefore, assuming ebooks should only be priced at a buck or two, simply because they’re just a computer file, is an incorrect assumption. For a traditional publisher, that would only mean knocking a dollar or maybe even two off the price. Their other expenses, which comprise 90+ percent of the cost to produce the title, don’t change at all.