More on Digital Books (and Digital Ideas)
March 5, 2009 | Written by admin
Is giving away free books a good idea? Bestselling author Paul Coelho has been a huge proponent of giving away digital text, arguing that it was one of the biggest reasons behind his worldwide success. A recent study undertaken by Random House, O'Reilly Media, and Magellan Media has explored the idea, and found that giving away the digital book seems to help promote sales of e-books a bit, but, according to a report in Publishers Marketplace, all that free text didn't create a huge upturn in traditional book sales. (If you want the whole schlamozzle, you can find the report here: www.toccon.com/toc2009/public/schedule/detail/7582.)
The concern about piracy continues to worry authors. In the early days of MP3 players, all those stolen songs created a lot of controversy over pirated music — in essence, "If you copy a song and send it to all your friends, aren't you defrauding the singer his royalties?" (Hint: the correct answer is "yes.") There are two ways to view the outcome of that debate in music circles ten years ago. One view is to say that people who copied and sent music files could also be shown to become bigger music buyers, thus helping grow the market. A second view is that aggressive industry steps to protect author copyrights prevented wholesale theft, and helped usher in the current music culture.
In simple terms, the concern in publishing is that "if you receive a Word or PDF file with the downloaded text of a book, there is the possibility you'll pass it along to others, thereby cheating the author out of a royalty." I was always careful to tell my kids that, while their friends may give away music, they won't be doing so. I work in a copyright business, and I won't stand for people being cheated. Then I was sent a really interesting book last week, and found myself starting to forward it along to a friend. Oops. I stopped before hitting "send." Wait a minute — is this fair? Is it legal? I was amazed how quickly I began to do it before common sense stopped me. We all appreciate free things in this culture. And it makes me wonder about the problems of piracy with book texts. BUT studies have shown that piracy with books is a minor problem so far. And if free texts actually increases book sales… well, we'll see where this goes. There's going to be a lot of study on this before it gets resolved. Are you worried about your words being stolen?
More on digital books: If you haven't heard, the folks at Amazon announced that you can now have any of their 250,000 Kindle e-books delivered to your iPhone. Seems like a small screen to me for reading a book, but I've got a friend who tried it immediately and says he loves it.
And an interesting study on the cost of e-books: While it's been suggested that e-books are considerably cheaper to produce (there are no ink/paper/binding costs, no shipping, no warehousing), one would think they would be cheaper to buy. A recent study of Kindle titles show that while there are roughly 7000 public domain books available, and 28,000 titles that sell for less than $2, about 13,000 titles sell in the normal book range of between $10 and $20. And the surprising thing is that nearly 56,000 of the e-book titles sell for more than $20.
The folks at Publishers Lunch made a point of noting that Amazon Prez Jeff Bezos claimed on TV last week (he was a guest on Jon Stewart's program) that the books for Kindle "are $9.99 each." But they pointed out that any reasonable study of Amazon's site will reveal there is no fixed price-point for e-books. They explained, for example, that Stephanie Meyer's Breaking Dawn is selling for $11.38 on Kindle, while the hard copy is $12.64, and the iPhone version is $19.99. It just goes to show that there's still a lot of miscommunication on e-books. Publishers have always used a variety of formats and price-points with books… we were just hoping the cost of digital books would be lower.
The Authors Guild recently got the people at Amazon to stop incorporating the text-to-speech format on the Kindle, by the way. They claimed it made each book a free audio book, and that was a violation of author contracts that either grant or withhold recorded rights. It's an interesting argument that I'm not sure I agree with — I recognize the Guild is trying to protect author royalties, but the book isn't actually "recorded." It's a computer voice, reading the text (arguably the same as having a friend read you the book). To me, it seems like a handy feature to have when you want to keep going on a book but can't actually hold it and read it. A couple bloggers (Seth Godin is one, Mike Hyatt is another) argued that trade associations seem intent on protecting the status quo, but the current status of publishing is in a world of hurt. I tend to agree with them.
Speaking of Mr. Hyatt: The folks at Thomas Nelson have announced what they are calling "NelsonFree" — an offer to give book-buyers more than one book format in a single purchase. The idea basically looks like this: When a reader buys a traditionally bound book, he or she is given the option of also receiving an e-book file sent to their email account, plus a ditial audio book. It's an aggressive, forward-thinking approach for a company that has really been on the cutting edge in recent years. I happen to be one of the people who subscribes to the notion that one of the best ways to build a readership is to give away books.
But… one aspect of this bugs me. If you buy a book, give it to your mom (who likes traditional books), then read the book on your e-reader, then give the audio book to your friend at the office (who listens to books but won't read them), it certainly gets the title a wider readership. But it also seems like the author of that book has lost two potential sales. Or at least the author has not been paid a royalty for two more products. So while I see the possible value in doing this, I worry that writers are going to see even less money (and I wonder if that means the publisher needs to negotiate a higher initial royalty for the author). This is a voluntary program, and Nelson is just trying it to see how people respond. Again, I'm not negative toward it, since I think the end result could actually mean more sales of the book. But I represent authors, and I want to make sure their interests are protected, and on its face it seems like everyone would opt for getting both a hard copy and a digital copy of a book if it were offered to them. That would eventually mean less money to authors, who are already being squeezed. Your thoughts?
And the dumb stuff…
Unsolicited proposals have skyrocketed lately — apparently hard economic times inspire everyone to assume they can write a book and make a pile of money. Recent submissions include:
1. A book described as "Santa Claus meets Interview with the Vampire." And no, I don't have any idea what that could possibly mean either.
2. A guy who wrote to me because he "knows I'm religious" and he is "channeling notes from God regularly."
3. A book proposal entitled "Jesus Is a Republican." Which I doubt, since the Lord wasn't able to run up gigantic deficits or get his followers involved in a never-ending, pointless war.
4. Several projects from people who want to send me "fiction novels." Those are the best kind, of course.
5. An "action-adventure romantic spy thriller with religious overtones that takes place in another galaxy that's not our own." This book according to the author, would "not only appeal to adults, but to YA and to Republicans." Honest. I can hardly wait.
6. And I'm having an email fight with this guy who thinks he is a deep thinker (lots of mentions of his feelings and impressions, and in love with words like "missional" and "my journey"). He decides to do a book proposal, but instead of researching the industry, he creates an email and cc's it to a dozen agents. (That's right. My name is there on the send line, along with several other agent friends. A sure way to impress us all, as you can imagine.) I write him back to say, "Do yourself a favor and spend ten minutes in research, for crying out loud." His response? "Acting like an ass to a prospective client is no way to run your business!" Um… prospective client? Why is it that anybody who can recognize the difference between a verb and a noun thinks he can be a writer?
Hey, I discovered a really good blog screated by a Christian bookseller. If you want to see what a retailer thinks about the industry, check out bookshoptalk.wordpress.com. Fun to get the take from the other side of the store shelves.
Got a question about publishing or writing? Send it along and we'll get to it.