Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What's an electron cost?

"If you're not worried that you're pricing it too cheap, you're not pricing it cheap enough." - Roy H. Williams

Near as I can tell, there are two reasons for similar things to be priced differently: different costs of production/delivery, or different levels of perceived intrinsic value.  Those are the two legitimate reasons, anyway; you'll always have crazy marketing people who decide to just toss numbers out into the great wide world, of course.  Still, those are the two things I can think of that will at least allow me to feel like I've justified how much I am or am not paying for something.

Now, let's talk about book formats.  What I and probably most of the remainder of the book-buying world are used to is a fairly simple scheme: simple black and white print hard-cover books priced at $25-$30, while simple black and white print paperbacks at $6-$10, ish.  That seems reasonable, right?  I mean, I can guesstimate about what printing a page of paper is going to cost.  Give me the total cost of producing a novel, the number of pages, and the cost of producing the cover, and I can use a little bit of simple math to get really close to the cost of each page.  It's not huge, certainly, but it's calculable.  Aggregate that cost to get to the cost of the pages printed, and I can at least grasp the purchase--literally. 

Why am I willing to pay 2-3 times the amount for a hard-cover book that I would for a paperback?  Well, for one thing, it's clear that the larger, thicker pages cost more, as does the hard cover.  The hard-cover book also comes with the added intrinsic value of greater durability; theoretically, it'll last longer than the paperback due to the protection afforded by the cover itself.  So, yay. 

There are also books that I buy used.  While they didn't cost any less to produce or distribute than the ones that are new, they have the problem of reduced value due to some other book lover's having fondled their pages before I had a chance to.  Personally, I like being able to buy pre-fondled books for a penny plus shipping, but then again I've already announced that I'm a cheap bastard.  Some series I'm reading, I'll insist on buying the hard-cover version; for most other readings, the pre-fondled fits the bill perfectly. 

Anyway--are we straight on costing differences for printed books?  I'm about to veer a different direction. 

On our trip to Orlando, and the trip to New Jersey, and finally the trip last weekend to the Biltmore Estate (more on that, later), we enjoyed the last (maybe) story in the Eragon series by Paolini, titled Inheritance.  Now, that's a decent story for about 90% of its length and all, but the point here is that I didn't pay a penny plus shipping, or $6-$10, or $25-$30 for it.  I paid $60 for that story, because I purchased it in audio book format.  There, too, though, I understand the cost difference.  Once the book was written, they had to pay Mr. Doyle whatever they paid him for the 30-odd hours it took to read the thing (in different voices, for that matter).  Meanwhile, they had to pay studio time and a production crew to do all the sound level manipulation magical stuff that production crews are famous for.  Then they had to pay to burn all the CDs (yes, I know that's done on great big machines for pennies, but even though the cost is low, there's still a cost).  Then there's all the special packaging and stuff.  So, yeah--I understand paying more for audio books than for print books.  Granted, I'm not sure if I get why it's twice the amount, but an increased price for increased costs I do, at least, get.  The direction of the pricing difference makes sense, if not the magnitude. 

So while we're comparing production costs and pricing of paperbacks, hard-cover, and audio books, let's add the e-book to the fray.  In its case, once the book is written, somebody has to sit down for about half an hour (if I'm feeling generous) to format it and then feed it through a converter, where it gets converted into electrons to be stored on a virtual shelf somewhere that's also made of electrons. 

So what's an electron cost?

Yeah, the answer to that really is nothing.  They're all around us.  If you don't agree, stick your tongue in a light soc--er, no, just kidding.  But seriously, it doesn't cost all that much. 

Which is why, of course, traditional publishers are insisting that e-books should be priced in the $15-$20 range, which is somewhere north of twice the price of a paperback. 


No, I'm serious, unfortunately.  Now, I'm not going to wade into the perceived value argument in this case.  I know that there are people who, like me, will take a very long time to abandon our love for paper, if we ever do.  But there are just as many people now who swear by electronic readers for their transportability and other great features (like, for instance, how us old guys don't have to buy special "large type" edition books).  It's just not a battle I'm'a gonna join, though, in this case; instead, I'll call the perceived value just about even when averaged across the population and let it lay. 

So what's the point of pricing e-books so outrageously?  I sometimes get the feeling that the traditional publishers don't actually want to sell them.  I think that either a) they're doing what most companies do, building up earthworks around their normal business models rather than trying to change their business models to take advantage of the times, or b) they're protecting their print shop employees and friendly neighborhood book stores.  Nothing wrong with that last, by the way.  I like book stores.  I wish they were smarter as a group, of course, as a couple of my previous posts will indicate, but I do like them and want to see them stick around.  Remember the days when there were three or four in each shopping mall, in fact? 


Bookstore demise aside, the problem in this case is that there are all sorts of pricing strategies out there for e-books that publishers aren't participating in. One example: loss leader.  When an independent author has several books out there, it's becoming common to offer a book for cheap, or even for free, in the hopes of enticing people to buy copies of the other ones.  Publishers can't do that, though; nobody goes in to a bookstore looking for a Tor or a Penguin or a Simon & Schuster book.  I go in looking for Brandon Sanderson, and to heck with what emblem is at the bottom of the spine.  The bottom line is that imprints brand their authors, not themselves, and that's hurting them in this case. 

Take, for example, Stephen King's (the other one) new book, 11/22/63.  Now that, I actually want to read.  I've never gotten into horror or suspense, but historical mystery is usually pretty interesting to me, and King is truly a master of telling a tale.  That said, I'm not interested in buying it for $20.  I'm just not.  I'm confident it's a good story, but I'm not willing to spend that much on something that I might not enjoy when I can wait a few months and buy a paperback or a cheap pre-fondled edition.  There's too much else I could do with that $20.

That said, I bought several new e-books over the last few weeks, pretty much at random based on what I saw friends publishing.  None of them was priced over $5, and all, as you should already understand, were by independent authors or small publishers. 

I'm sure that the Big 6 would like to believe that my purchasing preferences are unique to me--but they're not, as the falling number of (new) printed book sales and the skyrocketing number of e-book sales would suggest.  What I don't understand, then, is why they continue their pricing strategy on e-books.

So what's an electron cost?  Quite a bit, if it brings down some of the Big 6. 


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