Monday, April 30, 2012

The Fixer

There's been a lot of hoo-hah coming out of the recent case involving (in various roles) the federal government, Apple, Amazon, and the various "big six" publishers. Lots of predictions of doom and gloom, hysteria, cries of foul and more. Widely circulated were variations on a theme (probably ghost-written, or at least ghost-"fact fed" by the publishing industry) on why eBooks really aren't cheaper to make than "real" books.

Most of those articles, though, ignore the publishing houses that do this. Let us look towards, as the best example, the fine folks at Baen Books. Not only do they have books in multiple formats and that are not loaded with DRM, but you can get them ahead of when the physical version comes out and a brand-spanking new hardcover will run about $6.00 as a eBook.

This is not new. Baen has been doing this since the late 1990's. But most of the publishing industry does not seem to recognize this (and the reporters writing these stories are too lazy or time-pressed to do "original research" and take a broad look at the field).

A second thing to think about is how you buy eBooks and why that should make them cheaper. Because the reality is you don't "buy" and eBook. Money exchanges hands, yes. You don't own the bits, though, you lease them. Think it is not so? Dig deep and read all those bits of fine print on the publishers site or Amazon's site, etc. They can decide to yank those files from you the next time to hook your gadget up to the internet, if they so choose. It happened to me, not with Amazon and a publisher (Hachette), but between Fictionwise (now owned by Barnes & Noble) and Hachette. Hachette and Fictionwise got into a pissing match over books and Hachette picked up its marbles and pulled a number of titles. If you had downloaded them, you were safe. You could still read them on your current gadget. But, woe unto you if you changed computers or changed gadgets. Thanks to DRM (more below) you would not be able to read those files on your new computer or your new eBook gadget because you would need (in this case) to register your new gadget and download new encrypted files. And those pulled books would not be on your "bookshelf" so you would be screwd. Do you "own" these books? No. You do not.

And that's another reason why eBook prices should be lower. DRM. It's crap bought by the publishers and foisted upon the distributor and we end up suffering under it. We are blocked from reading a book across several platforms. Some schemes involve sensitive information (such as credit card numbers) and if you think that information is secure, guess again. Thanks to DRM, you can lose access to books, such as I outlined above. Another example was one small distributor that used a DRM scheme that nobody else in the industry was using. I bought several books from them as I could not find them anywhere else (Stan Schmidt's Lifeboat Earth dueo and L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's tales of Harold Shea as two examples). The distributor went out of business, and I'm left with files I cannot read on my current PC or eBook gadget because not only are they a format that nobody uses...but I can't register the new gadgets.

(And to be honest, DRM punishes honest readers. It is aimed at the pirates but hurts the customer. And it forces, through actions listed above, those who are savy enough to put on the eyepatch and find a way around it.)

Frankly, I don't see why most author's are siding with the publishers. No, Amazon (or Barnes & Noble) are not your friend. But the publisher is not your friend, either. The business model is broken, the companies are inefficient and they have too many stakes in the past to adopt to the future. Most authors are what might be called "mid-list". They have a small following, do sales bit by bit, but might—over a long enough period of time—prove themselves to be hefty sellers of books. Publishers do not work this way. Blame narrow vision, blame a yearly (or less) business cycle, blame tax codes that punish holding inventory, but if you are mid-list writer you need to move up list or you will die.

With eBooks and the avoidance of "inventory" mid-list authors might survive long enough to grow. If you disover somebody you like on the mid-list you'll be able to buy all their books rather than either searching out the old stuff (second-hand, so it won't help the author) or giving up in frustration.

Authors and publishers are in a unique spot here. They can see, if they pull their heads out of the sand, that the landscape is changing. They have the lessons of the music industry to look at and avoid. They can evolve before evolution hits them upside the head.

Will they do so?

Addendum: This posting grew out of my comment to a posting on a friend's blog.

Addendum: A view by author Teresa Frohock.

Addendum: And how could I not include John Scalzi's thoughts?

Addendum: Blame Charles Stross! (Just kidding.)

Addendum: Closely-related posting by Tobias Buckell.

Addendum: So how much should you charge for an eBook, anyway? Some analysis here.


Jamie Todd Rubin said...

Fred, how is the quality of Baen's e-books? Lots of typos, or are they equivalent to the paper copies?

One thing that I think gets lost in these discussions is the quality of the e-book version. I have a ton of Stephen King e-books (early ones) that have typos on nearly every page. In discussing this with folks like Rob Sawyer, I've learned that in many instances, there is no copy editing happening on the e-book version. They are taking the original manuscript and scanning it in and no one is catching the OCR-related errors. I am perfectly willing to pay more for an e-book if it has the same kind of quality control as the paper edition, in part because it gives me advantages that the paper version doesn't (electronic note-taking, searching, etc.)

I agree with you about "leasing" as opposed to buying e-books. I haven't yet run into the problems you've had with books disappearing, but I also backup all of my books so that if they ever did go away, I could restore them relatively easily.

Fred Kiesche said...

The same as paper. I've seen typos from all the Big Six. And editorial blunders. And books that should not have been published. So I don't buy those "the big publishers do x, y, z and you'll miss that!"

I think Baen is more efficient, not burdened with a lot of "legacy" staff, rents cheaper real estate, stays focused, etc. Now a lot of that won't translate across to a Big Six, but surely they can do something.

As for older paper into newer eBooks, sure, a lot of places are doing that. But there are ways around that. Look at Project Gutenberg: can something like that work for a publisher. And, if an error is found, e-mail the publisher and the publisher ought to make the changes (easier for e than p) and release an update (happened with the most recent Neal Stephenson book and when errors are bound in Baen, they make changes and update the files).

One item that came up in discussion is that people want e the same day as p, so they should cost more. I'd be willing to wait for the mass market paperback release if the publisher were to match the MMPB price. And I'm happy to pay "premium" for my "want it now" mode. But publishers don't seem to be lowering the prices to match MMPB's across the board.

Paul Weimer said...

One item that came up in discussion is that people want e the same day as p, so they should cost more. I'd be willing to wait for the mass market paperback release if the publisher were to match the MMPB price.

I've said that for a while, too. Price the ebooks dynamically. Pay $12.99 to get Range of Ghosts today, or wait a year and get it for $7.99...

Dan Robinson said...

Or wait a couple years and get it for free on Baen's free library.

Oh. It's not a Baen book?


Fred Kiesche said...

Dan, good idea, but...not all Baen Books end up in the Free Library. Of course, by juggling the CD-ROM's and such, you can add to your "free" pile, but Baen's eBooks are (a) reasonable in price; (b) multi-format; (c) not saddled with DRM, so they worth actually purchasing (so the author gets paid).

And...not all books I read are from Baen. Not even close. I love them, I buy everything by certain authors, but they don't carry, for example, Alastair Reynolds. Or Iain Banks. Or Patrick O'Brian even, for all love.