Thinking Out Loud

July 2, 2012

What’s a 250-Page Book Worth?

This week I got an email notification that a local author’s three books — two fiction and one non-fiction — are being offered as free downloads on different days this week. Having known writers who were a little distressed that their books were remaindered, and musicians who were little disappointed that their albums were deleted, I can’t imagine the motivation for broadcasting the fact that the product you labored so hard to create is being valued in economic terms at nil.

I can see how this author might believe that this is going to help him get his message out to a wider audience, or that it might raise his profile on the world stage, or that it might result in other books selling at closer tho his normal price. But on a transaction-by-transaction basis, it means his works are now owned by people who have no particular investment in them.

My thesis is that people are not reading. All our leisure time is now consumed by supporting our screen habits: The pocket screen, the Mac/PC/laptop screen, and the 42-inch plasma screen.

Furthermore all our leisure time money (dollars, pounds, etc.) are tied up in supporting all those same screen habits.

You may wish to argue that “sales” of eBooks are brisk; that this is why the brick-and-mortar bookstores are dying off, because people are downloading books electronically and watching/reading them on a variety of devices.

Let’s consider that possibility.

The greatest promotional vehicle for a book is word of mouth. When enough people have read a particular new release, they start talking about it and they tell their friends.  So all of this downloading ought to result in a groundswell of book interest, which might explain my author-friend’s excitement about the free download offer.

If in the highest categories, electronic book sales only represent 22% of the total number of copies sold — let’s be generous and say 1/4 — then those people are going to spread their passion to their friends:

  • one friend will buy the book electronically
  • three friends will buy the book in print

So you have a few books that go out at ridiculously low prices — in North America let’s say $5.99 or $2.99 or $0.00 — that spark the sale of many more both in Nook/Kindle editions and in print.

But it’s not happening. 

I think the reason is that people are downloading books but not finishing them. They’re using the low-priced and free titles to practice seeing what their electronic toys can do. Perhaps they are reading the introduction and the first chapter, and then, having spent nothing on them, they spend no time finishing them.

Now, let me be clear. I think some print prices are too high. I have continually challenged how the U.S. publishing industry, caught in several years of bad economic times — insisted on keeping the practice where first editions were published in hardcover.

Driven by greed, many author’s works which were pending were deleted and the authors released from their contracts in the years from 2008-2010, because the industry decided they would rather get nothing than sacrifice a publishing paradigm that keeps the books priced high.

The print equivalent of a $3.99 or $5.99 download is a $5.99 or $8.99 value edition; and the industry has no reserves about using this format for older titles, but isn’t interested in using similar tactics to introduce new authors and secure a future for their brand.

But in electronic reading, all bets are off. It’s like a new wave of marketers rushed to the head offices of the various publishers and presented an idea that would see people “adding to cart” all manner of titles and create the illusion of a vibrant and active electronic publishing sector.

Just two problems.

The books aren’t getting read.

The books are being devalued in the process.

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