Monday, June 13, 2011

You are not entitled.

It's been a while since I used this blog to say anything especially harsh, but today I saw this article on "Why Selling E-books at 99 Cents Destroys Minds" get some attention today and I wanted to point out that it's kind of, well, awful. And there are so many things wrong with it that I feel like the easiest way to deal with it is one mistake at a time -- a not entirely fair approach, but you can read the whole piece if you want to see the context.

I should start by noting where I agree with the piece's author, Chad Post: 99 cents is a bad price for ebooks, and his own decision to sell his press's ebooks at 4.99 is a good one (I might go slightly higher myself, but it's good for everybody to experiment with different models and see what works best). I don't like 99 cents as a price because I think a good book is worth more, and I think people will be willing to pay it: if I'm willing to put in the time necessary to reading a novel, I should almost certainly be willing to pay at least five dollars. You don't want to miss out on royalties, but the sweet spot where readership and revenue are maximized is probably not at the one-dollar level; sure, the best-sellers on Amazon are often in that range, but how long will it take readers to notice that these books are rarely satisfying, and how many dollar-priced books are failing to find an audience just like all the rest? It seems like bad business, and in the long term, we don't want to establish the norm that ebooks cost a dollar when we could almost certainly ask for more if we have confidence in our product. Post also makes some salient criticisms of the way big publishers have tried to keep ebook prices artificially high.

I'm not sure to what extent Post would agree with me on what I've written in the above paragraph, but there seems to be some overlap between us. Unfortunately, that's where it ends. This is his second paragraph in its entirety:
As much as one might hate e-books (and trust me, I’ve in no way incorporated this part of the digital “revolution” into my reading habits), it’s become impossible to ignore. It may be overstating things a bit, but if your book isn’t available as an e-book, it basically doesn’t exist. This is sad; this is true. For many, publishing e-books is simply a foregone conclusion.
Maybe the kind way to put it is I don't understand any of this paragraph. Why does he hate ebooks? It's not clear. (He explains further in a moment, but it's not very helpful.) Is it true that books not available as ebooks might as well not exist? That certainly hasn't been my experience, but there does seem to be demand for ebooks, which means that people like buying and reading them. Why is this sad? I don't understand: if you're a reader who's not into ebooks, it must be because you don't think they will serve writers and readers, but if people want them, that would seem to suggest they're serving those people. So what's the problem? If ebooks are indeed a foregone conclusion (and I see little evidence that this is true, but it probably will be in the near future) then that seems to suggest that they're successfully helping readers to connect with books they enjoy. That sounds like good news to me.

Post gradually warms up to a discussion of how Kindle books are sold:
But what’s really at the top of the e-book best-seller lists? As of this very moment (10:10 pm on Wednesday, June 8th), here are the top five and their prices: A Little Death in Dixie by Lisa Turner, $0.99; My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler, $1.99; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, $5.00; Summer Secrets by Barbara Freethy, $4.99; and The Help by Kathryn Stockett, $9.99. 
So aside from The Help, which is the 9th bestselling book in paperback, the top five are all $5 or less. And aside from The Help, none of these books are in the top 10 for Literary Fiction paperback sales. So what does this mean?
Well, it means less than we might think. For one thing, the lack of overlap between top 10 lists in paperback sales and top five ebook sales is best explained by the facts that most super-cheap Kindle ebooks don't exist in print, and those that do are not receiving a free marketing push in their printed forms from Amazon. Extreme cheapness in print books is generally seen as a bad thing -- only in ebooks does the idea of a major bargain suggest relatively little about literary quality (after all, there's essentially no overhead with ebooks, so it's only natural that the cost would be pretty low). Basically, Amazon has an incentive to convince us that Kindle books are cheap because the Kindle device is relatively expensive upfront. (It does in fact pay for itself in terms of cheaper books over the long haul, but most readers aren't probably sure how many books they'll want in a year, how often they'll want to replace the device, etc.)

If you've got an ereader -- which Post goes to great pains to make clear he is above -- you probably understand how cheap stuff sells so well. When you get the Kindle, the first thing you do is go to the store and buy one book you've been meaning to read anyway, as well as downloading a bunch of free stuff and maybe trying out one or two super-cheap titles just for the hell of it. Then my guess is you settle in and become the sort of reader you always were, but now with a new tool. Anyway, this is how it's gone for me and all of the people I know who own Kindles (anecdata!).

Post goes on to, predictably, shit all over the tastes of everyone who isn't reading what he thinks they should be:
At BEA, Keith Gessen introduced me to the works of John Locke (probably not the one you’re thinking of), a best-selling Kindle author whose books are all sold for $0.99. He made over a hundred thousand of dollars in royalties last year — far exceeding the wildest dreams of most every mid-list (if John Locke is even midlist) author in the country. Having read the opening of one of his “Donovan Creed” novels, I can assure you that he’s not selling all these books due to his talent. No offense intended, but let’s be real about this — it leads to a much more interesting conundrum.
Ugh. Yes, he is selling the books due to his talent. I haven't read Locke's work, but the mere fact of his selling his books can't be due entirely to the price point: quite a lot of people have had the bright idea of selling their books super-cheap on Amazon, and most of them are not in fact top sellers. Locke is either a talented marketer (like most financially successful artists) or he's talented at giving people what they want (like most financially successful artists). The fact that he writes things that I probably wouldn't like and that Chad Post probably wouldn't like doesn't prove the system is broken unless we begin with the premise that Chad Post's tastes or my tastes are Correct, as if handed down from God on high. And really, what are the odds of that? And in any case, what the hell does this have to do with ebooks? Budget-priced crowd-pleasers have always been the big sellers, and -- by definition! -- they always will be. Blaming ebooks for the tautological fact that popular, low-priced material will tend to be popular is asinine.

Something to think about: Roy Kesey's Pacazo, about which I wrote recently, is the #232,028th best seller among Kindle books on Amazon. It's #464,700 in printed books. Comparing those numbers is difficult and maybe impossible, but I think it's fair to say that the ebook version is helping the novel reach more readers -- and, my educated guess is, making its publishers and author significantly more money at $8.97 per electronic copy than its physical edition with a list price of $22.00 and a deeply discounted Amazon price of $15.40. That seems like good news to me.

Now we're going paragraph by paragraph:
Two of my longstanding issues with e-books are: a) how your brain processes texts read on a screen, and b) e-books make books feel like disposable entertainment. I’m going to leave the first for a separate article and/or book, but I think the second objection is valuable here.
He drops this in here like it means something, but I'm pretty sure he's never going to write that other article or book. It's more useful as a scare tactic -- the idea that reading text on a Kindle, which simulates the experience of a physical page really well, is all that different from reading text on a page, strikes me as... difficult to substantiate. As for his second objection, he follows it with this paragraph:
As announced by Bowker a few weeks back, more than three million books were published last year: 300,000 from “traditional” publishers, and 2.9 million from nontraditional publishing outlets, such as self-publishing.
What... What does this mean, exactly? I mean, what does Post believe that it means? I'm genuinely puzzled. I think this number refers to printed books, for one thing, which, okay, so how does that advance his thesis? Or, if it's electronic books he's talking about, does he have a reason to believe the glut of books will devalue his preferred books, the 300,000 from "traditional" publishers? Are small presses traditional publishers, by this reckoning? Does he mean to imply that the nontraditional publishing outlets and products are somehow inherently inferior to the traditional ones? I'm at a loss, here. 
So, you have an e-reader, you’re bored with TV and all your video games, ain’t feeling the Facebook, and want a book. Why pay $12.99 for “entertainment” when you could buy a John Locke thriller for $0.99? I have no answer to that question. Seriously. And this has always been my problem with e-books: they emphasize immediate entertainment — and gratification — over real “reading,” which takes more commitment, patience, attention and time.
To begin with, if I'm the sort of person who has literally exhausted all of my television and video games, and the Internet before it occurs to me to buy a book, odds are I was never going to be the sort of reader Post clearly values above all others. I probably just don't like books that much to begin with! But that part of this paragraph at least makes some sense. Then it totally loses me again. Why is "entertainment" in quotes? Does Post feel that books are not actually entertaining? Maybe that's why he can't imagine why you would pay 12.99 for one book when I could buy a thriller instead for a dollar. It doesn't occur to him that I might like that other book more. Like most sane people, I don't buy my books by volume. I choose the ones I want and then I buy them if I can justify the price. (That's why the bloated hardback book business Post criticizes earlier in his article was relatively good money for those it benefitted: they found authors who were more entertaining for $25 than other paperback writers were for $15, or $10, or still less. How Post fails to make this connection is rather beyond me.)

And in any case, once again, how do ebooks uniquely devalue reading? The logic that brings readers to buy cheap electronic thrillers is exactly the same logic that has lead them to purchase cheap printed thrillers for decades. Leaving aside the fact that it hardly seems like a problem that most people don't like reading what I like reading, this isn't anything new, and it's certainly nothing special about ebooks.

The last sentence of the paragraph is also puzzling. Apparently, reading the things Post likes reading is real "reading" (although the scare quotes would rather seem to suggest the opposite) because it's so hard and places so little emphasis on gratifying the reader. I'm starting to wonder if Post even "likes" "reading" the things he claims to enjoy "reading." If he does, why does he have so little faith in his product? Why does he assume a 99-cent thriller -- ANY 99-cent thriller -- will always win out?
As someone devoted to literary culture, this scares the crap out of me. Sure, John O’Brien and a few others will claim that this has “always been the case,” that there has always been only 10,000 “serious readers” in the U.S., and that’s the same today as it was 50 years ago, but I don’t know if these people are actually in touch with the world around us. It’s all $0.99 e-books and instant movies and Angry Birds.
Again, I'm at a loss. At this point in the essay, Post seems to move decisively into his own crotchety parallel universe, one where his opinions and evaluations require no evidence whatsoever. He insists nobody is reading anything but 99-cent ebooks in spite of the fact that his own list of top five sellers tells him otherwise, and meanwhile produces no figures to suggest that more people were ever reading The Right Books than are reading them now. For the record, here are the prices of the top ten sellers on Kindle at this moment: .99, 5.00, 1.99, 9.99, 7.70, 2.99, 4.99, 7.14, 12.99, and 12.99. I guess Chad Post is right: no one will ever buy anything but cheap garbage!

Like so many of the self-declared guardians of literature, Post only seems to be happy if he can define reading such that hardly anyone is actually doing it. That makes him more special, and it also makes the relative commercial failures of his press's list seem more noble: 

At the same time, I work for a nonprofit publishing house whose mission is to promote international “pure literature” to as wide an audience as possible. There were fewer than 300 translated works of fiction published in the U.S. last year. And aside from that Swedish crime writer, the other 299 sold way less than 50,000 copies. The reasons for this are diverse and complicated and occasionally xenophobic. But the point is: the 10 authors we publish a year are sort of lucky to have their books available to English readers. And they’re damn good books! Books praised by the New York Times, books that influential tastemakers gravitate towards, books that sell a few thousand copies.
And as a nonprofit, our goal is more focused on readers than sales. We couldn’t survive without donations (and yes, we can always use your support — anything is great, a million dollars is better), in part because we can’t sell enough books to survive without them. We could quit publishing this “pure literature” stuff and go all in on Donovan Creed & Co., or we can continue to raise money with the belief that what we’re doing is important to culture — as long as people read it.
You can see the way Post is at odds with himself here, the fundamental ambivalence: on the one hand, the fact that his favorite books don't sell very well requires him to believe that commercial success is unimportant, or, better yet, proof positive that one's writing is worthless.  John Locke's success proves that he suxxorz. On the other hand, books need readers to do their work, which suggests that he should, you know, try to sell his books. The results of these conflicting impulses manifest in one tremendously meaningless sentence: "And as a nonprofit, our goal is more focused on readers than sales." Do you see the problem here?

You can't have readers without sales.

Post wants it both ways. His favorite books deserve all our readership, but we're such scum that we won't ever read his favorite books, but then again maybe we're so cool (like him!) that we'll not only read the books but donate a lot of money to his press, which will presumably waste the money by failing to find any readers, because all readers are scum, except for that super-cool minority (like him!) that reads his books and sends him money. Doesn't it seem like it would be a lot simpler to write something about how cool his books are and how we should buy them and read them? I thought so too. But that would mean risking failure, which is something most publishers (and writers) simply can't allow. Instead, they have to define the situation such that they're always winning, especially when they lose.

Here's another genuinely meaningless paragraph:
And there are a lot of people who like e-books. And even more who like the $0.99 variety.
This one has the distinction of being literally impossible. There may be a lot of people who like ebooks, but no matter how many there are, there can't be "even more" who like the $0.99 variety. By definition, there are fewer people in the latter category than in the former.

From here Post spends some time explaining why his press decided on the $4.99 price point, which (again) I think was probably the right call. This leads him here:
And in terms of that revenue thing? Here’s a concept: We can’t survive by selling all our books at $4.99 unless someone drops a million-dollar check in the mail right now, or we sell 4 or 5 times the number of copies we typically sell. 
Wait. What? I don't know the details of Post's business model, but let's do some quick math. If you go to his press's catalog, you'll find that all of the featured books are paperbacks in the price range of about $12-$16. Paperback books cost money to produce -- in my experience, mid-range runs like those Open Letter is probably doing will usually end up costing at least 50% per unit of the final sale price: in other words, they're making a profit, when shipping and production and marketing and so on are considered, of maybe a couple dollars per sale. At any rate, they're certainly making less than $12-$16 per unit.

Ebooks, meanwhile, have much lower overhead, as we've discussed: you pay to design them, maybe you pay for a little bit of marketing, and that's it. Production is free. Amazon's royalties to the publisher for a $4.99 book are, unless I'm mistaken, about 70%. Certainly they're better than the percentage the publisher is making on the sale of a paperback book. If they sold four or five ebooks at $4.99, that would be 70% of $20.00 or $25.00 -- so about $14.00 or $17.50. Compare that to the money you make off just one printed paperback, and not only are you better off selling the ebooks, you're very likely tripling or quadrupling your profits. Even if I'm way off on my figures, it just doesn't take four ebook sales to replace one printed book sale for a press like Open Letter. Is it possible Chad Post doesn't like ebooks because he isn't very good at math?

I mean, okay, I don't want to be an asshole about this, there's roughly infinity things I don't know, Chad Post knows some of those things, and it's possible that some subset of the probably very large list of things I don't know that Chad Post does know justifies this bit of his argument, or at least makes it less obviously innumerate than it looks to me. But really, what this looks like to me is another case of the oldest story in publishing:

Grumpy Publisher/Editor/Writer X believes that his tastes are The Best Tastes. Because the world does not beat down his door in order to purchase his merchandise, because they do not provide him with the sales he feels he deserves, he constructs an elaborate alternate reality where the fact that he isn't getting what he wants (universal acclaim) only serves as further proof that he's succeeding, that he's special, that he's smarter than the rest of the world. And maybe he is! In fact, odds are pretty decent his IQ is above average, for whatever that's worth. But meanwhile, he's stuck in that parallel universe, and his entitled whining is kind of tiresome for the rest of us.

I think that really what so many writers, editors and publishers hate about ebooks is this: they lower barriers to entry, they reduce the cost of distribution, the cost of marketing, and the difficulty of connecting with readers. In short, they take away excuses.

I don't think it's a big problem that the whole world doesn't love what Chad Post loves. It's awesome that he can find books that bring him pleasure, and that he can share these books with other people who will enjoy them. But I do have to wonder if he wouldn't be a more effective advocate for his favorite books, if he couldn't market them more successfully, simply by accepting that he isn't so special: that others might like to share with him, just as they enjoy sharing other books of other kinds with other people. John Locke knows that readers love reading, and he knows that many readers love reading what he writes. Does Chad Post know this? Is he too cynical to believe it?

1 comment:

  1. I feel also like some of these arguments come from a weird fantasy about what e-readers can do. A Kindle is not an iPhone. You are always buying a reading experience--not a YouTube. To differentiate between "real" reading and e-reading ignores the fact that reading is difficult brainwork; it is never happening without the reader's involvement and is therefore never passive; whatever the relative intellectual challenge of two different pieces of reading, a reader is always doing work when they're reading. They are never playing PacMan.

    Which, anyway, still requires thinking.