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Publishing News: The 99-cent problem

Author Melissa Foster on cheap books, geeks join the battle against SOPA, and the future of storytelling arrives.

Here are a few stories that caught my eye in the publishing space this week.

The concern of 99 cents

Penny.jpgAuthor Melissa Foster took a look this week at the 99-cent price debate, highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly. The bad and the ugly mostly focused on how the price point affects independent authors:

If an author is self-published through Amazon KDP, he or she earns 34 cents per 99-cent book sold … If you add up the average cover cost of $350, average editing job of $1,400, then divide by 34 cents, the author would have to sell 5,134 books just to break even, and that’s nearly impossible without an additional amount for advertising.

Foster follows this by pointing out that most independent authors don’t sell more than 100 copies of a book — that’s a whopping $34 — and says independent authors who publish through small presses generally only pocket 12 cents per 99-cent book sold.

Employing this price point doesn’t bode well for authors looking to sign with a traditional publisher, either. Foster quoted agent Jenny Bent: “… publishers are increasingly skeptical about how success at 99 cents will translate into success using their very different business model.”

Author M.J. Rose also is quoted in the post, arguing that this sort of focus on price is wrong:

Readers may buy you once for 99 cents, but if they are disappointed they will never buy you again or even download you for free. On the other hand a reader will pay $4.99, $5.99 even up to $12 for an ebook of a writer whose work speaks to her. I’m seeing way too much conversation about what to charge for the book instead of how to write the book … Quality matters more than ever.

Foster’s analysis also highlighted some positive aspects of the price point, including using it as a promotional or marketing tool. An author could set the first book in a series at 99 cents, for instance, to help suck in readers — the old “the first one’s (almost) free, but you’ll be back” routine.

There’s a lot more discussion on this debate over in the comment section of Kevin Kelly’s blog post on this topic (from earlier this year). But really, the bottom line is this: the 99-cent price point is only financially viable for authors who are able to sell a boatload of books.

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SOPA, meet DeSopa

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) hearing was delayed, possibly until next year, but anti-SOPA geeks aren’t waiting to see what’s going to happen. Andy Greenberg reported over at Forbes that “the Internet’s communities of coders and free speech advocates” are hard at work building tools to circumvent SOPA’s copyright protection measures:

… a developer named Tamer Rizk has been busy building an add-on for Firefox called DeSopa, which aims to give any Firefox user access to sites that SOPA’s copyright protection measures have blocked. ‘This program is a proof of concept that SOPA will not help prevent piracy,’ reads a note included on DeSopa’s download page. ‘If SOPA is implemented, thousands of similar and more innovative programs and services will sprout up to provide access to the websites that people frequent. SOPA is a mistake. It does not even technically help solve the underlying problem, as this software illustrates.’

(Note: as of publication, the DeSopa add-on had been taken down from Mozilla’s site.)

Greenberg also looked at Reddit users who “have been assembling their own lists of IP addresses for key sites that might be blocked under SOPA, what some of them call the ‘Emergency List‘.” He also has a nice discussion of SOPA’s unintended consequences and the collateral damage it could cause. The piece is well worth the read.

The future of stories is here

In a post at The Atlantic, senior editor Alexis Madrigal highlighted “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” as the perfect gift for kids whose parents have an iPad. The river of book recommendations is hip deep this time of year, but the last line of Madrigal’s post prodded me to check out the app: “It’s what the future of stories looks like.” (Hat tip to @tcarmody.)

Screenshot from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Playing with the book/app reminded me of articles predicting that the coffee-table book will make it through the digital transition relatively unscathed. I’m not so sure about that. If the beauty of the art in this book and the way it’s integrated into the interactivity are an indication of future stories, print may well be in trouble on the coffee-table front as well. Imagine an iPad coffee-table book that could play music from a foreign country and teach you common phrases in the native tongue; one that could seamlessly integrate video, animation or sound with the content. Print books can’t do that.

The screenshot below shows the interactivity options and more of the beautiful art:

Screenshot from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

I sure hope Madrigal is right — this book app points to a very rich future for stories, and you don’t need kids (or to be a kid) to fall in love with it.

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  • http://johnryding.com John Ryding

    The .99 problem doesn’t surprise me at all – it’s waaay too small of a price for the amount of work that goes into creating a book. I honestly feel that 12.99 is too much for an average ebook (~300 page fiction) – as a consumer i’m feeling ripped off by that price since there is doesn’t feel like a “deal”.

    IMO – $4.99 is the sweet spot. Once the books I want reach that point, the publishers can shut up and take all the money they want from me.

    Thing is – I WANT to pay and consume the majority of my content via e-book form, but not if I feel like the publisher is trying to milk me for all of my money.

  • Gwen Jenkins

    Let’s say a book takes 2000 hours to produce, with each person involved requiring an average wage of $25/hour to maintain their standard of living. (Obviously, the writer puts in most of those hours, and some participants earn higher wages than others.) That conveniently puts the human cost of production at $50,000.

    At $4.99, you have to sell 10,021 copies just to cover the human costs (including a reasonable income for the writer). Then there’s the cost of equipment and facilities, and if the publisher/distributor is a publicly-held corporation, the 30% profit that investment-analysts expect to see from the publishing industry. So let’s make that 15,000 copies to make the project produce something approaching a living for the writer.

    Very few writers earn a living offering their work to the public.