Tuesday, June 11, 2013

An open letter to (a few) ebook shoppers

It happens all too often ... an online shopper looks at an ebook at Amazon or bn.com or ... and disagrees with the vendor's price. That's fair.

And proceeds to give that book a one-star review, "justified" with a rant about greed and/or the evils of ebook pricing. That's often quite unfair, and that bit of venting claims the author as collateral damage.

First, the background: opinions differ on ebook pricing. Some shoppers feel that ebooks should be far cheaper than any physical book because an ebook can be replicated for free. Authors, editors, cover artists, distributors, and publishers expect to earn something for their contributions to a book -- and that requires a nonzero price on books, even ebooks. (Especially ebooks, as that format claims more and more of the book market.) Ebook reader vendors, meanwhile, sometimes use ebook content as a loss leader. The device vendor's short-term motivation is to lure/lock customers into a particular content ecosystem.

Publishers and etailers have long tussled over these issues. Even as I type, a major antitrust suit about ebook pricing is at trial between Apple and the Department of Justice -- the big publishing houses having settled out of court.

Do I know the "right" price for an ebook? No (other than nonzero, in the belief readers want authors to continue writing). Do I know how the tussle among publishers, etailers, and the DoJ will come out? Again, no. 

Here's what I do know ...

Except for self-published books, the author does not set the price -- for any format, including ebooks.

What happens when an online shopper gives an ebook a one-star review with accompanying pricing rant? The etailer, almost certainly, does not notice. The publisher, almost certainly, does not notice. And the book's rating takes a hit.

I doubt that many people expend the energy to trawl, say, Amazon, hunting for book prices with which to take umbrage. When they slam a book about its price, it's because they looked up that book. They were interested in its content and/or had a positive feeling about the author.

And it's the author of that book who suffers as a result of the pricing complaint. (Certainly the raters believe ratings affect behavior, or they wouldn't bother to give ratings.)

Think of the situation as a bit like walking into Starbucks and then balking at paying four bucks for the coffee. Walking out is fair. Complaining to the store manager? That's fair, too (if only as a viable way to get one's gripe to Corporate, where policies and pricing are set). Posting a sign to blame the barista for the prices? Definitely not cool.

And another thing ... on most (all?) etail sites, ratings are often shared across all editions of a work. The one-star "review" about an ebook also gets tallied into the ratings for all print and audiobook editions.

I imagine some people giving price-centric ratings will protest, "but I explain my rating in the text of the review." Maybe so. After that rating is a few weeks or months old, no longer at the top of the reviews list (of shoppers who sort reviews by most recent reviews first -- that's only one option), the review text is out of sight unless one hunts for it.

But the drag of the one-star review on the book's overall rating continues forever ...

A related complaint of mine: gripes that the ebook is priced higher than the paperback -- before the paperback edition has been released! Almost always the ebook price drops when the paperback comes out.

So, ebook shoppers ... don't like a price? Believe that it's unfair, unjust, unreasonable? Complain to the etailer. Complain to the publisher.

Don't punish the author -- the person who invested months or years to write the book that you found interesting enough to consider buying. For all you know, the author agrees with you, believes he'd sell a lot more books at a different price, but whose publisher gives him no say in the matter.

In fact, don't rate a product -- any product -- you haven't used. If you haven't read a book (or, at the least, given it a try), you have no business rating it.

And that's my rant ...


Coop said...

Let me say first, that I agree completely. Complaints about pricing have no place in ratings of a book, or any item for that matter. It's an unfortunate trend that I've seen where people try to enact some sort of vigilante justice when they don't like something and end up hurting the wrong people. Whether that is an author or a franchise owner and his employees who have nothing to do with comments made by some higher-up, which caused a call for a boycott, it ends up punishing the wrong people.

I have an honest question though, why aren't more authors self publishing these days? There's backlash against it from people like Patterson, but it seems to me that self publishing offers an author more freedom, and benefits like full ownership and the ability to set their own price.

There's the lack of advances, and the marketing of a publisher, which I certainly can understand.

Large publishers in all media have been very slow to respond to changes in technology and distribution. And when they do, they don't embrace the technology, they fear it and try to handicap it.

Ebooks in particular, have numerous benefits to both readers and publishers. First an ebook never goes out of print. As a reader when I find an author who I enjoy, I try to consume all the work I can. Before ebooks that involved hours in used bookstores and libraries, a lot of time spent on my part, and no profit for the publisher. Ebooks are obviously cheaper to produce, shipping bits is much less expensive than pages, and there is never unsold stock.

It seems ebooks would be a clear-cut win. But they aren't. Some books are held back for some time (See Sanderson/Jordan's A Memory of Light, for a different kind of one star attack), and they're enclosed in DRM. I absolutely believe that paying for a book is right, but I also believe that I should have the right to simply and easily share a book with a friend or heck, even my wife and kids.

The books I read and enjoyed prior to ebooks sit quietly on shelves waiting for my son to pick them up, but my ebooks are in a locker that only I can open with my password, which I can't share, because that would be violating the T&C of the ebook provider. It just feels wrong.

To bring it back around, I kinda got off track there, we readers need to support authors and understand that their protests aren't always doing what they would expect. I would also encourage people to use the report abuse or flag such reviews as not helpful. In the overall picture though, both readers and authors need to band together when publishers are doing dumb things that don't help anyone. Readers have the ability to keep their money, and authors, especially established ones, can go their own today.

(oh, I think the right price is somewhere between $0.01 and $0.02 per page for most books, but some are priceless)

Edward M. Lerner said...

Hi Coop,

Many thanks for your thoughtful comments.

To your main question, probably every author I know has experimented with -- or is, at the least, considering -- self-publishing. (I'm still in the second camp. The loss of advances would be a real negative -- and a real hit to cash flow.)

Marketing support isn't a big factor. Publishers don't provide much marketing, as it happens, except to bestselling authors who don't need it.

The valuable thing publishers provide (besides advances) is distribution channels. It's rare for self-published books to get into brick-and-mortar bookstores. A presence on physical shelves does still matter. Similarly, books published by an independent press are more likely to be reviewed (e.g., by Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and genre review outlets) than are self-published books.

Can self-published books succeed? Sure. But per surveys I've seen, the vast majority don't.

And as to your comments re ebooks; I agree. They are, clearly, the future of publishing.

- Ed