What Book Publishers Do Right and What They Do Wrong

I love books. They have my friends since I learned how to read and there are somewhere around 1000 in my house not counting e-books or audio books. There is no way I will ever be able to read all of them in my life-time but that doesn’t keep my from purchasing more.

Except I have not been purchasing anywhere near as many books as I once did. This has much to do with the pricing of books. Hard cover books are excessively expensive. Enough so that unless you purchase them from a small, local bookstore you get anything from a 10-30% discount on purchasing them. Trade editions (the ones that are somewhere between the size of a hard cover and the size of most paperbacks, also known as mass market) are less than 1/2 the price of hard covers only they don’t come with any sort of discount. Shame in my opinion. Mass market prices have gone up $1-3 in the last four or five years. Then you have electronic books. In some cases they are the same price as trade books which makes them more expensive than the physical book. In other cases they are the same price or only $1-3 less, making them the same price I would have expected to pay for a physical copy five years ago. The electronic copy of a book does not have the same value or worth as a physical copy but we, the consumers, are expected to not realize that. That’s without getting into the whole DRM/DRM-free battle. I’ll leave that to my husband to explain.

The long story short here is that I have avoided purchasing many books because I cannot justify putting yet another book on my already overflowing bookshelves that I may or may not read. I also am unable to justify the price of the electronic copy of the book even if that’s the most convenient way to read.

There are two publishers (that I am aware of) that continue to price-fix their e-books so they are more than their physical books and are sold with DRM. The biggest culprit of this, at least of the publishers that I tend to read books from, is Penguin Group which publishes most of its sci-fi/fantasy books under Ace Publishing. They were so bad that I just wrote a letter to Penguin Group voicing my concerns. You can read it at the end if you’re curious.

Some publishers are slowly figuring this out. They are making a token effort at satisfying their consumers. Their electronic books are at least consistently less than mass market books and they are DRM-free. Tor/Forge of Macmillan is the best example that I’m aware of, again because they are the sci-fi/fantasy publishing company for Macmillan. They’ve at least made a few steps in the right direction. O’Reilly Publishing has gone even further. They publish technical books (I keep mistaking them for text-books) and give their consumers the option to purchase the e-book in addition to their physical books for an additional $5 just by entering the ISBN number. Considering the fact that the absolute cheapest I’ve seen any of their books is $32 and they go as high $150 that is a fantastic deal.

I’ve seen individual authors do some really cool things too. Small, self-published authors frequently keep their e-books under $5, closer to $3, and will even give their first book for free to get people reading. There are several authors that I’ve started to read because of programs like that. Even big-name authors give cool deals to their readers when they can. The most recent I can think of was Brandon Sanderson who emailed the e-book of one of his novellas to anyone who emailed him a picture of them holding a copy of the physical book without asking for a penny more. He is really pleased with how that has worked out for him and is hoping to be able to do similar programs with his books in the future. He would really love to see the big publishers doing something like that for their consumers. He’s really pushing it for his next big release and I decided to email his primary publisher, Tor/Forge (Macmillan), to encourage this practice. Again, email can be found at the bottom.

I cannot wait for the time when publishers realize that e-books are the way to go. I am dearly attached to my physical books. I also dread moving them and needing to purchase more and more bookshelves. I like the convenience of my e-reader. I’ve already written about the pros and cons, here, so I won’t repeat all of it. Let’s just go with that the idea that I like both and see the pros and cons of both but like carrying my ereader around a whole hell of a lot more than all my physical books. I tend to hurt physical books when I carry them around.

There are a few good options for publishers. I addressed some of those in my email to Tor/Forge asking them to consider allowing consumers to purchase physical books and then get the ebook version either free or at a much reduced price. I would highly encourage anyone else who seriously enjoys reading books, whether they use an ereader (yet) or not, to email various publishers about this too. You could even copy what I’ve written below, though I would encourage you to add your own thoughts as well. My first email below is requesting a publisher to bundle physical books and ebooks together. The second is my email to Penguin Publishing regarding their horrid ebook pricing. It’s maybe a bit more negative in tone than I normally write, but they continue to anger me. My husband and I both will be writing to every publisher every time we don’t purchase a book because of stupid price schemes. If you’re upset by some of the not so awesome policies of publishers, I would also encourage you to email/write them about it as well.

Whether you do voice any concerns to publishers or not, thank you for reading this.

To whom it may concern,

I am writing you on behalf of myself and my husband. We are both avid readers and have been frequent purchasers of books published by Macmillan or subsidiaries, particularly Tor/Forge books. We have also grown quite fond of e-books due to their convenience and the fact that we can both read the same book(s) at the same time. This has also put us in a bit of a pickle. It is difficult for us to justify purchasing a physical book unless it is a special circumstance, e.g. a release from an author we want to display on our bookcases, but it is even more difficult to justify purchasing the e-book when it is either the same price or within $3-4 of the physical book. An electronic copy of a book is not worth the $5-10 that we are asked to pay. This has led us to purchase far fewer books than we otherwise would purchase. We leave bookstores empty handed seven times out of ten. We both have dozens of books on our individual Amazon wishlists that will never be purchased at their current pricing.

There is a solution that already seems to be working well for the movie industry and a practice that has also worked well for O’Reilly Publishing. When a consumer purchases a movie they often are purchasing an electronic copy of the movie as well. The movie industry does continue to sell movies and continues to make good profits. O’Reilly Publishing has set it up on their website so that a consumer can download a technical book for $5 after entering in the ISBN number for a physical copy of the text that they own. Again, they continue to make profits and have made no indication that they intend to change their policy. I would not propose that you rely upon the honor system like what O’Reilly does. However, what I propose would be two things: A hardcover purchase comes with a free copy of the electronic version of the book in whatever format each consumer’s e-reader supports. A soft cover purchase, whether trade or mass market, will come with the option for a reader to add on the electronic version for $1 more, again in whatever format works with their e-reader. This would also make the decision to shop at the local bookstore, as compared to Amazon or other online retailers, easier.

Another anecdotal note is based on comments from Brandon Sanderson at a recent book signing. He experimented with giving his readers the e-book copy of his novella, Emperor’s Soul, if they emailed him a picture of them holding the physical book. He has had good sales for this novella and has gotten many positive responses from his readers for this action. I personally believe that he is part of the leading wave of authors who have recognized that readers want to have options like this and that e-books will not kill the book industry but can be complimentary if handled properly.

I can guarantee that people like my husband and I, who are not alone in our desire to support authors and new books being released, would make many more book purchases.

Thank you for your time and consideration

Grumpy email to Penguin:

To whom it may concern,

I am writing you concerning the price of the e-book Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein currently published by Ace, a subsidiary of Penguin. This book was released in 1959 and was an award winning and best selling book at that time. It is still considered a must read for any sci-fi reader. However, you have lost at least 2 purchasers of a new copy in all formats because of your pricing for the e-book. $9.99 for an electronic copy of a book that has been available in mass market, currently priced at $8.99, for over 50 years is unacceptable. I have spoken with multiple people regarding my disgust at this pricing scheme, the vast majority of whom also read e-books. When I do purchase this book it will be at a used bookstore specifically with the intention to avoid giving you, the publisher, my additional financial support. I will not purchase any e-books from Penguin Group Publishing nor any of its subsidiaries until your anti-consumer policies have changed. I will also not purchase any other books, physical or audio, from your publishing group. I will continue to discuss my concerns with friends, family and co-workers to educate them on the way some publishers prey on their consumers.

Sincerely, a former Ace/Penguin group consumer,

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Physical books vs ebooks

Physical books vs ebooks. The battle has started and there are strong advocates on both sides. Physical books have texture, weight, smell and don’t run out of battery! Ebook readers mean you can carry all the books you are reading everywhere without breaking your back or shoulder, they are easy to use even if you’re standing in line, many are back or front-lit so you can read anywhere, even in the dark and did I mention you can carry hundreds of books?

Both have their benefits and detriments. I personally resisted getting an ereader for years, scoffing at those who would choose to diminish their reading experience. Then I played with one of my friend’s while we were out and about and I couldn’t help but notice the convenience. When I got home and looked at the stacks of books on the floor in front of and next to my book shelves and bed I couldn’t help but think how nice it would be to not have to take into consideration whether I had space for the new books I would inevitably bring home. Thus I started to ponder whether I should look into buying one. I did all sorts of research and wasn’t really satisfied with the options nor with the pricing, but I wasn’t in a hurry either. I had dozens of unread physical books that were calling out to me and it would be silly to purchase them all over again as an ebook.

Nearly a year after I began contemplating switching over I received a Kindle as a birthday gift. Initially it didn’t see a whole lot of use. Even having my Kindle linked with my husband’s account I was more interested in many of my physical books. So I would switch between them and noticed the benefits of both.

The pricing for physical books was and is still better in most ways. I was paying for a physical commodity and that has more value in my opinion. I still buy the physical copy of a book if the ebook price is not at least 25% less. I get annoyed when the price is the same for both, or near enough to be a negligible difference. Unless the book I’m looking at is one that I already have in ebook form. Then I have a stronger tendency to purchase new books in the series in ebook form, though I will wait months for the price to drop. The same goes for series I already own in physical copies, I will purchase physical copies rather than ebook even if there is a price difference. Consistency apparently means much to me.

As time has moved on, I’m purchasing more and more ebooks. The convenience of being able to carry a much smaller or at least less clunky device is advantageous, especially if I’m planning on going multiple places. I’ve discovered that it’s much easier to use when I’m doing cardio at the gym since I don’t have to worry about losing my page and it fits on those little “book” ledges so much easier. A simple touch of a button (or screen for those with a touch screen device) is more convenient than turning pages when I’m trying to keep from falling over or, at least want to maintain my pace, on a treadmill or elliptical machine.

On the other hand, when I’m curled up on my couch and reading, I much prefer a physical copy. There’s more satisfaction in turning the pages, in the weight and even the smell of the book. I like the color contrast, it doesn’t strain my eyes as much as the back-lit screens do and I can easily read in sunlight or bright lighting. Some ereaders have addressed the contrast and screen lighting issues, but not the texture and weight and smell of real books.

The ideal solution in an ideal world, at least for me and my husband, would be to give readers the option of purchasing a physical copy and giving them a code to use to purchase the ebook either for free (yay!) or for a small fee, $1-5 depending upon the page count and original price of the book. This could be accomplished by one of three ways:
1-The honor system where a reader could go to the publisher’s website and enter the ISBN number of their book and then pay and download the ebook in the format of their choice.
2-Giving book sellers little cards like what Starbucks and Apple have going on for music/shows/apps that can be given to customers with their purchase from a brick and mortar store. The reader would then go to Amazon/Barnes&Noble/iTunes/publisher’s websites or an independent website set up by a joint effort of the publishers, enter the ISBN number and one time use code and pay the fee and download their ebook.
3-For people that purchase online they would be given the option to add the ebook to their purchase and make it all one simple process to download/send to their ereader after checking out.

I see this as the ideal solution as booksellers would still sell physical books, readers would be able to switch between or lend the physical book (as they already do!) and publishers would make even more money since they’d be selling the book in two formats, albeit one at a discounted price. My main argument for why that is not as much of a concern is that unlike physical books, an ebook only has to be produced one time and that file is then disseminated to the various online sellers. The publishers have less at stake if a book flops, they’ll still make more money than they otherwise would have. There will still be people who will only purchase in one format, but I think there would be enough purchasing both ways to make it worth the changes required.

Since it’s not an ideal world and I must make a choice between the physical book and ebook, I must side with the ebook. It is with a heavy heart and much reluctance, but ebooks have too many more advantages over physical books. As long as I remember to charge my ereader that is!