A random rant on traditional publishers and e-book prices.

So there have been some conversations buzzing around Twitter lately about high priced e-books.  It certainly got me thinking and wanting to compare the book industry with the game industry.  I’m fully aware this is a long beaten and dead horse of mine, but the resemblances between the two are pretty disturbing.

In my opinion there are two types of books that will have high e-book prices.  The hopeful indie author looking to strike it rich with thousands of sales of his/her book at $8 a pop, or the more common one as of late, big time publishers; the final breath of a dying breed.  What’s that AJ?  You’re CRAZY if you think that traditional publishers are going to fade away into the night like a setting sun.  Well, you’re right, and I don’t think they will go away.  I do, however, believe they don’t have long before they will have to completely revamp their business strategies significantly for an ever-growing pool of tremendously talented indie authors.  I believe they realize this, and are going to squeeze every penny possible out of the situation before they are unable to do so.  I’ve seen this very thing start to happen in the game industry.

When I first started in the game industry, the XBOX and PS2 were still on the rise.  There was no talk of digital content, all games came on DVDs, just as not too long ago all books came on paper.  Then came the new generations of game consoles: XBOX 360 and Playstation 3 primarily.  At first they followed the same pattern, put games on DVDs (PS3 used Blu Rays) and release them through traditional mediums, such as department stores, websites, etc.  You still had to get a physical item and place it in your game console.  Around the same time Valve Software – quite possibly my favorite game studio, of whom I have the utmost respect for – started to really play up digital content release.  It was a big gamble that yielded insane dividends for the company.  The concept was so brilliant; don’t bother with keeping CDs/DVDs in your office, let Steam host all the games you buy and it will allow you to download them for the rest of ever.  Buy a new computer? No problem, load up Steam, tell it which games you want to install again, and go to sleep.  By the time you wake up your PC will be loaded with all the games you were playing before you got your new computer.  All the licensing and serial numbers are tied to your account, no unnecessary installation processes that make you click “Next” incessantly, just say “Download” and go. Sounds a lot like my favorite electronic device; the Kindle.

Steam has been doing this effectively for quite sometime, but it wasn’t until recently that they got traditional game publishers shaking in their boots.  Steam – along with the iPhone app craze – started to allow independent developers release their products on their digital distribution platform to sell.  Valve’s servers would host the game, and send it to customer’s accounts, and take a fair 30% royalty cut from the developer.  They basically became the Amazon Kindle for indie game developers on PC.

Publishers (both book and game alike) have a notorious rap sheet of being greedy, shady, and other ominous words I’m too tired to think of (I know, sad, right?).  So with Valve Software offering to publish indie developers for a not-so-bad royalty cut, this has caused a lot of talented folks to skip the big  corporate man and self publish.  There’s no one to tell them how to make their product, there’s not a big company stealing most of their profits (and spotlight mind you) for doing nothing more than throwing a bit of money at it.  They can take full credit, have full creative control; they are completely autonomous.  This is what every game developer I’ve met wants when making a game.

This “frightening” trend of higher and higher quality games being released by indie developers has caused traditional publishers to have knee-jerk reaction to the situation.  The publishers are doing two things: They are preparing for ways to work with indie developers in a way that matches closer to what Valve has done with Steam.  Most of these plans are still in their infancy stages, but there’s already been talks about big companies funding smaller teams under non-traditional agreements that guarantee more profits, autonomy, and creative control over the IP than you used to get working with a publisher.  This is because publishers are starting to realize that most indie teams that are talented and work hard don’t actually NEED a publisher anymore, and that they’d rather get some profit than no profit.

Meanwhile, however, while they are working out the logistics on how to move into the next generation of games that will almost certainly be 100% digitally distributed, game publishers are telling gamers to go ahead and bend over while they empty their wallets; not only on ridiculously high priced SKU titles ($60 for a game that lasts maybe 8 hours? NO THANKS) but they then charge from $10-$20 for DLC (Downloadable Content).  DLC usually just consists of more levels to play, and it’s minimal (often 3 to 4 additional levels).  In SOME cases games have actually shipped into stores with the DLCs already on the DVDs and when you buy them weeks later for $20, purchasing them merely unlocks the content from the disc.  Disgusting, isn’t it?  So if a devoted fan buys the game, and all the DLCs that come out with it, they could spend easily over $100 for the game when it’s all said and done.  Makes me shudder.  And why do they do it?  Simply put, people buy it. BUT, they know that’s not going to last forever.  There has already been loud voices from the internet about the high prices of games and DLC, but more importantly the affordable indie games are getting higher in quality, and often release DLC for free.  *HISTORY LESSON* Most games that released on PC for ages had free DLC that would be available to anyone who owned the game already.  Sadly, Valve (my heroes) are one of the only companies that STILL does this.

I would like to apologize for that lengthy lead into my actual point (though it’s all kind of one giant point).  Publishers realize that there is a lot of undiscovered talent in the world, and now it’s (for the most part) too late to control the situation.  Success stories – such as Amanda Hocking – have provided hope to indie authors who are every bit as talented as they are dedicated, but could never land a traditional publishing deal.  I’m actually not sure why Amanda went with a traditional publisher recently.  She has established such a gigantic fan base that there really wouldn’t be much stopping her to hire people to do the things she didn’t want to do with releasing books (editing, covers, marketing, etc – reasons she gave for going with a traditional publisher) but that’s not for me to judge.  I have a lot of respect for Amanda and wish her the best of luck with her future endeavors.  The point is though, if most indie authors gained the notoriety she has gained as well as the wealth that came with it ALL from e-books, that we would be happy as clams, and I know some of us would even decline going with traditional publishers.  I hope that if I am ever successful enough to get approached by a traditional publisher that I might be in a situation to decline.  It’s not a pride thing, but a principle thing.  As much as I would love to see my book on shelves and readily available to the masses that sit outside the e-book world, I for one, would prefer to keep my books at reasonable prices, especially in the penny pinching time we’re currently in.

Am I a jerk?  Maybe, but I just get sick to my stomach to see hard working folks get taken advantage of, not just as consumers, but as creators.  This leads me into the whole reason I wrote this post, and somehow got carried away with other topics (though still relevant to the big picture).

So most indie authors seem to place their books for sale in a common price point.  $.99 to $3.99.  There are some that go above that, and I’m sure they have their reasons, but it’s pretty obvious the $1-$4 price point is pretty much the standard.  Alas most traditional publishers have started to list their e-book versions for $8 or higher.  The most insane ones I see are when the e-book variant has no price difference between the paperback.  This makes me so irritated.  The book is written, it has been edited, cover art created and so on for the paper book.  Placing it as an e-book might take a few hours of someones time to make sure formatting is proper, and that everything goes through correctly.  There’s no overhead such as printing processes, ink, paper, shipping.  Nothing.  Amazon takes 30% of your sales (though something tells me that Amazon makes different deals with big publishing houses, but that’s just a hunch of mine).  So why the giant price hike?  I think it’s the EXACT same situation as what I mentioned above with games.  They do it because they still can, and it’s in a last ditch effort to squeeze money out of the consumer before the consumers all realize that many indie books are as high quality and probably often more original than main stream books.  Just the other day Amanda Hocking announced one of her series of e-books was getting printed by the same publisher she’s working with on her next book series.  She flat out said that the e-book prices of these revised books would go up per the publishers request.  She was insistent everyone knew that the editing was going to merely be nothing more than line edits, and that the story itself would not change at all.  I don’t know about you, but if I have the option to pay $3 for a book with some minor typos and bad punctuation versus $8-$10 for the same book without, I’d elect to buy the former.  I’m sure this wasn’t something she wanted, but probably had very little say in.

I’m currently reading In Memory of Greed, by Al Boudreau, and I must say it is one of the more professional reading indie books I’ve come across.  The editing so far is top notch, with very little to no mistakes with the writing.  Al, just like most of the aspiring writers in the world, has a day job and was not traditionally published.  Yet he was able to put out a book that goes head to head in terms of professional quality as any mainstream book I’ve read.  I’m only 25% into the story, but thus far it’s more compelling than a lot of mainstream books I’ve read.  In Memory of Greed is a solid example of WHY the traditional publishers are fearing the “next generation” of indie books. Consumers will soon ask themselves “Why would I pay $10 for an e-book when I can get an equally entertaining (and professional) book for $3?”

I predict a bumpy ride for traditional publishers coming soon.  And no, before you accuse me, I don’t wish to see traditional publishers go out of business.  I really don’t actually have any problem with traditional publishing.  I do, however, have a problem with any company taking advantage of people because they simply can.  So enjoy the high prices while you can still get people to pay for them, publishers.  I predict the quality of indie books only to skyrocket, and I am confident that either publishers will have to adapt to this new dynamic book world, or watch from the sidelines as new publishing firms come onto the scenes and find ways to work with indies in a manner where everyone wins.

About AJ Powers

I am a professional game developer during the day, but at night, my true passion comes to life when I read and write books.
This entry was posted in Rants, Writer's Corner. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A random rant on traditional publishers and e-book prices.

  1. J.T. O'Connell says:

    There’s something to be said for name recognition. Obviously, certain authors will always charge high prices for their books and the books will sell (King, Clancy, Rowling, etc). This is because successful people can price their product and many times people will buy.

    I do wonder why so many readers are so willing to pay exorbitant amounts though. I’ve bought a number of professionally published books on the Kindle when the publishing houses have dropped the prices to reasonable amounts (it was two economic books for $2 a piece that I had been debating buying when they were listed at $10 each, they’ve since gone back up). That said, I’ve wondered additionally about offering the first third of a book for free on a website as the file formats necessary to drop right on a reader, so that readers can ACTUALLY TRY the book in a serious way. If they like it? They buy the whole book for the rest. Not saying I’ll do this with Sunlost when it’s done, though it is an idea.

    Anyhow, agree with most of what you’ve got up here. Don’t get too down, AJ. There’re way more of us than there are of them.

    Does anyone know, is market share calculated in pure dollars or is it per unit? I suspect it’s pure dollars and by per unit measure, i’m confident that e-books are already head-to-head with traditional books.

  2. B.C. Young says:

    Well said. I think Indie Authors are going to cause a major change in the publishing world over the next few years, and I’m glad I jumped in when I did. I also think the $1-$4 price range for Indie works is reasonable as that’s where I plan to keep the pricing for anything I write.

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