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[publishing] More on ebooks, pricing and licensing - Lakeshore — LiveJournal
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-04-13 04:58
Subject: [publishing] More on ebooks, pricing and licensing
Security: Public
Tags:ebooks, process, publishing, writing
As I observed recently [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ], The perennial "ebooks should be free, charging for them is theft" argument is now playing out at io9.com.

There is a fair amount of supportive commentary there, but also quite a bit of the usual arrogance, ignorance and acrimony about why ebooks should be free. It seems to boil down to the idea that the author/publisher is greedy and doesn't deserve to be paid twice for the same content. This is closely coupled to the misconception that ebooks obviously don't cost anything, and therefore charging for them is theft.

As I said before:
When you buy a print book, you aren’t buying the content, you’re buying the edition. Otherwise everybody who bought a hard cover would be entitled to a free paperback, a free audiobook and a free movie ticket if the book were filmed.


This is driving me more and more toward my nascent view that a book (in any format — print, audio, ebook, what have you) is a license, not a product. The story is the product. The format is a delivery channel. The ebook "debate" gets obscured by the long-running and rather sordid experience of the music industry, as well as the whole bit torrent culture of pirate video. I'm also increasingly coming to view "information wants to be free" as a pernicious meme, as it completely devalues the content Producer to the short-term benefit of the content Consumer.

In the long run, would I write even if I weren't paid? Sure. I did for years before I was paid. But why should my writing, if it has value to readers, be free? The thing I always want to ask ebook activists is whether they're comfortable with their work product being free, simply because I don't think I should have to pay for it? Tom Tomorrow touches on this in his cartoon this week.

And you know what? I'm not going to sell t-shirts or something. I'm not even interested in doing format conversions to sell my backlist online. I'm a writer, damn it. My best and highest value is writing.

It's insulting and demeaning to be called a liar and a thief by readers who don't know anything about the processes of publishing, copyright law or professional ebook production, and yet are certain of both their facts and their moral high ground. It's the Dunning-Kruger effect in full deployment.

I've always said the story belongs to the reader. I believe that in the bottom of my heart. Story is not an economic right, however. Buying a hardback then paying for an ebook is no different from buying a hardback then paying for a paperback or an audiobook. But there's a growing culture online deeply invested in denying that, and they're very happy to demonize authors as part of their denial.

Note, please, before you comment, that I am not making an argument for any particular price point on ebooks. I am also increasingly coming to favor the idea of bundle pricing, which is in line with my view of books as licenses rather than products. I think ebooks should be cheap, and possibly free if promotional considerations indicate. But that's a decision for my publishers to make as part of their marketing process, not a natural law of information, nor an entitlement of the reader.

I think the hardest part of this discussion for me personally is getting people, especially the activists, to see how caught in the middle authors are. I can't even tell you how many times I've been told I should just switch publishers, or force them to change my pricing. That kind of thinking is another example of the profound disinformation and ignorance about the process of publishing, and how it colors the passions of readers.

People want to read. I want them to read. Writing is work, just like plumbing, law, medicine, retail, bus driving, teaching or anything else. Like any work, it should be compensated according to its value. When you want your ebook for free, you're devaluing writing to nothing.

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jtdiii
User: jtdiii
Date: 2010-04-13 12:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Information may want to be free.
but plot lines need to be paid.

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Caitlin Kittredge
User: blackaire
Date: 2010-04-13 12:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm compelled to quote the Joker: If you're good at something, never do it for free.
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Patrick Nielsen Hayden
User: pnh
Date: 2010-04-13 14:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Of course, "If you're good at something, never do it for free" is advice containing more errors than words.
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martyn44
User: martyn44
Date: 2010-04-13 13:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you may be (generously) ignoring the fact that some of these chuckleheads are so far up their own sense of entitlement that they are incapable of understanding why THEY should have to pay for ANYTHING.
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Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2010-04-13 15:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
^^This.
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Dan/Дмитрий
User: icedrake
Date: 2010-04-13 13:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Futurismic has an interesting suggestion about blanket ownership.

However, your claim that "Otherwise everybody who bought a hard cover would be entitled to a free paperback, a free audiobook and a free movie ticket if the book were filmed" is spurious, in that it acknowledges your work but disregards that of the actors and director (to keep this as a very short list).

The notion that charging for ebooks is theft is so ludicrous it barely deserves a response: Charging for something, whether you got it for free or not, isn't theft. To the best of my knowledge, no one is being sent ebooks they hadn't ordered, along with an invoice.

There is at least room for discussion in the position that charging for ebooks is a bad business plan. But theft? Some folks need to cut back on the Red Bulls.

Now, all that said, I feel that you are ignoring the importance of the form the final product takes. You aren't alone in this, but I still feel you're wrong to do so. The story isn't the product -- the story is only part of the product. From the consumer's perspective, the product is the experience. And that experience includes everything from the cover art to the feel of the paper to the checkout experience at the store to how easy it was to find the book on the shelf. But those are the differences between a Mercedes and a Volga.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-13 14:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually, I think we're talking past each other while being in substantial agreement. My whole point is that the form the final product takes is what the consumer is paying for. Ie, ebooks are not freely substitutable for print books, which rests on that assumption.

(And no, I'm not ignoring audio talent or movie production teams. I'm just talking from the narrow perspective of the notion that content should only be paid for once.)
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Michael Curry: alton
User: mcurry
Date: 2010-04-13 13:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:alton

Of course, the actual Stewart Brand quote, from the heady days of 1984, was:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.


Which makes a lot more sense than the shorter version.
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Galdrin ap Morgan
User: galdrin
Date: 2010-04-13 14:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Jay, I have been following your discussion on this topic with interest ever since the Amazon/Macmillan fight a while ago and wanted to take a moment to thank you for the explanations and examples of how the publishing world really works. While I was aware, in only the most general of terms, of some of the behind the scenes work that goes into being an author, I was certainly not aware of how detailed and intricate the whole publishing world really is until you started giving such simple and clear explanations and examples. Thanks again for your efforts.

... and no, just because I own an original vinyl copy of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's "Brain Salad Surgery" album, I do not think I am entitled to a free CD or MP3 version of the same - unless I make it myself.

Edited at 2010-04-13 02:07 pm (UTC)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-13 14:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you. One of the underlying points is that much of what goes on in publishing does not meet the common sense test. I've been at this professionally for 10 years, and am still wrong/surprised about half the time about what happens. People look at ebooks and think "How hard can it be to save a Word file to .pdf?" Corollary to that, most folks don't seem to understand cost accounting, which is a big factor here, too.

Mostly, though, it's the aggressive entitlement that seems so strange to me. So unlike print book culture.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
When life gives you lemmings...
User: danjite
Date: 2010-04-13 18:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It is the distribution system part that bites this all in the ass in New Zealand.

Here, we get - relative to the US - almost no Tor titles. What we do get starts at $30 in MMPB.

Illegal downloading of books is not really here yet- we are a bit slow on the internet, there are non real eReaders available and bandwidth is filthy expensive.

For what titles we do get, we are huge on loaning/borrowing, libraries and used bookstores.

When we get decent eReaders... who knows what people will do?

Me? I don't even have time to read the manuscripts I am sent.
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Patrick Nielsen Hayden
User: pnh
Date: 2010-04-13 14:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I sympathize with your annoyance with the more cranky of the e-book aficionados. We've run afoul of some of them ourselves.

But I counsel you to think long and hard before embracing the notion that books are fundamentally "licenses." Think about the kind of society we'll have if nobody actually owns their books.

As someone else pointed out, when Stewart Brand said "information wants to be free," he wasn't saying "information ought to be free." He was pointing out that the cost of replicating information is dropping constantly. This is the same point Cory makes: absent the collapse of civilization, it is never going to get harder to make copies of stuff, only easier. If we conflate the demanding whiners with the people who are trying to get us to notice the locomotive bearing down on us, we make it less and less likely that we'll actually get off the tracks in time.

It is going to get easier and easier, never harder, to make copies of things. Effective DRM is a technical mirage. What are we going to do about it? Sure, lots of whining ninnies with king-sized senses of entitlement say foolish things. But refuting them does nothing to change the material reality we're up against. Nor does asserting the fact that writers ought to be decently compensated. Of course writers ought to be decently compensated. So should janitors, waitresses, and hospital orderlies. Often they're not. It's a problem.

A lot of people's lives were wrecked when containerized shipping eliminated, in just a few years, the need for armies of stevedores and other dock workers. Their work was effectively "devalued to nothing." Writers are lovely people, but nothing in the rules of the universe exempts them from being similarly flicked aside by the invisible hand. This kind of change isn't a good thing or a bad thing, it's just a thing. Asserting that our work is too valuable and that people ought to pay us better will do exactly as much good as dock workers asserting that the world should just forget about that containerized-shipping idea. You can sneer at the people trying things like selling t-shirts or e-books of their backlist, but at least they're trying something.

PS: As a point of heuristics, I find it useful, whenever I find myself claiming that I'm "caught in the middle," to stop and ask myself whether this is actually the case. All too frequently assertions that one is "in the middle" merely reflect the limitations of one's individual perspective, in which we naturally think of ourselves as being at the center of all things. In fact if writers are "caught" anywhere in this rolling complex of change and argument about change, they're "caught" in one of the many edges of the problem. Claiming to be "caught in the middle" is really a kind of self-valorization and doesn't make us or anyone else any smarter about what's actually going on.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-13 14:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you. This deserves a long and thoughtful response, which I hope to do this afternoon or tomorrow.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
From Amy Thomson - (Anonymous) Expand
Blue Tyson: snow crash
User: bluetyson
Date: 2010-04-13 15:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:snow crash
You might not be interested - but speaking in general, why can't people buy t-shirts or posters of some of the fancy artwork that is on book covers? From a business point of view, that is, not random writer decides to do it ad hoc. The logistics don't work? No one has ever done it? Artwork costs too much do do this with?

(For the average+ writer that is, not your Tolkiens or Rowlings etc. that people are falling over themselves to merchandise )

Obviously there is lower interest compared to movie posters or whatever, but it is something I have been wondering for a while.

One of your book covers would make a clearly great poster, for example.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-13 16:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh, agreed, I'd love to see my covers licensed out. Unfortunately, they're not mine to license...

Why it isn't done, I'm not sure. I suspect the ROI for publishers is marginal, especially on low-midlist authors such as myself. Twilight merchandising is probably doing just fine.
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-04-13 17:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You rock. This should be read by everyone who is interested in this whole debate.
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gvdub
User: gvdub
Date: 2010-04-13 17:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
How about an edition that's a universal purchase. $100 gets me the hardcover, trade, mass market, ebook, audio book, and a movie ticket? I pay it up front and hope that it sells well enough that I get to fully exercise my rights to get what I paid for. Heck, make it $125 and toss in a t-shirt and logo cap.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-13 18:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And who the heck would pay $100 for a book? Talk about taking it out of the range of impulse buy...
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Randall Randall
User: randallsquared
Date: 2010-04-13 22:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"The thing I always want to ask ebook activists is whether they're comfortable with their work product being free, simply because I don't think I should have to pay for it?"

Er, of course? That is, if you can find someone willing to give it to you for free, after they (or someone they got it from, etc) paid me for it, why the heck would I object to that?

The problem is not that John Doe can get a copy of your work for free, but that you might not get paid for creating your work. Ultimately, trying to solve the latter situation by hammering on the first situation is doomed to fail.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-13 22:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You misunderstand my question. If you were an attorney, would you work on my will for free simply because I didn't want to pay for it?
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Boden.Steiner - (Anonymous) Expand
Amanda
User: cissa
Date: 2010-04-16 05:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I stopped doing illustration and moved into metalwork because if anyone says "Gold wants to be FREE!" and then steals it, I can get the cops after them. This was not true of illustration.

I am not going to buy ebooks until they;'re something like $3 each. This is the effective cost of me getting a book through Paperback Swap, and since I cannot trade an ebook once I am done with it, unlike physical copies, it is worth far less to me than a physical copy would be; it is more akin to some cross between a library borrowing (free) and the postage to send off a book and get a credit on PBS.

I do buy books. Hardcover from favored authors whose books i know I want to keep. Paperbacks from authors whose books I want to read, but probably don't want to keep (and these I either change my mind about or trade on PBS and the like).

But: since due to current tech and DRM, I cannot consider an ebook I've bought to be something I'll necessarily have access to in 10 years, NOR can I trade it like I can a physical book, it's worth much less to me.

I don;t think that means it should be free, though; a worker should be paid for his/her work. That's not only biblical, it's the only way to get people to create the stuff we want; if authors, illustrators, metalsmiths, etc. can't make any money doing our art, we'll have to work farming turnips or something, because the world as it is requires us to PAY for necessities, and if we can't PAY for them with our creative work, we will have to pay for them otherwise and thus be less able to DO creative work.
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