The Amazon/Macmillan blow-up: An e-book lover’s appeal for understanding

Update: Tobias Buckell has linked to this piece, too. Thanks for the follow-up and the kind words, Tobias! And welcome to all the readers who come here from there!

The 'nuclear' option? Over the last few days, the angry Amazon/Macmillan rhetoric has been flying fast and furious from several positions. Recently, we posted an impassioned piece by Ficbot with the attention-grabbing headline, “Maybe we should be hurting the authors,” which was linked in a post on author Tobias Buckell’s blog and has brought us a great deal of traffic today (not to mention the liveliest comment thread we’ve seen in some time).

There seems to be a perceptual disconnect, or maybe several perceptual disconnects, between the authors/publishers on one side and the e-book readers on the other. There are many voices on both sides, both reasonable and less so—and to each side, the loudest voices on the other side become that other side’s entire argument.

And so we have on one side e-book fans absolutely convinced that publishers and authors unjustly hate them (or worse, don’t care at all). And on the other, there are writers who plaintively wonder, “How did the American public get hoodwinked into believing that the suppliers are the bullies rather than the retailers?”—and some who actively belittle the e-book fans.

It’s the kind of misunderstanding that makes it so, so seductive to write a response, because “someone is wrong on the Internet” and you’re just sure that if you make that one more post, say that one more thing, you’ll get through to them somehow. You know beyond any doubt that you’re right, and you’re sure they’d agree too except they’re just misunderstanding you, and you have to make them understand.

I’m halfway afraid that this post is going to be just another iteration of that. But all the same, I’m going to try to unpack some of the issues on the readers’ side and explain why this issue is so incendiary for long-time e-book fans.

One of the biggest misunderstandings is that this is all an overreaction to Macmillan taking “perfectly justified” steps to avoid Amazon monopolizing the e-book market and driving everyone else out of business. That’s part of it, but it’s actually just the smallest part of why most readers are so mad—the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Let Them Eat Cake”

Part of the problem, and perhaps the part that made it blow up fastest, has been some of the rhetoric coming out of the other side.

From Macmillan’s side, with John Sargent’s ads/open letters, it’s a classic case of corp-speak right of the original Cluetrain Manifesto. Sargent addresses his letters to “authors, illustrators, and literary agents.” He says, “Amazon has been a valuable customer for a long time, and it is my great hope that they will continue to be in the very near future.”

E-book fans, dedicated readers, comb through his letters for any reference to themselves—and find none. The letter is not meant for them; it does not mention them. There is no other open letter from Sargent that is meant for them.

Amazon is addressed as Macmillan’s “customer,” rather than a distributor or retailer. Consequently, it becomes a lot easier for e-book fans, the people who feel they should be considered the publisher’s customers, to believe the publisher simply doesn’t give a damn about them.

Then there are some of the authors siding with Macmillan in discussions of the situation. In particular, there is one who is loudest among them: John Scalzi. Now, I greatly admire Scalzi’s writing, and have several of his books. I even like much of his blogging.

But Scalzi has shown a consistent pattern of behavior in his comment threads: when someone brings up concerns from a reader’s perspective that contradict his point of view, he responds with sarcasm rather than any serious attempt at dialogue. Now, granted, some of these people are nothing but rude, but even the polite ones get this treatment.

Neither of these is necessarily something on which to base a rational argument, but emotionally they’re a sure goad. It’s as if they’re smirking, “Let them eat cake.” It’s hard to blame e-book lovers for jumping up on the barricades and yelling, “Viva le revolution!” in response. Nobody likes to be told they don’t matter; it’s infuriating.

But as I said, this is only the straw that broke the camel’s back. In fact, many e-book lovers feel they have been told they don’t matter for more than ten years now.

A Long Time Ago, in an E-Book Store Far, Far Away

E-books have been sold by eReader and Fictionwise—first separately, then as part of the same store, then as part of Barnes & Noble—for over ten years. Over that time, e-book fans have seen a consistent, systematic pattern of missed opportunities and mishandling by publishers who seemed either not to care about or to actively despise e-books.

The books are wrapped up in restrictive DRM. They are often rife with typographical errors—errors which one ex-eReader employee said the e-book companies are not even permitted to correct (or at least weren’t when he worked for eReader), as they are contractually required to publish the book the way it came to them!

Many of the most egregious of these errors never get fixed. Even the Lord of the Rings series had them, and some feel they only bothered to fix those because it was such a popular book. (Trying to get errors fixed but having her requests fall on deaf ears is one of the issues that led to Ficbot’s immense frustration.) “Pirated” e-books are sometimes better-made than “legitimate” ones, because the “pirates” actually care about quality!

Often books in a series are published haphazardly, or not available in particular formats. Their pricing is inconsistent with print editions (more on that in a minute). And in the last year or so, the e-book stores have suddenly started enforcing geographic restrictions on e-book purchases on top of that, leaving many of their former best customers (such as Ficbot, who lives in the UK Canada) fuming.

And this has been going on for as long as these stores have existed.

The Price is Wrong

One of the biggest issues relating to e-books is the issue of price. It’s a thorny issue because it’s actually several issues at once, and even e-book enthusiasts often conflate the issues themselves.

The biggest issue that it is not about, despite some people yelling about it, is the popular slogan, “E-books have zero marginal cost to produce, therefore they should be much cheaper than paper books!”

Many e-book fans do believe this—in fact, it’s one of their great rallying cries against publishers, who they see as The Man who wants to keep them down. It’s probably not as true as most adherents think, but it doesn’t really matter in this argument because most of the people who believe it think even $9.99 is too much to pay for an e-book, so they would have been upset no matter what Macmillan did.

A related matter is the idea that e-books should be cheaper than paper books because you can’t do as much with them. I won’t argue with that idea, but how much cheaper is a matter of debate even among the people who agree in principle.

For some, a $15 e-book might be enough of a discount off of a full-price hardcover to make it worthwhile. Others will point out you can generally get discounted real hardcovers from the same place for the same amount. Again, it doesn’t really matter too much because in the end, those who think it costs too much just won’t buy it. But they sure do like to complain, don’t they?

No, the biggest issue is a matter of trust, and it has to do with Macmillan’s plan to implement variable pricing.

A Matter of Trust

Many people on Macmillan’s side are assuming irate consumers are just mad at suddenly having to pay $15 instead of $10. (It doesn’t help that some of them are mad for that reason, and even those not primarily motivated by it are not exactly pleased about it.)

These Macmillan partisans might point out that hardcovers cost more not because of their inherent hardcoverness—they may seem sturdier, but they don’t cost appreciably more than paperbacks to produce—but because they’re the earliest way to get the book.

“Why, then,” they might ask, “shouldn’t e-books be the same way? Even Baen sells its E-ARCs at $15 for the first three months, after all. Macmillan’s just going to do the same kind of thing with its new-release e-books—and will end up coming down to even less than $9.99 after a while. Is that really such a bad thing?”

On the face of it, the logical answer would be no, indeed that isn’t such a bad thing. $14.99, while not the psychologically tempting $9.99, is still at least five to ten bucks less than a hardcover. If you don’t want it at $14.99, you can just wait until the price drops, just as you’d wait to buy a paperback if shelling out for a hardcover didn’t appeal to you.

But the reason this is likely to send a lot of e-book fans off into incoherent rage is that it doesn’t take into account the history of e-books before Amazon came along.

Publisher Price Control…In Theory

For as long as eReader and Fictionwise have been selling them, even back when eReader called itself Peanut Press, the pricing on e-books has never been consistent at the smaller e-book stores.

The agency model might be new to Amazon, but at least one person holds that Fictionwise has always worked under such a model, where the publishers set the prices of their books. On the other hand, someone who works for Macmillan says they don’t, so I don’t know what to think.

Regardless, I definitely remember hearing in long-gone conversations with store employees that under their arrangement, publishers were supposed to drop the prices on e-books to maintain parity with the least expensive print format. When a hardcover goes to paperback, the price of the e-book should drop accordingly.

But somehow, it quite frequently never ended up happening. I no longer have URLs or exact references to point to—they’re probably still buried in the E-Book Community Mailing List archives if anyone wants to trawl through them for proof—but I seem to remember from the aforementioned conversations a consensus that it was like pulling teeth to get publishers ever to re-adjust their prices.

Invariable Pricing

This hasn’t changed much in ten years. Yesterday, to prove a point, I searched on different price ranges of Macmillan books at Fictionwise. I discovered that only 285 (about 15%) of the 2032 Macmillan titles on Fictionwise are priced at $9.99 or less. 857 (about 40%) are priced at $19.99 and up.

I then surveyed each of the 25 titles on the first page of $19.99+ search results, checking against print editions in on-line bookstores and determined that 7 out of those 25 were available as $7 to $9 mass market paperbacks. (See the link above for specific details.)

If I assume it’s a valid random sample and cross-multiply, 7/25 = 240/857. That would mean 240 of Macmillan’s titles—over 10% of their entire Fictionwise line—would be mispriced—or as I like to put it, “invariably priced”—in relation to their paper versions.

My gut feeling is that’s actually a lowball guess; some of the books on that first search were obviously just-added titles they were trying to push so I suspect there was a higher-than-average number of newer, hardcover books than usual—there’s no way that a publisher is going to keep 30% of its entire back catalog exclusively available in hardcover. And that does not take into account titles priced between $19.99 and paperback range, or ones from other publishers.

There are probably thousands of “invariably" priced books on Fictionwise now. And there always have been.

Conspiracy Theories

Are these mispricings simply a matter of the publishers not caring enough to keep them updated, or because of the bureaucracy required to get each price updated? In at least one case, it has been confirmed that “invariable pricing” is intentional on the part of the publisher: someone from Digital Mac said that $14 is the “correct” price of an e-book of a book that has been out in $7.99 paperback for several years. No explanation available yet.

This “invariable pricing” is perhaps the most bitter pill for e-book fans to swallow. Is it just neglect? Misunderstanding the market? Intentionally sabotaging e-books to protect the print market?  Who knows?

The human mind looks for patterns; that’s why we see shapes in clouds. It’s also why conspiracy theories are so popular. It’s much more satisfying to believe that the publishers are out to get you than it is to believe they’re apathetic or just clueless. But even some published authors believe that publishers want e-books to fail.

And of course, someone not aware of how much of this frustration has built and festered over the last ten years will just assume those people have gone off the deep end.


So in Fictionwise and eReader, you have e-book stores full of $26 e-books of $7 paperbacks. Now suddenly Amazon comes along, and you can suddenly buy $10 e-books of $26 hardcovers. Is it so hard to see why so many e-book fans so passionately embraced it, even with the DRM and restrictive terms and geographical restrictions and typographical errors?

It was because, finally, someone “got” e-books. They knew e-books were “supposed” to be cheaper than paper books. And, perhaps more importantly, they’re selling them cheaply to them.

It didn’t matter that Amazon was selling them below cost, or trying to build up a monopoly, or anything like that. E-books that were “supposed to be” $26 were instead $10. E-books that were “supposed to be” $7—well, I haven’t had time to research to see if they’re $7 or $10, but I suspect that even if they weren’t $7, $10 would still have been a lot better price than the $26 the publishers made Fictionwise charge.

And this is the world that Apple marched into with its agency pricing scheme, and the ominous declaration that, even though the books were going to be $13 to $15, the prices would be “exactly the same as in Amazon”. And then Macmillan made its ultimatum and Amazon pushed the button.

There’s been a lot of noise since then, about price-fixing, monopolies, loss leaders, and so on. Macmillan partisans complained about Macmillan books being pulled from Amazon (except for used copies which didn’t earn them anything). E-book fans complained about Macmillan blackmailing Amazon. Macmillan partisans called e-book fans entitled crybabies, and e-book fans called Macmillan partisans greedy profiteers.

Some e-book fans (including me) have been upset because the agency model amounts to resale price maintenance, a form of price-fixing that is inherently anti-competition and thus anti-consumer. Some Macmillan partisans have responded that Amazon was misusing its size advantage to monopolize the market. The flamewar continues.

But I suspect that all of these issues would largely go away, or at least become largely unimportant to most e-book fans, if it were not for that matter of trust I’ve been talking about.

Trust Busting

The heart of the matter is that Macmillan now claims it, and other publishers, want to implement variable pricing.

Make no mistake: if they could, it would be a great thing. As Baen has shown, $15 isn’t necessarily too much to pay for an e-book if you must have it right now (though given that Baen’s $15 “e-ARCs” won’t have print versions available in libraries or sit-and-read bookstores at the time they’re being sold (they’ll have fallen to $6 by then) and Macmillan’s e-books will, I suspect Macmillan won’t sell as many).

Others can wait until the price comes down, just as they do if they’d rather buy a paperback than a hardcover. By and large, we want to give publishers and authors our money—but a fair amount, not paying through the nose.

The problem is that e-book fans look at the ten-year history of invariable pricing at eReader and Fictionwise and doubt Macmillan can be trusted to do it.

Some of these skeptics believe Macmillan is outright lying and planning to destroy e-books by “discovering” nobody wants to buy them at $15 so there must not be a market after all (that “conspiracy theory” idea again), and others doubt Macmillan’s competence rather than its motives—but either way, it amounts to the same thing. If Macmillan couldn’t get its act together in ten years, why does anybody think it can be trusted to do so now?

Over at Making Light, Bruce Baugh thinks that it can because Amazon is a whole different ball game:

Fictionwise says they move about 16,000 volumes a month. Amazon moves…just a few more than that. It’s worth a publisher’s while to make something routine given the extra volume, and I would be slow to take their behavior with regard to a really niche venture as indicative of how they’d like to deal with the single largest sales point in the whole market.

On Tobias Buckell’s blog, Ed Greaves suggests,

It’s a perceptual disconnect. I’ve read several good blog posts about how that’s the silliest idea in the world, that publishers know that ebooks are the future, and they want to get into them, but that the current miasma is causing nothing but chaos. I believe that.

Still, even if Macmillan does come through with variable pricing, I’m a little worried that maybe Macmillan will implement it for Amazon…but it still won’t be worth the time to do it for Fictionwise and eReader, which will keep on selling those $26 paperbacks until they go out of business altogether. I rather hope not, as that’s where I buy most of my books.


So in the end, we have a great deal of anger and frustration on the side of e-book enthusiasts—perhaps as much from not being understood as from the pricing and other quality issues relating to e-books. As a comment from “Thiago” this morning put it:

I’m amazed at how surprised most authors seem to be by the anger of ebook readers, as if it is something that started from the Macmillan/Amazon feud. The fact is ebook readers are mad at Macmillan (and other publishers) for its general mishandling of ebooks (delays in releasing, gaps in series, the general lack of titles, the “variable” pricing and much more) for quite some time now, time during which they have essentially ignored these consumers. The apparent cluelessness of authors on these issues seems to imply authors themselves were just as ignorant.

And in Ficbot’s case, add “geographic restrictions” and “unresponsive customer service” on top of that. It isn’t any wonder that she and others on Mobileread are turning to the one-star “nuclear option”—they feel they’ve already tried just about everything else, and it is the only way they can think of to get attention. (On the bright side, it is at least less destructive than egging cars or painting graffiti.) Maybe authors don’t have a lot of influence over publishers, but if the stores and publishers are powerless to do anything, who else is left?

I’m not sure what the solution is, if there even is one. This whirlwind is made up of ten years of publisher-sown wind (or perhaps more accurately “hot air”). The Macmillan partisans who seem puzzled by the intensity of readers’ reactions, and especially those who berate or belittle them for having what the readers feel are legitimate concerns, only make things worse.

It would be nice to have a little more understanding on both sides, and attempts to engage and communicate, rather than the ridicule and anger we’ve seen so far. It seems particularly needed on the Macmillan side of things—e-book readers (at least the ones who aren’t extremists) have some valid concerns, and it’s annoying getting pigeonholed as entitlement-ridden cheapskates. (Probably almost as annoying as it is for authors to get pigeonholed as greedy, uncaring misers.)

It would also be good if someone could convince the publishers to update their pricing on Fictionwise and eReader, bring it into line and demonstrate the sort of “variable pricing” they would like to bring to Amazon.

But maybe I shouldn’t expect miracles.

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About Chris Meadows (4149 Articles)
TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.

84 Comments on The Amazon/Macmillan blow-up: An e-book lover’s appeal for understanding

  1. Alan Wallcraft // February 6, 2010 at 1:40 am //

    As another example of Amazon understanding ebooks and its customers, they typically reduce the price of Kindle ebooks to be in line with the paperback even when the publisher keeps the ebook list price high.

    What would help is a statement from the big publishers that variable pricing includes a commitment to never price an ebook higher than the least expensive paper offering.

    The agency approach is going to produce a world of hurt for publishers if they don’t get their act together. Their first test is repricing all their existing ebooks by mid-March. If Macmillan’s ebooks are still priced higher than the paperback by the end of March, many readers are going to have all their doubts about this publisher in particular confirmed.

  2. Yes, as then people can put out the Big Fat Liar Macmillan booklist. :)

  3. The answer, as I see it, is pretty simple — stop buying ebooks. Period. Full stop. It makes no economic sense to pay hardcover prices for an ebook when that product comes saddled with all sorts of restrictions, and the hardcover version does not. The ebook SHOULD be cheaper than the hardcover — much cheaper — because such restrictions make it a less valuable product than the hardcover edition. Publishers don’t seem to understand this, or simply don’t care. The economically rational alternative is to purchase good second-hand copies of the paperback edition. Same content, lower price, and no restrictions.

  4. fradiavolo,

    “stop buying ebooks” is the totally wrong approach. All that does is send the message to everyone that ebooks just don’t work.

    No, buy ebooks. Lots of ’em. BUT. Only from publishers/retailers that “get it”.


  5. I’m not really worried about how Apple, Amazon or Macmillan or anyone else prices books in the future. I don’t have any problem going to Betterworldbooks or Alibris and searching for paper books for less than $5 (and that often includes shipping) that are either hard cover or paperback. My problem is one of disposing the refined trees that reside in my house. The Big Brown truck stops by fairly often to deliver our family the books that some say “nobody reads anymore”. We’ve always purchased our reading material at the “best price” or simply borrowed it at the local public library. But if the “best price” is an e-book, I’ll purchase that version always.

  6. I expect it won’t be long before the comments heat here up, too. Before it does, I will say you’ve done a masterfully diplomatic summary of the issues, history, and the emotions behind the “debate”, Mr Meadows. Kudos.

    Only thing I can add it to point out this particular survey at Mobileread and the percentages for the options:
    (Gives something to think about if this is the breakdown of the early adopter community, no?)

    Well, and to highlight that as the ebook reading hardware (single purpose *and* general purpose) drops in price and gets mainstreamed, ebooks will stop being a market for book lovers and early adopters (ergo, a niche product) and draw in a much younger and even more tech-immersed demographic than the current audiences and thus join the other digital media markets that are exposed to market forces, consumerist pressure, and *government oversight*.
    (Shoes *will* drop.)

    For the past decade ebook tech was a backwater; that day is done. From here on out change is coming fast and furious.

    Think of it as good or bad depending on your leanings, but in such a high visibility environment, cartel-like behavior *will* be challenged, regardless of what the letter of the law may or not say.

    Ebook pricing and distribution is *not* going to be a matter solely for publishers and distributors, authors, agents, and illustrators. It *will* be a matter of (strong) consumer interest.

    The prologue is over; the main narrative begins.

  7. How does “shelf life” (a la The Long Tail) impact a book’s cost? I’m assuming unless a book is a block-buster it will have a rather short shelf life in a brick and mortar store. The storage cost of an e-book is minuscule and can be maintained in a digital store indefinitely. Granted, the sales will be small but as someone who would love to see Allen Drury’s political novels in “print” again, I wish someone would educate publishers and authors on the long tail concept.

  8. You’ve nailed it. If ebook prices really were to drop when the paperback comes out, I’d consider that fair; I’d buy a few ebooks at the higher prices to read them sooner, and most ebooks at the lower prices, just like I do now with hardcovers and paperbacks. (In fact, I’d be more likely to pay $15 for a new ebook than $25 for a hardcover.) But based on what I’ve seen of ebook prices so far, I just don’t see it happening.

  9. Apart from – literally – a dozen or so exceptions I have bought all of my ebooks from Baen. I have of course got a load of free ones too – from Baen, PG etc. etc.

    Totally I have hundreds of ebooks (e.g. a year ago I discovered I’d bought 120 from Baen in 2008 – ).

    I don’t buy from fictionwise because I hate the confusing pricing schemes they offer and my experience of other places is worse – some won’t let me because I’m “foreign” – others charge even more that fictionwise for the same pile of electrons. Almost all of the books are crippled with DRM and the layout is frequently poor.

    I do buy from Baen because they make the process painless and (relatively) cheap – although my recent weakness for eARCs kind of holes that point. Baen seem happy with the model, their authors seem happy (I’ve seen recent comments from Dave Freer, Sarah A Hoyt, Tom Kratmann and Michael Williamson stating their contentment) and their readers are happy. It is in fact a win-win-win situation.

    I flat out do not understand why publishers are unable to replicate the Baen model. They don’t need Fictionwise or Apple or Amazon or anyone else, they can perfectly well sell the books themselves (Harlequin does so it’s not just Baen). This whole agency model thing is bogus and is purely because they have decided they don’t want to talk to their readers which is, to put it bluntly, nucking futs.

  10. From someone who has been buying/reading ebooks since the Peanut Press days:

    Well done, Chris!

  11. Let’s imagine that the publishing focus is currently on sale of print products. They could be wary of e-books as they observe reverses in other industries that have focused on electronic equivalents for previously mechanical features or products. Automotive costs of electronic hardware and software are now nearly as much as purely mechanical components and the downside of brake or acceleration failure is endless. Touch screen voting, electronic finance, and electronic music delivery have all had adverse effects on their parent industries. Is it any wonder that print publishers may have seconds thoughts over electronic delivery? Print publishers may actually be the visionaries.

    Such a perspective may be another of the missing topics in this debate. Why assume that the e-book is viable? Or, if it is, that it is consequential? There are many attributes of screen reading but they don’t necessarily convey to e-books. There is also the challenge, exclusive among electronic communications to the e-book, of outright attempted mimicry of attributes of the print book. Publishers know a bit about this.

  12. Chris, thanks for this post but I’m pretty pessimistic it will achieve any understanding. The sad thing is that readers and book lovers like you and me are really on the same side as the authors.

  13. Excellent post. Thank you.

    I’ve been wondering.

    Why are the NY Times Bestsellers always *less* expensive than other books? And — why are publishers even freaking out about what Amazon was doing in the first place? Borders and Barnes & Noble have been deeply discounting the Bestseller list in *print* for *ages*. Amazon just picked that ball up and started running. Why isn’t there a low-price, introductory period for e-versions of, say, six weeks to get book-buying people to risk the unknowns (not the Sandfords, Pattersons, Graftons, Roberts, etc.); then when it becomes apparent that a new author/title is going to break big, the price could go up to its highest possible point, and remain there while it’s still selling well. *Then* over time it could drop. Given the current state of things, the whole ‘hardcover model’ publishers keep invoking really seems like a huge fib.

    And — I love how the common perception is that at Amazon e-books are ten bucks. Not even the entire NY Times Bestseller list is always pegged at that price; and just do a spot-check of the titles that *aren’t* bestsellers. They run USD 12-16, generally. Yes, many older titles are far less expensive. But not all. At least Amazon is purported to have an automated system that calculates price based on sales and other factors.

    Anyway. Concerns over whether publishers will really drop e-book prices over time are well-placed. Some pretty ancient titles are in the USD 10 range at Amazon, even though the mass-market paperback versions may be USD 6-7. And: *No Way* should the e-book version of a title that’s been out for eight years cost more than the mass-market paperback. Get a book designer involved in e-book formatting and layout, and ‘we’ll talk’. Maybe.

  14. A great recap, Chris (small correction though, I live in Canada not the UK). I agree that $14 and ‘variable pricing’ would be fair IF a) we could actually have faith they would do it and b) if the ridiculous practice of geographical restrictions was resolved and all ebook fans could buy the book at either stage of the price point.

    For me, one of the problems is, I don’t have the space to store every book I might want to read. So if they sabotage ebooks into oblivion, it will mean I will not buy them anymore at all. 10% of the market might not seem like much, but if that 10% is encompassing hundreds of thousands of people, and if those people are avid customers who spend a lot of money, isn’t it worth it to provide them with decent service, especially when their needs (a ‘buy’ button that lets them make a purchase being the first one) are so simple to meet?

    If I didn’t care, I;d be on the darknet. I blog about this because I do care about getting this right, about making sure that people like me can continue to BUY ebooks and authors can continue to profit off of me. But preventing me from buying the book by not making it available, or making it available in a DRMd version three times the price of the cheapest paper option, means nobody profits because I just won’t buy.

  15. 1) In general, the default assumption should be “occasionally someone is _correct_ on the Internet”. 😉 Congratulations on a well-thought-out, rational post.

    2) On the other hand, one of my most treasured mementos of my college newspaper days was a Herblock cartoon showing 3 leprechauns. One was sitting on a toadstool with a smoking Mauser, speaking, one was standing looking up, smoking a pipe, listening, and the third was draped over another toadstool, apparently gut-shot and expired. The gunman says, “There we were calmly discussing peace in Northern Irish politics, and up he comes in favor of it.” (roughly, it was years ago)

    Don’t expect a lot of gratitude for your rationality from the hordes of partisans loudly proclaiming.

    3) On the gripping hand, I’d encourage more people to use my rule of thumb. Where there is no DRM, buy the ebook. Where there is, buy the dead-tree version and when you’re done with it, get your lick into the publisher by dontating it to the local library.

    Jack Tingle

  16. Great summary and commentary. I believe people are so passionate on both sides because nobody wants to see what happened to the music industry happen to publishing. But the only way for that to happen, IMO, is for the publishers to be cool and “get it,” like does.

    People want fair (low-ish) prices, no DRM, no geographic restrictions and open formats so they can “own” their ebooks and read them on a variety of devices.

    But there is a “third way” in this matter — buy from the publishers and authors who “get it” like,,, Go out of your way to support them — and let mainstream publishers and authors know this.

    Support ebook distributors and manufacturers who support open formats without DRM instead of buying into proprietary software formats and DRM.

    Readers need only remember: You folks *have* the money. All the content in the world is useless if no one will pay for it. You are in control if you choose to be.

    I’ve posted on my blog about this:

    It took the industry a long time to embrace non-DRMd, reasonably priced MP3 downloads and by the time it actually happened, the music industry had been Napstered.

    Book people are supposed to be smarter than the average bear. I hope the industry wises up before it is too late.

    Bill Smith

  17. Good post, but my one complaint? Don’t bother looking at MacMillan on Fictionwise. No matter what else they are, they are relatively new to the e-market. Macmillan is making a lot of mistakes. As an author, I support their right to make those mistakes, but I hope they learn the lessons soon, because this unrest is not good for the market, as a whole.

    No, the pricing is not consistent in indie presses, and it shouldn’t be. They’ve had 15 years (in some cases) to learn what readers are comfortable with paying. That comfort level will vary from reader to reader and, for a single reader, from author to author and publisher to publisher. THAT is free market. That is the publisher twiddling until they find a good balance and sticking to it. In some cases, that means the price drops from $7.50 for a novel-length e-book to $6 for the same length. For others, it means raising the price on a short from $.99 to $1.49, where the publisher in question found it sold in higher numbers. Strange but true.

    Is Macmillan less responsive to readers? Possibly, but it’s up to the readers to make themselves heard to change that. Readers are undoubtedly the final customers for the books. Believe me, Amazon (as a distribution channel) isn’t reading them.

    BTW, why do you say e-ARC? Just a nit for me. An ARC is the unfinished copy, the last version before final galley pass, in my experience. Though some e-books are badly presented, it should be an e-BOOK not an e-ARC, when it’s in its final sale condition.

    A couple more quick thoughts here…

    The first is that many conglomerate publishers that are producing print titles first and putting them into e-book seem to produce substandard e-book. This floors me. The cover is made. The book has already been edited. How could someone produce such a lousy e-copy of an existing print book? If it’s OCR scanned from the print, I would say they need a proofing pass to find OCR errors, but I’m being told some of these books aren’t even OCR scanned. They are supposedly made from the same base files the print was. How do you make such sloppy errors?

    The second is one of the fallacies of the reader side. Even you hinted at it. The misconception is that all e-books are secondary products to a primary print edition. Even for NY conglomerates, this is not always the case. Carina Press and Spice Briefs (both from Harlequin) are e-book lines. In indie press, it is more likely to find primarily e-book than a primary print or simultaneous print and e-book setup. Since e-books are quite often a primary product…and sometimes the ONLY product, they are not just piggybacking off the investment in the print book. It takes money to produce an e-book, even in a primary print system (though much less than in a primary e-book system).

    It’s not that authors don’t like readers. Most of us love readers, and I personally love that my books would never run afoul of Amazon’s $9.99 line, by far. You say readers want to pay less for e-books and to have a larger percentage go to the authors. I agree. But that is up to the readers to make happen.

    Complain to the publishers, when you feel e-book prices are too high to help drive them down.

    And, purchase direct from publisher sites (when possible). I know some NY conglomerate author contracts give percentage of cover price, but many authors have a percentage of net contract. What does that mean? If you purchase the e-book at the publisher site (where they aren’t losing 50% or more to a distribution channel), the author makes double the royalties he/she would on the same book, sold at the same price, from a distribution channel…money that would have gone to the distribution channel. If necessary, window shop at the distribution channels and then go back to the publisher sites and buy there. The reason we use distribution sites is that readers want to buy there. If we could sell off the publisher sites and make what we do from distribution, which do you think the publishers and authors would prefer?


  18. The “John Sargent’s ads/open letters” were originally printed in the publishing trade press where only those folks addressed should see it, NOT in the open press where readers should see it, so saying it’s an insult to readers not being included doesn’t really cut it.

    I certainly agree that conglomerate publishing ignore the readers’ feelings and ideas, but, then, they ignore the authors, editors, and other small fish in the food chain so that’s typical business as usual.

    I doubt that will change, and most of what readers are saying will remain so much white noise. The only way to get their attention is through their wallets. If you don’t like what they are doing, don’t buy the books. Even they notice that.

    However, things should improve as far as faster pricing changes, etc., now that the big publishers are finally paying attention to ebooks because of the rise in profit through the Kindle and the entry into the market by Apple.

    A major reason this whole mess with Amazon started is that the big guys have started paying attention and realized that Amazon was controlling the game, not them.

    Now that ebooks are a definite revenue stream, the big publishers may flounder around trying to figure out pricing, distribution, etc., but they will not be able to kill the market, nor will they want to. Money is money.

    As to Scalzi, he has just announced he is running for president of SFWA so his blog and comments are no longer aimed at readers. Those who don’t want to be cannon fodder for his politics should be advised.

    Aspalt, the lower price of paper bestsellers is part of the standard “loss leader” strategy for most booksellers. They figure you’ll buy something else when you buy the latest Dan Brown, plus they want bragging rights to having the lowest price.

    The publishers aren’t happy with this although they get the same price for the book whatever the price it is sold at. In other words, they have the same feelings about both underpriced paper and ebooks, but you’ve not been aware of it because you don’t read the trade press, and few readers follow the paper news as those here follow the ebook news.

  19. Marilynn:

    The “John Sargent’s ads/open letters” were originally printed in the publishing trade press where only those folks addressed should see it, NOT in the open press where readers should see it, so saying it’s an insult to readers not being included doesn’t really cut it.

    Yet, as I said, there were no other communications out of Macmillan aimed at consumers—no attempts to smooth over the waters or clear up misunderstandings. So either way, the consumers are left with the impression that the publisher doesn’t care enough about them even to try to address their concerns.

    I certainly agree that conglomerate publishing ignore the readers’ feelings and ideas, but, then, they ignore the authors, editors, and other small fish in the food chain so that’s typical business as usual.

    I doubt that will change, and most of what readers are saying will remain so much white noise. The only way to get their attention is through their wallets. If you don’t like what they are doing, don’t buy the books. Even they notice that.

    Yeah, I got that impression, and I look forward to a lot of not-buying of e-books at the $15 price point.

    The thing that gets me, as Ficbot has said elsewhere, is that there are a lot of readers who really want to support authors with their money. But the publishers won’t make it available in a form in which they can use it.

    Now that ebooks are a definite revenue stream, the big publishers may flounder around trying to figure out pricing, distribution, etc., but they will not be able to kill the market, nor will they want to. Money is money.

    We can hope, anyway.

  20. Brenna:

    BTW, why do you say e-ARC? Just a nit for me. An ARC is the unfinished copy, the last version before final galley pass, in my experience. Though some e-books are badly presented, it should be an e-BOOK not an e-ARC, when it’s in its final sale condition.

    Because Baen does. Their “electronic Advance Reader Copies” are exactly that: the unfinished copy of the last version before the final galley pass. They’re offered three months in advance of the first printing of the paper book at a $15 premium as a “sneak peek” for those readers who just can’t wait to see what happens.

    For instance, in the last few days Baen released its e-ARC of the next Honor Harrington book, Mission of Honor, and the discussion forums over in the Baen Bar are all abuzz about it.

    For all I think they’re generally a waste of money, I must confess to buying one of them myself. But then, it was by P.C. Hodgell. :)

  21. Okay…so e-ARC is specifically for that type of release. Indies don’t typically do an e-ARC unless we have a reviewer that demands an early copy…and not always then. Even when we do offer one, we typically make sure it’s in good condition and “book like.”


  22. “But that is up to the readers to make happen. ”

    You are not listening. We’ve tried. It isn’t working. We need authors to work together WITH the readers, agents or whomever on this one. Authors need to take MUCH more agency in this than they have been. Start a union or something, I don’t know. But the readers who have tried are getting nowhere on this. Getting someone to take my money should not be this much work.

  23. A bit of an expansion on the BAEN ebook practices:

    In addition to the occassional $15 eARCs, they sell individual titles from their own back catalog at $4 each and monthly bundles of 4 new releases + 3 reissues for $15; these are the “webscriptions” of fame.

    They also sell (quarterly?) bundles from Nightshade Press featuring 5-8 titles at essentially $4 per bundled title and individual Night Shade titles for $6.

    They carry an assortment of books from e-reads typically running $6 each, including (I just noticed) a bunch by Harlan Ellison. (??!!!)
    All DRM free.

    In other words, the Baen model is simple and straightforward: skip the distributor, skip the retailer, price the book at reasonable sub-paperback prices, bundled and unbundled, keep it on sale forever.

    Looking at the composition of their webscription bundles it is easy to see there is *some* competence in how the bundles are structured to ensure buyers get a decent mix of genres and author styles; contrary to circulating misinformation, their catalog isn’t composed solely of “right-wing-libertarian shoot’em ups”. Not even from authors that do play in that arena. They do feature content from all the genres of the field, from adventure and space opera to fantasy and character-based drama, with the occasional caper, romp, and even SF Comedy of Manners. On any given month a webscription will offer a fair value to most buyers regardless of their preferences.

    In other words, they offer their customers a choice of content and pricing and they offer their author’s access to readers who might not otherwise sample their efforts. And, as they point out, they trust their customers not to upload their books to 10,000 of their closest friends on the internet.

    This may not necessarilly work for everybody, but everybody doesn’t get to be King or Patterson, either, and Baen’s being doing it for over ten years now and their operation seems to be growing in scope regularly so it seems to be working well enough for all involved parties.

    As to quality, which is another sticking point with ebook buyers: other than their habit of using straight quotes ( 😉 ), I find nothing really wrong with their ebook releases, which seem to come straight from the final production edit, not some poorly-ocr’ed paperback scan, even for those titles that are 50’s and 60’s classic reissues.

    The only question I have is why the SFBC (or some other book club) doesn’t lift this model straight up. They’re cherry-picking the core of the SF market, after all, and generating a steady stream of repeat bundle buys; I doubt I’m the *only* reader out here who’s bought all the books released in their bundles.

  24. I actually find the whole thing somewhat encouraging, aside from Amazon’s tactic which hurt authors who I want to read. I ONLY read ebooks, and 99% fantasy/science fiction. The problem is of course the biggest publisher of the books I read, has had very inconsistent pricing (as outlined above). For a variety of reasons I don’t use Amazon Kindle format unless I have too, I’ve found that if I navigate the somewhat confusing shoals of Fictionwise sales, I can do better than $9.99 for most ebooks (even the overpriced Macmillan ones).
    While I might end up paying slightly more cash up front, I would appreciate a rational pricing scheme from Macmillan, especially if it applies to locations other than Amazon. If they actually made the same books available to Fictionwise that Amazon carries, I would be very happy, especially if they stopped asking a $25 list price.

    Of course the BEST thing would be if they opened a Baen style direct publisher ebook outlook, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

  25. Thanks for this, Chris; it’s good to see someone laying down the historical roots of this schism from the ebook reader PoV. As I’ve been reading the recent posts here, the comments and links, it’s clear there’s grounds for discontent and distrust of Macmillan. I think that if you tune out the white noise of offense taken and given on either side, there’s a valuable conversation to be had. For what it’s worth, I think there’s points of similarity that might help people see where the other side is coming from. (The one thing I think is misguided in your article, btw, is casting us as Macmillan partisans. Hopefully I can clarify why here.)

    Take the Sargent letter, the fact that it wasn’t addressed to consumers. From the writer’s side, think of what the absence of any communication even remotely comparable from Amazon says to us — especially in context. Even for a writer like myself *not* directly affected by it, having a whole group of friends and colleagues have their books de-listed with no reason given whatsoever (still no official statement a week later, indeed,) is… man, it’s like a shop-keeper hearing that the landlord came in the night to 1/5 of your neighbours on this long commercial strip you all rent outlets on, and evicted them with no reason given as to why. This may sound like overstating it, but the discriminatory closing down of businesses like that is the stuff of dystopian fiction.

    I think for a lot of writers who quickly found out the reason from the Sargent letter, this was sufficient to decide their sympathies. It wasn’t a matter of supporting Macmillan but of rejecting Amazon’s tactics. Think of the scenario a while back with Orwell (talking of dystopia) being recalled from people’s Kindles. Now imagine that it’s a fifth of users who have their entire collections *completely scrubbed* because they’d been accessing via one of five wireless providers — i.e. instead of AT&T you have AT&T, BT&T, CT&T, DT&T and ET&T; Amazon have a trade dispute with ET&T about their deal and decide to put a gun to their head by cutting off any users who connect via them.

    You’d be up in arms, right? And it wouldn’t really matter in the first instance *what* they were arguing about; it’s the tactics that are just plain out of order. Again, imagine no reason given at all by Amazon. ET&T has to contact these users and explain how they’re the victims of Amazon’s action against *them*. Where would your sympathies lie?

    I’m not trying to persuade you to see Amazon as the bad guys here, btw, just to make it clear why authors would default to that before the actual details of the dispute are even factored in.

    Similarly, just as ebook readers have serious past history with Macmillan over Fictionwise, writer response is/was similarly informed by its own experience of *Amazon* behaviour in the past — to wit, the previous “AmazonFail” over LGBT titles. The particular sub-community of (largely) SF/F writers and readers that backlashed against the Macmillan de-listing is largely the same group that was up to their elbows in that mess — and Amazon has never really adequately quelled suspicions. For a lot of writers that left Amazon looking ethically bankrupt in a way that’s worse than just your usual corporate grifting; it left them looking like they were willing to pander to right wing homophobic lobbyists and only happened to get caught out due to their incompetence in doing so. I can understand the ebook reader’s simmering fury at Macmillan over prices. Hopefully, you guys can understand the utter lack of faith I know *I* have in a company that was punting “cure your child of their homosexuality” texts as the *only* thing returned by an inventory-search on “gay”.

    The point is that in the same way ebook readers had their reasons for siding *against* Macmillan (rather than *for* Amazon,) writers and the readers wired into their conversations over the blogosphere had their reasons for siding *against* Amazon (rather than *for* Macmillan.)

  26. Someone has to take into consideration the shoddy quality of most ebooks sold today. Any longtime reader of ebooks has encountered mysteriously changing fonts, strange indenting, variable spacing between words or no spacing between words, random blank pages, charts and tables that aren’t readable, and lots of general typos and misspellings.

    I’m willing to pay more for ebooks but first I’d like to see just one publisher or author express even the slightest interest in the quality of their ebooks sold while they’re raising their prices. To me a digital product that looks like the book’s rough draft was formatted by monkeys isn’t really worth the price of a hardcover.

  27. OK, so writers start looking into that actual details of the dispute between Amazon and Macmillan. Coming fast on the heels of the Apple iPad/iBooks announcement, it’s the catalyst for any who aren’t already thinking in these terms to seriously evaluate the overall situation as regards the power Amazon wields and how ebooks factor into that.

    The de-listing and whitewashing would be alienating in and of themselves if Amazon was only one among many such, but it’s *the* Big Fish with all the others little minnows in comparison. If Amazon chose to allow tag-based censorship of works with “adult” content on principle, rather than in a monumental fuck-up, a graphic-homosexuality tag on my work on the basis of a gay sex scene or two could result in the virtual equivalent of being taken off the shelves of every major bookstore chain. And if they’ll de-list as a way to coerce a publisher, I have *zero* faith in them not doing so under concerted lobbying.

    And now this market dominance as online retailer is being translated into *the media itself*, with the proprietary format of the Kindle and their pricing strategy for ebooks clearly calculated at establishing their platform as *the* platform. On principle, I hate proprietary formats as a 20th century strategy with no place in the new media. Once you have mp3s, minidiscs are a step back. Amazon’s strategy is a step right back to VHS and Betamax, in fact: get your platform to be the only one on which all the content is available and lock the consumer into your business.

    So, yeah, now you have the threat of a monopoly of the media itself with all that goes with it — c.f. Cory Doctorow’s attitude:

    “Either Amazon will succeed in locking people in, at which point it will become a kind of mashup of the worst elements of the Recording Industry Association of America, Microsoft and the mafia, or they’ll fail.”

    The point is that if Amazon corners the market in ebooks it’s equivalent to having only one digital publisher to choose from who sells direct to the consumer. The direct sales is good, but the lack of choice is big time BAD, not least because this would be a publisher without centuries of legal to-and-fro having established any sort of understanding.

    It may sound implausible to an outsider, but the reality is that, as corporate as they are, the BPHs are staffed at the mid-level by people who genuinely care about books and the people who write them. With writer and editor, you’re *not* looking at a relationship comparable to that of musicians and the producers who see them as cash cows. The editor is often the writer’s fiercest champion against corporate interest.

    But I won’t belabour this point; I hope you’ll just take on trust what I think is a fairly commonplace writer PoV: unlike music or comics, television & cinema, with their work-for-hire set-ups, ratings-driven executives and micro-managing Big Name Producers, the book publishing industry is more symbiotic than parasitic. I’ve put two books out with a big publisher, one from an indie and I’m currently involved in an experiment with direct-sales of fiction in digital form, so hopefully that gives you an idea of where I’m coming from — an open rather than closed outlook.

    Again, this isn’t an attempt to persuade people over to “my side.” The point is to make another comparison. Because where a lot of ebook readers seem to have seen the Macmillan de-listing as an underdog sucker-punching a bully, some of us, I reckon, saw Macmillan’s challenge to the Kindle pricing scheme — *even before you look at the agency model itself* — as disarming a guard who was trying to herd us all onto a train bound for a bad, bad place, a city called Monopolis.

  28. Sure, but you are also talking about making the transport routes stronger to six bad, bad places called Oligopolis A-F.

    Taking this angle it is also pretty funny to see people say – no more telling people to buy from Amazon – I’ll suggest Barnes & Noble to them! As opposed to The Book Depository, etc.

  29. Now that’s an awesome, well-reasoned article. Thanks!

  30. Blue Tyson: Short answer: on a lot of the blogs I’ve seen by authors or fans in the SF/F community, people have been pointing to The Book Depository. That’s exactly where the links on my blog now go.

  31. Hal,

    Good. As there you have a direct competitor – and even from a different country.

    Their presence actually has made a difference for us – the prices Amazon charged to actually ship books to us just kept going up on the postage end way past what it should have been. After their entry, they dropped them quite a bit.

    That free shipping is pretty nice while it lasts!

  32. ficbot,

    You’re wrong. I AM listening. My pricing is already balanced with audience. Believe me, I’m as frustrated with Macmillan’s pricing as the rest of you are, and I will NOT pay the $15 they are asking. No way. No how.

    It’s NY that isn’t listening…yet, as you noted, but what have you tried? Not everything at your disposal, I’d wager. It’s not impossible to get their attention, but it may take anything from organizing a letter writing/blog/etc. campaign (which even the indies would help you with) to boycotting them (which I hate to say, since that hurts the authors first and the publisher and their investors second) to making a stink in the press about why the readers won’t purchase from certain companies. Give them bad press. That’s one thing they don’t like to see, guaranteed. That’s often what it takes to make corporations change their tune.


  33. Great article Chris. It’s an extremely thorough, and, I think, cool and unbiased summary of the current state of this debate.

  34. Brenna,

    The Macmillan are Big Fat Liars booklist will definitely exist if they don’t live up to it. :)

    That one is a fairly trivial programming problem.

  35. Brenna, it seems you want me to do all the work here :) Is it really MY job to beg and plead with them and devote who knows how many man-hours just to get them to take my money? Do you not understand how broken a system that is? I have written to authors, I have written to retailers, I have written to publishers, I have blogged, and frankly I feel I have done my bit. To do ‘everything at [my] disposal’ seems to be a grand expectation for you to have for me. In what other industry does the customer have to do all the work? If I am going to put such efforts as you propose into getting a book sold, it may as well be a book *I* have written where I will at least see a material profit from the efforts…

  36. Ficbot,

    Completely agree. I was just talking about this here.

    I can’t think of any other consumer industry where it is this hard to buy something.

    It was suggested in this conversation that could automate the process of writing to publishers when there is an ebook but not sold in that region.

    There’s an opensource program for you. A really simple one. :)

    You could check the version from grovel ‘pretty please mr publisher would you be so kind as to possibly consider this’ through ‘up yours clown, I’m downloading it for free’. :)

    The georestriction thing is much worse for Australia (or NZ) of course, and other places will be worse still, if non-English speaking.

    Eventually it will get to the stage where we just won’t care anymore, and the general population will do what they will do. The retired woman in the street knows how to use limewire for music, the grandfather at the market bittorrent for movies, etc.

  37. @Sandir: If you’ve followed my two comments above, this is the point where that author PoV runs up against the ebook reader PoV. I’m kind of glad this blow-up has happened in some respects, because without the sort of links in this piece I wouldn’t have known just *how* staggeringly low quality we’re talking here (the LotR, Harry Dresden, etc. stuff described by Melina123, for example). All I can do at the moment if give an author PoV on potential reasons for a) the shoddiness and *more importantly* b) the obliviousness, and hope it helps in getting a better sense all round of how the fuck this shit needs to get sorted.

    So: One key problem in this kerfuffle has been that, speaking personally at least, my first point of contact with that ebook reader PoV was *not* the very reasonable concerns that have clearly been a part of the core discourse among the ebook community for a while: shoddy quality; geographic restriction; lending restrictions; over-pricing. It was with a howl of outrage where all of that was shoved to the back in favour of an attack on the agency model in favour of Amazon’s existing scheme — in which ebooks are sold at a loss to leverage Kindle sales.

    I heard an echo of that outrage a while back when the campaign of 1-star reviewing geo-restricted ebooks caught my attention (when it happened to a couple of colleagues). This was, I can tell you for a fact, profoundly counter-productive. It’s the equivalent of slapping a writer in their face because they haven’t managed to sell a translation of their work into your native language. It might serve to inform the writer that there’s one or two, or however many, potential readers for the work in that language if they can persuade a publisher to invest in the translation, but it tells them *louder still* that those readers are hostile; and it’s better to have your work *not* read by a hostile reader than to have one person buy it, hate it because they’re predisposed to, and then propagate that dislike, discouraging other potential readers.

    Sorry, Ficbot, Blue Tyson, I can imagine how frustrating it is. But trust me on this; this “last resort” achieves the *exact opposite* of its intent. I understand where it’s coming from but only *despite* the action, not because of it. I’ll state openly and categorically that hearing about this tactic before the Amazon/Macmillan kerfuffle actively *created* a bad impression of ebook readers by presenting them as exactly the type of reader you *don’t* want — ignorant and ill-willed. It deeply undermined any impulse to subject myself to their vitriol, and pushed me more towards a dismissal of the core issue than an engagement with it. So it *sabotaged* its own goals. As for the actual problem itself and how to actually *deal* with it… I’m well up for talking about it, but I’ll pick it up in another comment. The key point here is how this primed me — I can’t speak for other writers on this — to see the “other side” in this as rampant eedjits. And then the slap on the face was followed up by… well, pissing on the value of writing itself.

  38. From an author’s PoV — or at least this author’s PoV — that conflict of positions (the agency model versus fixed price) immediately parses to a conflict of positions in terms of how you value a work: by quality or quantity. As I’ve said on another thread here, for me the agency model reflects a valuation structure based on actual quality of service, with people paying more to get something fresh, paying less to get old news. The fixed price, in contrast, reflects a valuation structure based on… units of extruded product. Leaving aside the fact that it’s selling at a loss (message to author: “we were forced to pay X for your work but we say it’s worth less”,) and that this is being done to leverage sales of another product entirely (message to author: “we don’t care about your fiction other than as a means to sell our gadget,”) this pushes a “mercenary capitalist bastard” button with the writer like the one pushed by Macmillan with ebook readers… only our response might be even more seething. Cause where you see Macmillan treating you as marks to be fleeced, we see Amazon treating us as hacks to be *used* to fleece marks.

    Part of the anger at Macmillan seems to be a signal of people *getting* this, right? Cause those year-old ebooks *should* have been lowered in price as time went on; you should be able to hang on for a better deal and not be *left hanging* cause Macmillan don’t give a fuck about your custom[**]. Part of the anger at Amazon, from a writer’s PoV, is precisely about the corporate contempt for writers, readers and the work that binds them, the way it views the whole kaboodle as simply a racket to make a dime off. A ton of shit or a ton of gold, it’s all the same $9.99 a ton to them.

    Now when you get readers who really seem to be buying into that lock, stock and barrel, who express their desire for it as a demanding harague, and who’ve already cast themselves in that light with a similarly demanding harangue strategy in respect of geographic restrictions, with those 1-star reviews and all, you’ve got a perfect storm. What the writer sees is… like that customer in the restaurant who goes ballistic at the waiter. You don’t know what’s upset them because they’ve gone on a wild rant about *everything* that’s wrong with the restaurant, so fundamentally incensed about the consistently shoddy service throughout all the years they’ve been coming that you can’t understand why they *ever* come here. You might try and figure out their beef, but they’re taking their anger out so viciously on the waiter that you’re too busy thinking they’re an arse. As they insult the service, the manager and most of all the *waiter* — who you know to be a 100% good guy who throws himself into the work and doesn’t deserve this abuse — you get angry yourself. Because you’re the chef and that waitor is part of your team.

    This is where the creative temperament of some writers kicks in. You got your arrogant toss-pots and bugfuck neurotics, don’t get me wrong, the egoists who would ride rough-shod over that waiter themselves, but the bolshie motherfuckers who cannot fucking stand to see someone being picked on when they don’t deserve it… they’ll bring all guns to bear. They’re the chef that will come out of the kitchen, slam a cleaver into the table, and throw that customer out on their ear. And if a big part of the customer’s fury is that steak tartare should *always* cost less than a Macdonalds, because it costs *nothing* to cook… well, that’s when the “fuck you, ya fuckin fuck!” response kicks in. It’s not the “cheapskate” part of “entitlement-ridden cheapskates” that pushes that button. It’s that while fiction *is* a service rather than a product, the “I pay you, so you serve me” becomes a strident “I pay you, so you are my bitch” — a demand for a type of service far beyond the implicit contract — at the exact same time as the *core* service (quality & novelty in writing or cooking) is implicitly dismissed as *not what’s being paid for.* Saying something is bad and unoriginal is often less offensive than when you basically say, “I don’t give a fuck if it’s good or bad, original or unoriginal; but when I order my shit sandwich or my steak tartare on paper plates, you chiselling fuck, anything over $10 is a fucking outrage considering all the money you save on washing crockery!”

    Lesson One in How Not To Communicate A Problem To An Artist is pretty much “Don’t insult the craft itself.”

  39. A footnote I forgot on the last comment:

    [**] I hear you on Macmillan’s past history with Fictionwise, but this is about the paradigm, not the practice, specifically how it affected the author PoV. Things to bear in mind: the confusion over how Fictionwise and Macmillan do business. The Fictionwise deal with Macmillan was *not* on an agency model; as I understand, that whole model was Apple’s innovation, didn’t exist to be implemented. The idea that it *was* seems to be a misunderstanding of the traditional wholesale model implicit in Fictionwise’s Publisher Info. (It’s there in black and white on their web site.) The way this works? Macmillan sets the list price that a book “should” sell for *theoretically*, but Fictionwise has ultimate control of its *actual* retail price. *However* even if this is so, Fictionwise presumably wasn’t going to slash its prices and sell at a loss when the sliding scale you’d expect at Macmillan’s end — the list price dropping over time as with dead tree books — *wasn’t* being implemented for ebooks. So does it really make a difference? It might indicate that Macmillan were more moronic than mercenary, chucking out ebooks here and there as an afterthought without any real attempt to create a working system, basically abandoning them to the winds. It might indicate that with the agency model now in place they can’t shirk their responsibility for the price now, which gives you way more leverage if they don’t deliver. You might consider that to be cutting them way more slack than they deserve though.

  40. I appreciate your thoughtful response, Hal. I think part of my problem in the past has been that people like Scalzi or whomever give your side just as bad an impression as to US us our haranguers (the $5 or I go to the darknet crowd, of which I am not a part) seem to have given you. How am I supposed to feel, as a reader, when I email an author to say ‘I would like to read your book but it is not for sale to me’ only to have them say ‘yeah, not really my problem’ or worse ignore me completely? How am I supposed to feel when I email the retailer with the same question, and when they respond that it is not their problem either, I ask them to tell me who I can contact to address this and they ignore my message? How am I supposed to feel when this new MacMillan announcement asks me to accept on faith that they will value my business in the future when they don’t seem to be valuing it now? Or when a publishing house editor identifies something like piracy as the reason people aren’t buying books when, for a large segment of the customer base, the problem is simply that they won’t make the book available?

    I have blogged about this—here and elsewhere—and the rare time someone ‘in the industry’ has participated in the dialogue, all I have gotten is explanations for why it is the way it is. Never has ANYBODY offered a timeline for how it might be fixed, or contact information for who we might write to in order to speed things along. It really does start to feel like one is just beating one’s head against the wall going ‘why don’t you want me?’ It truly boggles the mind.

    So now, authors ARE responding. Yay. Too bad many of them seem to be responding by berating readers like they are the enemy just because they want a sensible commerce system where they can actually BUY the books! I think most devoted readers will agree that is is fair to expect them to pay for it, but we do get angry when we are asked to pay hardback prices for books we can find in paper for $5 or when we are asked to spend hardback prices on a book crippled by DRMM etc etc etc

    I just think it is time for all of us to work together on this because it feels like ALL of us have tried to work on it from our own ‘camps’ and nobody is getting anywhere…

  41. Ficbot: A quick question before I try and address the geographic restriction from an author perspective: from my reading on this, the geographic restriction seems to have kicked in rather than been there from the offset; is that right? Or was it there from the get-go, but with more systems coming into place more recently? A lot of the discontent I’ve come across in trawling the interwebs seems to date from just last year.

  42. Hal,

    Some of that is wrong, though. Because the books in question are in English. Both our native languages, presumably.

    It isn’t that those readers are hostile to the author. They are hostile to the publisher. They WANT to get the book. So if they think they will like it, quite a bunch of them will like it, and write that they do. People generally aren’t buying ebooks as gifts, buying something they don’t like to give to someone else. The business practices of those you sign contracts with will affect you, that is unavoidable. So in actuality the author is losing sales and further, losing readers, maybe for good. The case of a high-profile pop politics book is going to be a little different to the latest SF novel, certainly, and the percentage of people that are less keen getting that will be higher. Generally speaking you’ll see ‘it sucks I can’t buy this, publisher’ as opposed to ‘this author is a greedy pig and the book is terrible’, because it is the former that is the point.

    What percentage of the garden variety author has a separate Australian deal, for example – or garden variety SF/Fantasy author?

    Even it appears when they may have sold Aus/NZ rights, too – and the writer is popular enough to have a US edition and a UK (Aus/NZ bundled here some of the time) edition – they still won’t sell here. The ONLY place that still sells a few to us of the new books is Amazon, it appears.

    Or, it seems to the average person that the combination of author, agent (if they know they exist) and publisher are just basically incompetent as far as this goes.

    Speaking of mercenary capitalist bastards, though, I don’t have any problem with a consistent variable price. My opinion is trying to sell ebooks at $27.00 is stupid for fiction, though. Kobo the retailer agrees, it appears, if you look at their blog.
    So if they do it and get it wrong, they will bankrupt themselves and problem may be solved that way. Losing the Murdochs et al. might be good for publishing in the long run.

    However, they also don’t appear to have tried the ‘sell it early and sell it for lots’ e-Arc manoeuvre. There are zero fiction writers I’d pay $27.00 to get as an ebook. There are a tiny number at $15.00, and it grows below that, just as one person. Would I pay $27 to get one three months early? Possibly.

    I’ve said before that all multibillion dollar media conglomerates are bad, which you may have guessed from the above. So are huge retailers, same thing as mentioned above.

    Authors getting upset is good from the actually noticing the issue point of view – and people realised that while being ignored elsewhere this would gain attention. You can certainly blame some of this on the crappy customer service of the publishers.

    Any author is free to call me a cheapskate if they like. However, the response is certainly definitely likely to be ‘fuck you you fucking ignorant fuck’ as being Australian books here cost double or triple depending, and have done all my life. I have bought thousands. I have gotten rid of thousands of others. So we have all paid lots of extra money to Northern Hemisphere media capitalist bastards for a long time.

    If you are talking about the reader’s POV: Remember that less than a year ago your publishers would sell books to everyone. Take the reverse situation, I imagine authors would be pretty upset if retailers just stopped selling their books also for corporate reasons. Oh wait – did something like that just happen? :)

    So, Lesson one for writers:

    As general advice: ranting and railing in public against those who want to give you money is not a great marketing strategy. There are many, many times the people watching than those that are interested enough to talk about it. Attack one is a proxy attack on the rest.

    Someone used some interesting terminology about this (forget who) – that’s how you turn evangelists into terrorists. As in, ‘I really like her books, you can get them here’. To, ‘yeah, a good writer, but a bugfuck neurotic abusive scumsucker who hates us’ so here’s where you get them for free, and I’ll help you to if you want, if you are still going to bother. Or even borrowing ’em from the library and scanning and uploading.

    If to the person you are ‘just another writer’, they’ll give you the arse completely without a second thought.

    Losing the occasional 2 book a year reader for good maybe not a big deal. Losing bunches that buy in the triple figures? That will add up pretty fast.

    Or as you say, book buying bolshies who don’t like seeing people picked on exist on the other side, too. Lose enough of the paying variety, and you are toast. There are many, many more of these people than there are authors, obviously.

    (If you are Stephen King you can run around painted blue screaming and playing the Cheapskate Blues on recorder with a carrot up your bum and still do fine, of course.)

  43. Hal: On georestrictions –

    It was instituted wholesale circa mid-2009, as a rule of thumb, started a bit earlier than that.

    So the literal situation I had was bought one book in a series, the next came out, suddenly could not. In more than one case.

    You’ll find similar sorts of discussions about Australians and tv, Australians and music, Australians and movies, etc.

  44. Hal: As Tyson says, last year or thereabouts is when it happened. My guess is that the Kindle’s runaway popularity caused publishers to look at the sales figures and go, “Wait a minute. They’re selling these to people in countries we aren’t licensed for. We could get sued for letting that happen.” Boom: geographic restrictions.

    As I posted over on Tobias’s blog, the root cause is the whole “point of sale” double-standard. This is of course very frustrating for Ficbot and Tyson, who don’t have as many (or any?) e-book stores in their native countries as we do, but those countries at least have English as a native language. To prove the utter absurdity of this I’m going to use an extreme example.

    If some English-speaking expatriate in Afghanistan or Vietnam or some other country where English is a minority wants to order a paper book from, they’ll be happy to ship it to him, no problem. The “point of sale” is Amazon’s warehouse, and so they’ve sold that book “in the USA” even though they’re shipping it overseas.

    But if he wants to order an e-book, he’s usually out of luck, because the “point of sale” is considered to be his computer in that foreign country. Thus, by selling to him, Amazon or whoever would be selling that book in that foreign country, and the publisher of that edition doesn’t have sale rights for that country.

    It’s all very well to say that these people should order from e-book companies within their own country—but you’ve already seen Ficbot’s and Tyson’s problems with that coming from countries where English is the native tongue. There’s no way any publisher in a non-English-speaking country is even going to be interested in licensing English language books, let alone find a local e-book vendor to carry them. I’d say it’s a “catch 22,” but the expatriate probably can’t buy that e-book either. :)

    This is a pure relic of the print publishing days, when no publisher had the size or facilities to serve the entire world so you had to license nation by nation in order to be able to fully exploit your work. But it’s really getting in the way of adoption of e-books, and there’s no reason except inertia that national licensing should should apply to a product that can be delivered in a heartbeat anywhere the Intertubes go.

    Damned if I know how to fix it, though.

  45. There’s actually one that just started here,

    Some reasonable prices, does have some mainstream books.

    Also has a bunch of audiobooks that seemed to be good prices.

    Selection is small so far, but think they are adding. Also some books only Adobe PDF, which is rather yuck.

    Last time I looked, no Alastair Reynolds, but they do now! Also some epub.

    Might be a good article for you, Chris, talking to them and some of the issues.

  46. Interesting.

    I got Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds for $11.99 at Amazon late last year.

    Now says ‘Digital List Price’ $26.40 and Amazon selling for $16.40 a couple of months later.

    readwithoutpaper has it for 23.40 in real money.

    So is that new Hachette pricing, Amazon’s doing, a mistake earlier, or what?

  47. Good summary Chris.
    One method of ‘fixing’ geo-restrictions is to sell worldwide rights (print and e) to a single publisher (e.g. Julie E. Czerneda), but that would require ‘lost’ non-US(/UK etc) ebook sales royalties to be more important to authors than the lower international rights sales.

    PS this is the first place I’ve seen a ‘subscribe to email without commenting’ option, I approve!

  48. Because the books in question are in English. Both our native languages, presumably.

    Bollocks it is. My native language is Scots.

    But seriously, the point isn’t about language but about rights. With translation the normal problem is rights not being sold. If a Russian reader slaps me in the face for my book not being available in Russian, they’re not a reader I want; we’re not simpatico. If Russian fandom starts a campaign to do it, that’s a whole readership I don’t want. Sure, I want to make sales and eat, but I want to leave them satisfied with what I’ve given them; and if that’s just not gonna happen… sod it. If I don’t think you’ll care for the puppy, I don’t want to sell you the puppy.

    But that’s the *normal* problem with translations — a publisher not buying the rights. The same holds true with the rights not being exercised. The reality is that Russian rights to my first novel were bought way back, but the translation never materialised. I can’t make them use those rights, any more than I could push a studio into greenlighting a movie adaptation they’d optioned. That’s where it becomes directly comparable to ebooks, because largely it’s a matter of publishers not exercising rights.

    What can be done to make them, why they’ve been so lousy at it and how geographic restriction factors in, how far authors want to be taking over… I’ll throw some more thoughts in presently in a separate comment rather than get bogged down in it here. I’m not trying to address how it should be and how to get there yet. I’m trying to address how it is.

    Part of that I’ll reiterate because it’s about as factual as can be. The 1-star review *is* hostile to the author. It may be a hostile act with strategic aims but a strategic vote is still a vote. A strategic slap in the face is still a strategic slap in the face. Denying this is kind of like saying, “No, my action does not make you sad; it makes your publishers sad,” when I’ve just told you it makes me sad. Similarly…

    Authors getting upset is good from the actually noticing the issue point of view – and people realised that while being ignored elsewhere this would gain attention.

    Again, this is *actual feedback* for your campaign. I’m not theorising effects; I’m reporting them. The response that campaign engendered was dismissal, for me and for others. I’ll guarantee that for many authors now that term “geographic restriction” acts as a warning signal that they’re dealing with an unreasonable crank. It will go in a little box along with “the problem with immigration” or “political correctness run rampant” or whatever other such phrases set off, at best, someone’s “nod and smile” response. Most will just shake their heads at how some nutjobs on the internet can’t get their heads around basic realities of copyright. If you want to stick to your faith, fair enough; the reality is my “actually noticing the issue” comes from engaging with the Macmillan de-listing, looking at the gulf between the attitudes on either side of the fence, and being congenitally incapable of not wanting to take this sort of dichotomy apart and figure out the what, how and why of it.

    As above. Saying, “but this makes authors pay attention,” to an author who’s just told you it made him (and others) *not* pay attention is a mistake heading in the same direction as the strategy itself.

    Anyway, I’ll come back to this in a bit, as I say, to try and get into the nitty gritty of the core issues. Later.

  49. Oh, and thanks for confirming what I thought with georestrictions.

  50. Hal:

    I expect the Gaelic translation right smartly, then.

    Completely obvious they will be sad, of course. And sure, they can nod and smile.

    And feedback? I’ll tell you what the average Australian’s reaction will be, from long experience which such when confronted with patronising Northern Hemisphere media types : “Fine, stupid yanks/poms who don’t want money. May as well download the stuff seeing we can get it. They’ve been ripping us off for years, anyway.” So the ‘cranks’ come in numbers that have quite a few zeros after them.

    People with that opinion who complain about how tough it is to be an author will also just provoke chortling in response. (Or good, you deserve it! from some).

    That’s the other basic reality of copyright. Copying gets easier every year. So if the above feel like painting bullseyes on themselves, good luck. 😉

    The Australian Federal government will also be quite pleased at this saving the taxpayers lots of money without them having to lift a finger, given the recent publishing lobby efforts to retain high prices.

    Take a longer term view, and handwaving numbers. Let’s believe John Sargent of Macmilland and the book market can’t really actually grow. If ebook purchasing becomes 25% or 50% of the market? Then all the outside the country sales that would have been made are gone if this is still broken? Who fancies a 10% permanent sales loss, or 15% etc? Them’s company killing numbers, Tex? That’ll be fun having all those books tied up in bankruptcy deals and unbuyable by anyone. Borders would definitely be dead and Amazon and Barnes & Noble will have plenty of fun sticking the knife (and some hobnailed boots) in. Note, speaking of Scots I believe this last part is also One Mr. C. Stross’ opinion, too. Also an author, and smarter than either you or I as far as this sort of thing goes most likely.

    If the head nodder attitude helps oligopoly death along, fine by me. In fact, the rest of the world will be thanking them. Of course, it also might help oligopoly to duopoly or monopoly, too. Be lots of handwringing and bawling then, speaking of sad.

    More money to Night Shade, Baen, or places like Book View Cafe sounds good to me, and also a possible renaissance of smaller outfits, or authors selling direct. Dunno if any of the latter are stupid enough not to sell to everybody, but I’d hope not.

    Also of course possible that the market grows thanks to ease of access and in-country ebook purchasing makes up that difference and more. This happens and no change in business practices, the Australian government will still be happy for the same reasons.

    Place your bets.

    Nice spare bankroll building up thanks to non-purchasing of books, too! :)

  51. As an e-book publisher who sometimes sells print books, I’d suggest going to e-publisher sites to buy books. E-book based publishers like Loose Id will always have their e-books cheaper or, at most, the same price as print. That’s because selling e-books is our primary goal. It has been pretty interesting so far seeing how publishers who put print first have been getting it wrong for e-books.

    I have different problems than Macmillan over distributors. Newer distributors or those who have changed management are getting it wrong for e-books—sending paper instead of electronic forms to show payment and giving poor customer service to handle errors. They seem focused on print methods of doing business, too. But that’s a different issue.

  52. ficbot,

    I’m not a Macmillan author. There is nothing more I can do than you can about Macmillan. But, like you, I’m doing it.

    MY system is already fixed. MY system has had a decade or more to get its act in gear. You want me to fix someone else’s system, and I’ve said myself the entire thing is broken. I can’t do that. To Macmillan, I am just another reader, though one that knows how the industry works. I’ve told Macmillan and Amazon both how wrong they are, all over the web. Sometimes that works. Amazon, ironically, is more likely to change its ways, when they are screwing up than a NY conglomerate is.

    Here is the first thing to learn. Authors have very little power in this system. They can scream and scream at the publisher and only lose the next contract with the publisher in the bargain for being a pain in the backside to them. Pricing is in the publisher’s side of the contract, and the publishers love to point that out. To make any headway, you MUST take the publisher to task, not the authors.

    You may THINK you do all the work, but what you don’t see are the authors (especially the ones in indie, the ones who have nothing to lose by taking on the big boys, since they do NOT affect our contracts) trying to help you. But, you’d rather fight me than take advice.

    Good luck getting anyone to listen to you that way.


  53. Blue Tyson,

    I like your style. Be careful about TELLING them you’re downloading the books for free, but beyond that, telling them you’d rather pirate than pay their ransom makes me smile.

    I’d also point out publishers (even if they are indies) that have pricing more to your tastes to show them how it CAN work.

    It might work better to use one voice to suggest $15 while the book is hard bound only and drop to $5-7 when it goes to mass market…starting with the ones they haven’t dropped yet. Honestly, put one person on all of their listings for a week per site or less, and they can all be fixed, and it would be an indication to the readers that they will price more realistically, in the future. It’s just one more step to add to the mass market release date…lower the e-book prices at all distribution channels.


  54. @hal your and other authors repeated speculations that Amazon wants to achieve a monopoly on ebooks doesn’t actually have any basis. DRM has been used in every single digital content market, from books to movies to music to video games, since these markets started. It’s at the insistence of publishers. And many device makers have also used this incompatibility to their advantage. That we have to listen to Cory Doctorow endlessly spin out Kindle nightmare scenarios when Apple, Sony, Google, Microsoft and others have all similarly introduced their own DRM systems and occasionally made bone-headed anti-consumer rights choices boggles the mind.

    I’ll also note that Amazon faces all manner of powerful competition for ebooks from the likes of B&N, Google, Sony, Apple and others. There is little chance anyone is going achieve a monopoly. And that’s especially because of the structure of the market. There are many powerful retailers and books are not a commodity. Each publisher has signed an exclusive deal with its most popular authors. If I don’t like what Amazon is doing, I can buy ebooks and ebook readers from others. If I don’t like what Scholastic has done (or not done) with a Harry Potter ebook, I can…do nothing. (yes, there may be a deterrent to switching devices because of the incompatible DRMs, but I can switch. There is no way for me to legally read Harry Potter as an ebook).

    On the other hand, there is substantial evidence in the real world that Macmillan and the other big publishers at the very least want a major hike in ebook prices with no corresponding increase in value (ie by removing the DRM as was done with music) and at worst would like to quash the growth of the market. Sony’s original ebook store sold for at or above hardcover list prices. Publisher-financed iPhone app developer Scrollmotion tried to sell ebooks at hardcover list price (with a big promotional boost from Apple). On almost all ebook platforms other than Amazon popular backlist titles commonly sell for more than paperback prices, often double — not just at Fictionwise. And publishers have constantly griped in public about the $9.99 price devaluing books and hurting hardcover sales. Finally, in very similar pricing dispute over music, publishers call for “flexible” pricing resulted in massive price hike and virtually no price reductions. Can you not see the obvious parallel between music labels saying they wanted price points of 1.29/99/69 and Macmillan’s 14.99/12.99/5.99?

    Go over and read publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin’s blog, where he writes that — of course — big publishers want to slow ebook growth because it threatens their current revenue streams and physical world retailer sellers.

    You’ve now called people here nutjobs and posted about 10 comments on this thread. Isn’t it time to move on?

  55. Brenna,

    Right. I am just pointing out what Australians will do, en masse, when ignored. We have better internet access than NZ and South Africa, certainly, so are ahead on that front. Not compared to lots of Europe and Asia though – and lots more people there! :) One thing about books though, the old dialup modem is plenty for getting a few of those here or there.

    I do buy stuff at Fictionwise from such independent publishers. It is mostly all we can buy now, but I still did before. Many of them, in fact. Wildside, Apex, Renaissance, and more. From authors selling their own short stories, too.

    Amazon is not so great for that with the $2.00 surcharge we have to pay, though. Better to get them directly then in most cases.

    Also, personally, (as opposed to behaviour of the general public no one will sell to), I get people emailing me all the time where to find stuff. Or asking on blogs, etc. It is also easy to give different replies in those cases.

    It is certainly would be less work for me to say ‘google bittorrent title’ or even better, ‘irc’ (only 3 characters to type. ;-)) than to explain where you can buy the bloody things, after finding out which country they live in, etc.

  56. Aaaron,

    It is also somewhat amusing to hear complaining about monopolies – and refusing to compete. Six multibillion companies with retail outlets that could have good prices with no 30% or 50% to pay anyone might just sell a few books, and no need to lock anyone in to any one device, either.

  57. Don’t worry, Blue Tyson. Though some of these blogs talk a good game, they have only sporadic support of or notice from readers and (especially) industry members. Ask on author lists and you’ll find more people don’t bother to read them than do.


  58. If there’s anything frustrating on the author/publisher side, it’s the faulty arguments that cheap ebook price proponents use. You start off this article complaining that Macmillan doesn’t view readers as customers because it refers to Amazon as its customer. Putting aside the fact that readers have never been publishers’ customers (they’re not retailers), the pricing structure Macmillan is proposing in fact gives them direct access to consumer pricing—they set the price of their books, not the retailer.

    Then simplistic notions of supply and demand are trotted out. “If it’s cheaper, they’ll sell more.” That’s true in theory, not demonstrable in practice–yet. But rather than let Macmillan experiment in pricing—like every other industry does–ebook readers scream price-fixing. It’s not. It’s called finding the price-point for the market. Just because a particular ebook consumer doesn’t like that price, doesn’t mean it isn’t a reasonable price for the broader market. That’s how ALL prices set in the marketplace. If the broader market doesn’t buy at the price Macmillan expects, Macmillan—because it is a business that needs to cover costs and, yes, make a profit–has two recourses: drop the price as much as it can while still covering costs or leave the market because it can’t remain solvent at the apparent price-point the market wants.

    If you don’t value something at the price offered, don’t buy it. Wanting it cheaper doesn’t mean you get it cheaper.

    What’s the cost of manufacture of an ereader? What about software? What about the computer you’re reading this on? What are PROFITS being made on those components of the ebook experience? Last I looked, computer companies, software companies and Amazon are making a hell of lot more profit than book publishers. Where’s the outrage about that?

  59. Hal: Funny thing: in 2008, after consumers barraged Spore‘s Amazon listing with one-star reviews because of its draconian DRM, Electronic Arts actually loosened some of the DRM (and also made it available via Steam without that particular kind of DRM). So the one-star campaign doesn’t always backfire.

    Of course, 18 months later Spore still only has 1.5 stars on So either it wasn’t enough, or most of the people who left negative reviews forgot to come back and update them if EA’s changes were sufficient. If the latter, Macmillan and its authors should probably be worried, because it’s likely that people who leave these 1-star reviews in anger will permanently affect their books’ ratings.

    I don’t know how I feel about the one-star tactic. I can certainly see the point of view of its advocates—especially people such as Ficbot who are not just ticked at the raise in price but, as I made the point above, thoroughly fed up with a market seemingly bent on ignoring the needs of its customers.

    In a way, the one-star review could be considered a form of “slacktivism”—something people can do to make them feel like they’ve done something without actually really having to do anything. But unlike signing an e-petition or participating in a “buy nothing day,” the one-star review has an effect out of all proportion to its difficulty simply because the results are automatically aggregated and made visible for all to see. The degree of visibility is completely out of proportion to the amount of effort it takes, and for that reason it’s a very tempting protest action. Picketing on the shoulder of the information superhighway, if you will.

    I suppose we won’t know how effective it is until it happens. But I can tell you right off that reactions such as the one you mentioned above will only make a lot of the people doing it even happier. Schadenfreude is a powerful motivator.

    And as Tyson said, people will go to peer-to-peer to find what they want if authors and publishers don’t (seem to) want to sell it to them. In fact, if the history of Napster (and in particular, Metallica’s reaction) teaches us anything, they’ll do so not just to get what they want, but out of a sense of moral outrage that makes them feel fully justified in doing so. If you don’t give a damn what they think, they’ll happily reciprocate.

    These people have legitimate grievances. (You still haven’t addressed my expatriate example.) Some, like ficbot, have tried and tried to work within the system and it’s gotten them nowhere. If you’re going to take umbrage at the actions they feel driven to by their frustration, you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face and on your own head be it.

  60. Great post, Chris. I realized that there was an unexplored “reader” side of this a few days ago but you’ve really done a great job laying it out.

    My own significantly less interesting post on the subject can be found over here.

  61. @Aaron: I’m not calling people here nutjobs, really. I’m trying to explain why authors like myself have been *reacting* that way. “Here’s the impression that action gives me,” is not “This is what I believe,” because I know the impression is just that — a kneejerk response.

    So why am I doing this? Because Chris’s appeal for understanding is something I can engage with, something I *want* to engage with. It’s the sort of thing that lets me see where the ebook reader community is coming from on all this, rather than just bitch about “entitlement-ridden cheapskates” and move on. And it deserved a concomitant response from the other side of the fence, I reckon, *at very least* an attempt to explain where all the kneejerk hostility is coming from on the writer side.

    This isn’t intended to express that hostility, just to explain it. And without writers engaging with the actual issues? Man, I’m not surprised Ficbot is utterly frustrated with the situation if she’s been fobbed off time and time again with glib “It can’t be done” or “not my problem” answers. Sandir and others elsewhere have pointed to the quality control issues in ebooks, which are clearly fucking *outrageous*, and nobody on the writer or publisher side seems to be saying anything more than “oh, that’s awful, dear,” I suspect because they’re assuming it’s mostly sloppy copy rather than a completely shafted system. There’s no ownership at all. Again, it seems like ebook readers deserve some actual feedback — and I am *well* on your side on this one.

    Hell, I’d actually suggest you point your 1-star reviews at *this* problem. Because it’s not that I believe the strategy itself automatically signals “raving loon”. Not at all! In fact, I reckon you might get authors onside with such a campaign, because I suspect most of them would be shocked to realise that there are zero checks in place to deal with the garbling that’s being introduced by the conversion process. The way the system is at the moment, from what I can tell, it’s like… outsourcing the copy-editing to a robot monkey.

    It seems more constructive to try and address all this on the ebook readers’ own turf… for a start. I could blather on my own blog, but then I likely wouldn’t be engaging with the people this affects. Blathering here I get you all coming back at me with stuff I might not have considered. I’ve seen few writers even trying to engage outside their comfort zone, and those who did — like Jay Lake on the Kindle forum — seem to have come away utterly frustrated, washing their hands of the whole thing. Result? The two camps will continue not hearing each other’s PoV and snarling about how “those nutjobs don’t listen!” Doesn’t seem good for ebook readers or writers.

    Anyway, I’ve pretty much said all I can about the author backlash reaction in and of itself, cause it’s not about persuading all ebook readers round to that PoV, just clarifying what it actually *is*. It’s entirely up to Blue Tyson, for example, if his response to that is, “fuck it, that’s a retarded way to look at it, and if the end result is authors with self-destructed careers and multi-nationals bringing themselves down, more fool them; I’m not gonna sob for the schmuck scribbler, and I’ll dance on the frickin grave of the corporate fucktards.” Rather than play champion of The Way It Is or spout my own view on How It Should Be, I’m happy to, as you say, move on.

    That means you’re declining to hear this author’s PoV on the other issues though, and while geographic restriction might be so gnarly and politicised it just leads to bumped heads, the quality control problem is a different kettle of fish. Still, if my PoV’s not welcome here, fair enough; I’m not out to troll. Chris? It’s your post, your call.

  62. Aaron,

    I don’t agree that he was calling anyone nutjobs personally. There are some authors that do that, right up to incoherent frothing at the mouth ranting with invocations of Godwin’s Law. Anyone that crazy doesn’t deserve our money, certainly. Personally that sort of thing just amuses me.


    I think you should write if you want to. It will likely be interesting.

    Anybody should comment if they want.

    Bemusing is the word for some of it, though. Authors get upset if someone lowers their book ratings, partly instinctive psychology, and partly for fear of lowered book sales presumably. Happy to defend the corporate masters who have definitely *guaranteed* them lower sales than in the very near past though. Plus of course fear of being given the arse by said master, given there are thousands queued up to replace them.

    Also likely that very many of said people are ‘cheapskates’ who buy from Amazon quite a lot because it is easy and good prices and free shipping. As opposed to people like me who go out of their way to get stuff from competitors where possible.

  63. Hal: I don’t think you’re a troll, though I think you might could be a little clearer about differentiating how these writers feel from how you feel.

    Please, by all means, write. This is a great discussion.

  64. Hal, I appreciate your comments. You are one of the few writers who has responded to this debate with an actual desire to hear what readers are saying. Most writers are either in the defensive or outright dismissive. I appreciate that you are willing to listen and hear.

    So what are some actual solutions? Who should we be contact, via what medium (email, phone, letter, media) and what should we say to make sure we are not dismissed and are actually heard on issues such as poorly edited books, geographical restrictions and unavailable series books?

  65. Cheers. For what it’s worth, Chris, I’d be lying if I said this is how all those *other* authors think/feel, but hey, *I’m* not like *them*. What I’m trying to do is step outside that box though, and give a broad sense of their/our PoV without assuming it’s *100% right, dammit!*

    Ficbot: There might be some suggestions for potential action in the following, as regards quality — because it doesn’t sound like poor editing to me; it sounds like something deeper.

    I mean, with the utter shoddiness I’m hearing about, this sounds like an utterly shafted system. From what I understand, publishers supply a source file in RTF to Fictionwise, PDF to Kindle, and I don’t know what elsewhere but I assume it’s a similar process, with the conversion on the retailer side. Right? And there’s no ownership of ultimate quality control on either side apparently?! That’s a frickin recipe for disaster.

    I mean, OK, with dead tree printing in days of yore, the onus was on the printer to ensure that all the little metal doohickeys were in the right places. Now that you can do the typesetting digitally — cool. You get an inhouse pro producing the final page proofs in PDF form, fire them at the author for any last few corrections, and *both* are responsible for ensuring that all the inky doohickeys are in the right place. (And this is the very last step after multiple passes have taken place — editing, copy-editing and proof-reading.) But then you’ve got file conversion, basically typesetting for the new media, and they’ve completely surrendered control of it, left no one responsible to check the electronic doohickeys are in the right place. Nobody does the equivalent, it seems, of the author giving that final check of the page proofs. Or, in days of yore, I guess, the gaffer looking at a test print (and clouting the apprentice round the ear for putting all the ‘g’s in upside-down.) They’re just handing over a source file, assuming the “virtual typesetting” done by the retailer is fine, and letting it “go to print” — i.e. putting it up for sale. I mean, for real???!!!

    How many ways can that fuck up? One I think you can rule out as wildly implausible, but since it’s errors you have to consider it: sending as source file a text still at ARC stage… maybe? If there’s lots of small errors that *aren’t* in the dead tree edition, the specific *type* of error would evidence that. If it’s the sort of slip a writer would make — “the the” for example, or “weather” for “whether” — you’ve got a strong case that what you’ve bought is uncorrected, *not the finished product*. And you’ve got a simple course of action: compare editions, gather evidence; expose the practice. Man, go direct to the publisher, do not pass Go, do not collect £200, but *do* kick up an almighty stink. And if they don’t listen, go public. A solidly made case with a high enough profile would basically be an exposé of shameful short-cutting/short-changing, and with a venue like TeleRead, you have a platform. Someone could write up an article, lay out the evidence on one particular text and actually contact the publisher for comment. If you could get hold of an ARC that has the same errors, you’d actually have something pretty damning. You could probably get sympathetic quotes from writers willing to call out publishers on something like this. As I say though, this would be so shoddy, I think it’s really unlikely; besides, from the descriptions of the problems, they sound way more like conversion error.

    So: a source file (visibly) error-ridden for other reasons? Systematic problems — e.g. with accented characters causing gibberish — are almost certainly going to be the result of format conversion at some stage of the process, no? This seems pretty suspicious on the Kindle, I have to say, given they convert from PDF. Does the layout have to be redone completely for the screen? Otherwise, why is the publisher fucking about and creating a whole new PDF when they should be able to send the corrected page proofs? Hell, even if the layout does have to be redone, why is this not just another task for their inhouse guy? They’d have to be fobbing the work off on a retarded monkey who couldn’t look at a screen in front of them and see that the document was triple-spaced or with the indentation reversed. If you’ve got a Kindle ebook that’s royally fucked up in this way, and Amazon say it’s the source file when you demand a refund, I’d be looking to the publisher for answers to those specific questions. Again, approaching them as someone writing an article for TeleRead, you could put them well on the spot about the hard realities of their ebook systems.

    If the publisher is being asked to send an RTF, it gets a lot more likely, I reckon, that someone neglected to give it a once-over before they hit send. Because it’s a lot more likely it’s coming from someone who isn’t a retarded monkey but who isn’t a proper layout guy; they’ve just been told to dig out a copy of X, convert it to RTF and send it to the retailer. Given the way Microsoft products are *horrendous* for pulling this sort of shit, filling files full of crap, and generally making a dog’s breakfast of formatting, this could be a major cause where you’re dealing with the Fictionwise way of doing things. I don’t think it’s so easy to nail this down as the root of the problem annoyingly, but a comparison of versions in different formats (Kindle excluded obviously) might rule it out. If most of the editions converted from RTF look fine and only one of them is garbage, you gotta think that the publisher sent a source file that looked perfectly good to them, but there’s hidden stuff in there that *one* of these conversion programs can’t deal with.

    Which is a bigger possibility, I think: a source file that looks fine, but is rife with hidden formatting crap that the conversion software can’t handle. My heart sank when I looked at Fictionwise’s Publisher Info and saw them telling publishers that the RTF source file could be produced by using the Save As option in Word. I dread to think what might be lurking in a file that’s come from — what? The original DOC produced by the writer as a final draft, updated with final corrections and formatting in line with the finalised page proofs, possibly going between different versions of Word however many times along the way, before finally being saved as RTF? Or the finalised PDF, like the one which would be sent to Amazon, run through some PDF-to-DOC conversion process… and again, then saved as RTF? Christ, the publisher could be pulling together a source file from any stage in the system, putting anybody in charge of punting it to the supplier. Worst case scenario 1: someone at the supplier end, having developed a friendly rapport with the overworked editorial assistant at the publisher who does this title by title, knowing that they’re not that tech-savvy, says, “Sod it, just send us the DOC.” Worst case scenario 2: some dogsbody at the publisher end is doing this en masse for a whole bunch of titles, following a “simple procedure” by which they can produce a bunch of RTF source files, give them a quick once-over, and send them in a batch to the supplier.

    As I say, recipe for disaster.

  66. So the big question is who’s ultimately responsible if you’ve got a whole lot of crap in a whole lot of those files that’s not visible at a glance but comes out utterly garbled when you run it through the conversion software? The answer as it is: Nobody! I mean, you can point fingers and assign blame, say that clearly X, Y or Z *should* be responsible, but in actual terms there is *no one* who has taken ownership of ensuring that this garbling doesn’t take place. The supplier clearly isn’t checking the stuff that comes out against the source file and *sending the source file back* as garbage. The publisher clearly isn’t getting a copy of the ebook sent back for them to check against the source before they give the OK on release. Somewhere in all of this, a conversion process is in place that’s the equivalent of letting a retarded monkey put the little metal doohickeys in the printing press, and nobody has accepted responsibility for ensuring that it’s been done right.

    The author hasn’t even been given the option — like we basically have with page proofs. Frankly, I’d be willing to take the responsibility, but I’m not sure how workable this is as a system. The author would need an ebook reader that could run all formats, and a Kindle on top of that… unless there’s open source emulator software that would let us see the ebook exactly as it will output for any user. Even then… if you’re dealing with ten different formats you’re basically final-proofing ten novels, which is about a month’s work, I’d estimate, done thoroughly. I think my own stuff is only out on five platforms in the US, which is more reasonable, but I suspect if publishers went this road you’d end up with ebooks only being released in a single format so the writer could do their job as a writer rather than spend half of it proof-reading. It’s really a job in and of itself — like back in the day with those typesetters putting the little metal doohickeys in the printing press.

    The publisher clearly doesn’t have anyone doing that job. Too costly to invest in the technology and man-hours? Maybe. Looks rather like they’ve gone into it half-arsed, with little thought for a system except whatever ad hoc procedures were developed by those stuck with the task of making it happen. A few champions of the new media at mid-level, tasked with doing it but given little support. Some editorial assistants and interns with no sense of the garbling risk, told to convert this file to that format and send it to these people. Retailers saying “just send us the files and we’ll convert them for you.” Lose one person in a critical place and you could be left with nobody doing the quality control that isn’t even really their job.

    The supplier doesn’t have anyone doing that job. Maybe it’s not their place, but I’d be asking the retailer some pointed questions too when I demanded my refund, cause if they’re getting a lot of source files filled with crap that fucks things up, why the hell aren’t they challenging the quality of the goods they’re getting from their supplier before putting them on their shelves? The errors people are describing aren’t on the level of “well, presumably it’s supposed to be that way.” And surely they must have a lot of dissatisfied customers due to the faulty goods they’re being given to sell. So why aren’t they doing anything about it?

    Given that they’ve taken on the “virtual typesetting” role, converting those source files into ebook files, haven’t they thought of, you know, having a quick glance at the file before doing so? If it’s all completely automated, is there any random sampling takes place? Any attempt at quality control whatsoever? Surely they *must* look at the source file at some point, even if it’s only *after* the conversion — to check that the ebook file looks as it should, that the conversion hasn’t gone tits-up. I’m not going to mix a GarageBand project to an mp4 and then stick it up on iTunes for sale without listening to it. Even if they work on the principle that an old-fashioned dead tree printer might — print whatever you get, no matter how it looks, because the triple-spacing and reverse indentation could well be some Modernist experimentalist tosh — aren’t they now, given the customer complaints, supplying the publisher with a sample copy to verify?

    From the posts I’ve seen, ebook readers are being given the run-around, being told by the retailer that it’s the publisher’s fault, and being told by the publisher that it’s the retailer’s fault. And where I’d expect all those complaints to result in a mass of refunds that pressured both retailer and publisher into sorting out some system of quality check, I’m seeing them essentially used as bug reports. Those ebook readers are being treated as beta testers, and by all accounts the problems they report are not even consistently acted upon.

    On all of this stuff, I think its going to take a bit of hard probing of both retailers and publishers to establish exactly what their systems are and where they’re falling down. As I say, approaching retailers and publishers as someone writing about quality controls in ebook publishing, asking where the buck stops, whether they have dedicated staff with specific responsibilities, systems in place like you have with print… that may be more effective in getting a response than individual complaints. Some way of gathering data on these issues, a running “watchdog” blog that can pull this stuff together, the sort of thing you can point to and show, in one place, the extent of the problem? And as I said above, with *this* issue… I think you’d be perfectly justified in rating books savagely according to the quality you’re being given.

  67. Sigh. The blog seems to have eaten a comment I tried to approve to this post, from an author who found a significant increase in her sales after she lowered the price of her e-book from $1.59 to 99 cents. Hopefully she’ll post it again.

  68. An addendum to the previous two posts: I see a couple of the commenters here over on the Making Light, and in particular, Chris inquiring about an interview. I think you could get a lot better data on the quality issues from Theresa and Patrick Neilson Hayden than you would from me, but I reckon you’re best to email them direct — their public addresses are there to be got on their homepage — rather than via a journal comment. It’s a formal approach as opposed to casually floating the idea. I strongly suspect, from noseying around a bit more, that an interview with one of them will reveal that the garbling of ebooks is, in the vast number of instances, a product of conversion processes on the retailer side — not least given the dismissal of typography by Ben Trafford on that thread. If the PDF sent to Amazon, for example, is to all intents and purposes page proofs, they’ll be able to tell you that. And if that’s the case, that reality needs to be disseminated to consumers, I’d say; the problem isn’t that the Glass Vase Company actually makes piles of tinkling shards, but rather that the Vases2UrDoor delivery service takes those vases, drops them in a box, and fires them at your house with a catapult. The fact that publishers have ceded quality control with control of conversion doesn’t let them off the hook, (cause I’d be pissed at Glass Vase Company for letting ownership of final quality disappear somewhere between the lines of the sketchy agreement they struck Vases2UrDoor,) but it certainly suggests that the focus of efforts to fix the system should be on the retailer.

  69. *ahem* That should read, “over on the Making Light thread about the agency model.”

  70. Ummmm…We care. (Holds up hand tentatively.)

    Over at CJ Cherryh, Lynn Abbey and I are working to give you all reasonably priced, DRM-free ebooks. We care a great deal about the quality and have even sent those who have purchased ebooks from us updated downloads when we discovered a way to make them better.

    It’s not that hard to give readers a good-looking product. We’ve figured out how to do it, mostly on our own, but with a lot of input from our readers. We have freebie downloads and offer ten formats in a single zip file. The creation and conversion software, like Calibre and Mobi Pocketcreator, is free and very self-explanatory.

    Not having dedicated ebook readers ourselves, other than our computers, we depend on our readers to let us know what problems they’re having and what features they want. (I’m currently working on giving them a live-link TOC in my next release.) Our readers, bless them, are endlessly patient with our growing pains, but for a group of three old ladies who only started working on this a few months ago, we’re doing pretty good, especially considering we’ve also had to create the website and do all the covers. At the same time, we’ve ripped out our backyard, put in a 4000 gallon pond with waterfall and fish (all done on our own, with our mantis tiller and a lot of sweat), kept up individual blogs and continued writing new stuff.

    (Are you young techno-stud writers embarrassed, yet? :D)

    The first step lies in ditching MS Word for Word Perfect (or similar prose sensible software) so you can actually see and clean up the code before you convert the file into html for constructing the ebook file in Mobi Pocketcreator, which gives a great file for converting to other formats via Calibre.

    Please don’t lump all authors together. There are plenty of us who “get it.” Especially those midlist authors who have been shafted by the New York publishers for twenty years. Publishers don’t listen to us so we’re trying to find a way to deal directly with the readers.

    We only opened the doors of CC in December and we’ve been stunned and humbled by the support of readers. Are we rich yet? far from it. Our numbers are a fraction of what they’d be if we put the books up on Amazon. But we’re working at building a direct relationship with the readers, which is something most authors I know have always dreamed of, a relationship only made possible by ebooks and the internet.

  71. With the geographic restriction there’s a weird copyright thing going on here. Copyright being divided into territories means you have two big English speaking zones: the US; and the UK and Commonwealth. (Breaking the latter apart might be more common than I think, but my impression is that Australia & Canada will generally come under UK and Commonwealth, along with South Africa, New Zealand, etc., in one big block.) A US publisher selling in the UK and Commonwealth territories could be breaching UK and Commonwealth copyrights, and vice versa for a UK publisher selling in the States. Except, of course, this happens all the time.

    Taking the UK as a base, you’ve got UK companies that import dead tree books from the US and sell them to you, and US companies that will let you order books and ship them to you internationally. You can order from the UK Amazon in the US and get it exported to you, or vice versa. Meanwhile, someone in the US could get the imported UK edition of my first book on before it came out from Del Rey; and someone in the UK can now get the imported US edition on I’ll confess: I don’t know the limitations that might be placed on this, the extent to which this situation may be to do with legal loopholes and publishers seeing a benefit that outweighs the cost: people buying the UK hardback before the US trade paperback was out are lost sales to Del Rey, but they’re also early word of mouth that might prime the market, result in a boost to sales on release. I don’t know what an editor at one of the NYC publishers would say about this, but I suspect it might be interesting, more forward-thinking than kneejerk protectionist. Anyway, the point is there’s that import/export option.

    And, of course, leaving aside all that, there’s always the possibility of a UK person picking up a book on a visit to the US, or getting a US friend to buy a copy and send it to them, and vice versa. More costly, of course, but in this day and age, with ebooks being non-physical, are there less onerous equivalents to that “visit” or that “friend”? Cause as far as I’m concerned, one person sending a copy of the US edition of my book to someone in the UK who can’t get a hold of it… well, I’m more interested in why they can’t get a hold of it.

    Which is what we’ve got with geographic restriction, it having come in and cut off the import/export trade completely for ebooks. No geographic restriction on physical books though, eh? No barriers to Blue Tyson or Ficbot — both living in UK and Commonwealth copyright territories — buying the Del Rey edition of my book and having it exported to them. Looking at the first online bookstore I find *based* in Australia, I even see the Del Rey edition on sale rather than the UK edition, which is presumably classed as an import. And how does the “point of sale” factor pointed to by Chris apply to ebooks but not physical books? There’s a palpable inequity here. I can’t see why it should work one way for dead trees and another for bits.

    But aside from the injustice, there’s the pragmatic issue: even if these geographical restriction were applied to physical books, Blue Tyson or Ficbot should still be able to order a copy of the UK edition of my book from, because Australia and Canada come under UK and Commonwealth copyright territory; if there *is* no UK edition in ebook format, they’re shafted. And, yeah, that sucks the big one for me as much as for them. If that were the case with a physical book, I’d be looking for whatever way around it I could find. The author’s hardly going to complain that my cousin Sal in NYC picked up a copy and mailed it to me; it’s just a US sale instead of a UK sale.

  72. There’s three parts to the problem here as I see it: the disparity in application of the copyright legislation itself; the lack of rights being exercised in one territory; the actual barriers being enforced against import/export from another. Take out any one of those, and you change the situation.

    Is equalising the disparity a viable solution? Depends what the motivation is and how you want it equalised: by applying the same restrictions to physical books; by removing them from ebooks; by radically changing how the whole system of copyright works. Going the latter route is pretty much wildly impracticable unless you’re sufficiently schooled in the existing theories and actualities of it to make a solid case, and in a position of leverage to make it happen. Copyright needs a damn good shake-up, and I think a pressure point will be reached somewhere down the line when letting the Mouse run the show just becomes visibly insane to everyone, but at the moment the opposition to that is… the turmoil of alliances and antipathies where “information wants to be free” intersects with the craftsman/artisan ethos. What one person sees as utopia another sees as dystopia.

    I mean, a reader might think surely it’d be a damn sight easier to sell digital rights to one publisher that covered the whole world — basically lump US & UK and Commonwealth together; but this guarantees complete dominance by the US publishers in the ebook market, because they’re going to outbid the UK mob every time. I might well hold onto them and do it myself in the future, but that doesn’t change the situation with my books right now, and I’m not going to argue that’s How It Must Be For All. Or at least any argument is going to be just that, and it’s where I think you’re going to end up with a lot of people bumping heads over their polarised views. Building something that can take on the Mouse, and building it out of a cacophany of viewpoints, updating copyright for the 21st century — that’s herding kittens at the moment.

    No, in terms of this specific problem — geographic restriction — attacking it on that front is just, to my mind, expending energy in polemic that would be better served in a pincer action: attack the non-application of restrictions to physical books at the same time as you attack the application to digital books. This is a much simpler justice argument that I see little defence against. That sort of case requires power and commitment though, champions and campaigns with high enough profiles to make the injustice visible, create the actual pressure you need to effect change. Articles? Quotes from experts in copyright and import/export legislation about the disparities? Cause I’m damned if I can see a justification for it. Problem is, this is also a long term game, and it’s not going to do much good right now for those of you who just want to *read the fricking books*.

    So is it more practicable to aim at the second part of the problem — the lack of rights being exercised in the relevant territory? For ebook readers in Australia, Canada or other English-speaking countries around the world, that most likely means finding out which publisher holds the UK and Commonwealth rights and putting pressure on them. Blue Tyson, you ask what proportion of writers hold separate Australian deals. I can’t honestly say how this works across the board, what exceptions there might be; Orbit has a separate Australian imprint, for example. But, barring writers from Australia who published with a native company first, I *think* a lot of writers are going to be in a similar situation to me, having licensed UK and Commonwealth rights to their UK publisher. Ultimately, whoever publishes the physical book in your territory is you first port of call.

    Or maybe your second. It’s going to be complicated by writers and agents who’ve now wised up, who now aren’t just automatically lumping digital rights in with their physical print deals. There might be a lot of writers who’d be happy to do what the previous poster, Jane Fancher, and co. are doing, but just haven’t got their arses in gear, don’t have a scooby where to begin. If they’re available online, asking them first can’t hurt. Are there any plans for the release of an ebook version beyond the US? Is there a non-US publisher sitting on the rights that you can contact, or are the rights unsold? If the rights are sold but they aren’t being exercised… how effective are email campaigns to publishers requesting releases — asking if and when works will be made available, asking whether backlist works will be converted? I’ll be honest, I have no idea. You’d be better off asking an editor, who might tell you exactly what sort of reader support is useful for persuading the relevant people. If the rights aren’t sold… well, how keen are you and how keen are they? Are you capable of converting an MS for them if they’re completely clueless? Or pointing them in the right direction and promising support if they say, “I’d like to but I have no idea where to begin?”

  73. Much of the unavailability is likely to be because these smaller UK publishers haven’t got their arse in gear, don’t have any automatic process whereby new releases are put out as ebooks. They don’t (or didn’t) have the equivalent of Amazon and Fictionwise to take it off their hands. With ebooks, it’s quite possible that any availability there is has resulted from certain clued-up people at mid-level, maybe even editors of SF/Fantasy imprints, actively pushing. At the higher level? Well, at the release of the UK Kindle last year, Amazon was saying they had deals in place with all the publishers, and there’s apparently a UK Kindle Store in the offing, right?

    This should surely change the game with geographic restriction, because if the ebooks they offer via UK Amazon are licensed by the publishers for UK and Commonwealth territories, there’s no way they should be stopping an Australian or Canadian from buying them, as I see it — not on the basis of copyright. I’ll freely admit that this is an Amazon-skeptic PoV, but I look at the situation as is and I see a big American company that — like some Americans have an unfortunate tendency to do — forgot about the rest of the world; it rolled out the Kindle in the US with promises that it couldn’t keep beyond its boundaries. And rather than expediting the roll-out of the UK Kindle and the UK Kindle Store, getting all the deals with publishers signed and sealed, so that it could *meet* those promises sharpish when it realised this, it brought in heinously stringent measures that treat those customers appallingly.

    I’m wondering how much of that clamp-down was precipitated by Amazon’s two big run-ins over breaches of copyright last year? They seriously lost face on the text-to-speech case (and for what it’s worth, I’m with Gaiman on this in thinking it’s *not* a threat to audiobook rights; if Amazon hadn’t caved to the Author’s Guild and the publishers, from my reading it sounds like they had a good case.) The Orwell fiasco was worse. Sure, I think the over-extended US copyright that it turned on is a fucking outrage (mandated by the Mouse). I’m even willing to cut the publisher some slack on their breach of copyright, to take it as the fuck-up of someone who genuinely wanted to make a classic available in digital form and just made a mistake in thinking it was public domain (i.e. rather than assuming they’re just working on a “get rich quick” scheme, flogging ebook users something that’s *free*”.) But Amazon set up a system where that’s piss easy to do and then, when it got them into hot water, they shafted the customer. Point is, I wonder how much these two instances put the fear of God into Amazon and Fictionwise over the copyright question as regards US ebooks being, you know, for the US. It might not have taken much pressure from the publishers for them to realise they were playing with a loaded gun. I mean, if the Orwell case was bad news for Amazon, I can imagine Fictionwise shitting themselves that it could have been them — because they wouldn’t even have the option of recalling the ebook.

    Anyway, the UK Kindle Store should ease things up for Kindle users, I’d *imagine*, even if it doesn’t help those using other devices. There, I don’t know. It seems to me, you’re looking at approaching specific writers about specific titles, sounding out editors who have online presences with more general questions about what kind of consumer demand actually gets stuff done. There might be no one person you can go to and say, “hey, why can’t I get this in ebook?” and have them answer, “you can’t? shit, let me sort that out for you.” But writers and editors are generally pretty open to engaging with readers if you’re savvy of the buttons not to push. And one thing I’ll say: in the sf/f community a good review blog can wire itself into the discourse pretty quickly, gather attention to itself, and if writers and editors start paying attention to you when you discuss this new release, say, you’ve got a platform for highlighting how *that* new release is *not available* for whatever reason (and, of course, for ripping into the garbled fuck-ups that are).

    Whatever your strategy, if you’re looking at some more politicised campaigning against geographic restriction itself, the fact that there’s no such enforcement with physical books begs a whole lot of questions that kind of invite journalistic investigation, it seems to me. In the meantime unfortunately, you’re left with the barriers themselves and — other than piracy — the only option being, well, “smuggling,” I guess you could call it. I mean, in looking into this stuff, I saw a few people talking about ways they got round the geographic restrictions with fake billing addresses and suchlike, though I don’t know if those loopholes have been closed off. If this sort of shit were in place for physical books, if a UK reader couldn’t buy a US edition of my book from and there wasn’t a UK edition available, I’d… hold off on encouraging them to game the system, but largely just because it’s their ass on the line, not mine.

    Don’t know if that’s a useful answer, but it’s

  74. … too long since I slept to finish it properly, apparently.

  75. Jane,

    Thanks. I’ve seen you mentioned a couple of times recently, so will be certainly giving one of your books a shot soon.


    Looking at Fictionwise for one, it actually seems that Canada gets dealt with as part of the USA, or maybe some North American deal – as a lot of books are for sale ‘US, CA’. Which makes sense, of course, being very close. Plus in some cases you could just about walk to the bookshop in the other country.

    Note that under Australia law retailers, if the local publishers do not provide an edition of a book promptly, can import one from anywhere that will sell it to them. Be interesting if some larger retailer is getting some advice here on the electronic side of things, too.

    I know the odd person that can make books for people, certainly. You know who some of the best backlist converters are of course – those that have been doing it for years, darknet style. I even know authors who have taken this work done to use and sell some of their backlist.

    Australian publishers are very backward currently. They really aren’t going to try until a hardware manufacturer starts moving lots of readers of the expensive variety – and we get the double priced electronics Australian tax there, too. Mobile phones exist in abundance. My guess is they won’t get around to much until some enterprising likely foreigner starts eating their lunch via some clever method or other. They have pretty much ignored it so far. So currently you might get some digital rights money from the non-UK part, but you’ll be getting not many sales, other than from those that do the identity disguising, location spoofing type tricks – which will get cut off more and more too over time. There are people keen enough to do that, with the knowhow, who in some of the cases could find the book online for free in one minute.

    The silliest could not buy example I ran into, and one of the first, was Sean Williams. I can pretty much walk to his place if I wanted to and hand him a tenner in person and say ‘load up my pda, mate’. His books are in the library, in all the bookshops here, but could I buy the ebook? Nope. The answer there was ‘nope, not going to be doing anything’, after he asked. Super loopy.

  76. Amazon UK may do it, but Amazon charge $2.00 extra per book for ‘delivery’ even if you are paying for your own bandwidth.

    Amazon does sell books others are not though.

  77. Looking at Fictionwise for one, it actually seems that Canada gets dealt with as part of the USA, or maybe some North American deal – as a lot of books are for sale ‘US, CA’.

    Agh, duh. Yeah, that’s exactly the situation — North American Rights. I’ll appeal to lack of sleep for my excuse in blanking on that. But yeah, there should be North American Rights works that ficbot can get in Canada, but you can’t get in Australia; and UK and Commonwealth Rights works that neither of you can get.

  78. Australian publishers are very backward currently. They really aren’t going to try until a hardware manufacturer starts moving lots of readers of the expensive variety…

    UK publishers are probably nearer to Australians than Americans in that respect. I’m under the impression that a lot of the movement in ebooks (all over) is due to champions here and there in the business (often in the sf/f imprints) pushing for it. The smaller the business, the fewer of those people there are.

  79. It kind of surprises me that there’s so little discussion of the Supreme Court case “Leegin v. Kay”, which would seem to explicitly declare that retail price maintenance (what Macmillan wanted to do here) was legal.

    Indeed, this is probably why Amazon’s response was “no more sales” instead of “lawsuit”.

  80. Hal,

    Yes, UK is somewhere in the middle of our hopeless and Americans furthest along.

    Actually looking at Waterstone’s yesterday out of interest – and while the range there is still small, they did have SF by Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Neal Asher, Gary Gibson, Charles Stross, Peter F. Hamilton, etc. The one that is oddly treated is Ian McDonald – Cyberabad Days is done, but not his other books. Plus all the Angry Robot books are available.

    So while not everything is there (unless maybe you like Star Trek :) ), some effort to get the top of the line in at least.

    Also again, Macmillan uselessness on pricing – Asher’s Gabble collection – 15 pounds ebook, 7 pounds paperback. From 2008, that one.

  81. Okay…you folks want proactive. I will gladly provide proactive, if I can. I’ll provide numbers…not just that the indies have already done their testing and come up with their stable base but rather asking you…the readers.

    You will find a polling to the left side top of the blog. Vote in it, and give me feedback. It’s one simple question…how much are you willing to pay for a novel-length (NOT category length…something 300 mass market pages long or so and selling for $6 or more in mass market on Amazon and with a mass market list price of $8 or so…specific enough detailing on what the comparison will be?) fiction e-book. I have it set to run for more than a month, and the results will be reported in a post from EPIC. I believe I know what avid e-book readers will say, but let’s see if I’m right.

    At the very least, this will be an interesting experiment.


  82. Amazon isn’t “looking out” for its customers. They are trying to be the Walmart of the online world. Gain enough market share (Amazon has enough) so you can bully your suppliers to sell you goods at rates which are often even below cost…Or threaten to stop selling their products.

    Except, Amazon has an even worse incentive, because it manufactures and sells a complementary product. Making ebooks cheap as possible is great for them because that means people are more likely to buy a Kindle. So what if it means new authors can barely make a living.

    A good comparison is the music industry, precisely because of the differences which made the iTunes, single price model such a good idea there.

    1) By the time the music industry realized it had a problem, online piracy of their goods was already rampant. Worse, people thought it was okay for them to download a song on Napster. iTunes was actually increasing the value of online songs from $0 to $0.99. This is not the case yet in the publishing world. Piracy is not rampant, and most people still expect their books to cost ~$20 when released, and less a few months later. Amazon is devaluing books.

    2) When iTunes was created, very few people bought digital content. People were still used to buying physical stuff. It had to make people comfortable with this concept. By sticking to a single fixed price, it reduced barriers dramatically, since a few questions buyers have was eliminated. Should i buy this tune @ 1.49 or the other one at 0.79. Or should i wait for a month, and hope the price will drop… There are a lot more buyers of digital content now (the iTunes store, including the app store has been a huge part of that) who are a lot more savvy, than they were about half a decade ago.

    3) Finally, the vast majority of musicians (the actual creators of content) actually make their money from touring gigs. Music sales are almost like advertising for them. Which is why you see tons of smaller bands distributing their music for free on Myspace. They want to build their fan base, who will them buy merchandise and come to concerts. There is no equivalent for authors. The book sales are their livelihood. If books get devalued, they make no money. Which is why people like Scalzi were pissed. Amazon had arbitrarily taken away a huge chunk of his income (they stopped selling paper books too….it was just a low power play by them, which hurt the authors more than Macmillan).

  83. Since we were talking about legal e-book libraries… Here is a link to one with the tech I was discussing.


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