Amazon Asks Authors to Demand All eBooks Sell for $9.99 or Less

illo-Amazon-Letter

On Saturday, the Amazon Books Team sent an email to book authors reg­is­tered with Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct Publisher pro­gram. That let­ter encour­ages authors to express the fol­low­ing points to CEO of Hachette Book Group, Michael Pietsch:

  • We have noted your ille­gal col­lu­sion. Please stop work­ing so hard to over­charge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
  • Lowering e-book prices will help — not hurt — the read­ing cul­ture, just like paper­backs did.
  • Stop using your authors as lever­age and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
  • Especially if you’re an author your­self: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

On Twitter, Australian book edi­tor Simon Collinson had this to say:

The let­ter begins with the story of the rise of the paper­book book in the 1930s. The paper­back was sig­nif­i­cantly less expen­sive, more portable, and more eas­ily dis­trib­uted than hard­cover books that were the stan­dard of the time. Of course, the lower price point made some pub­lish­ers and authorsinclud­ing George Orwell of 1984 and Animal Farm fameunhappy. Nearly a cen­tury later, hind­sight tells us that the objec­tions of Orwell and his like-minded con­tem­po­raries were wrong; the paper­back books did not harm the book pub­lish­ing indus­try and what Amazon terms “read­ing cul­ture”. Quite the oppo­site: smaller, lighter, cheaper paper­back ver­sions of books could be dis­trib­uted in more out­lets, more read­ily, and in greater vari­ety. Their lower cover price meant that indi­vid­ual read­ers could pur­chase and con­sume more books. Publishers and authors earned more money than with hard­cover sales alone because of the increased num­ber of copies of their books sold, despite the lower cover price per unit. The paper­back was a tremen­dous boon to the indus­try for all concerned.

Sub-ten-dollar ebooks, the let­ter argues, are the new paperback.

Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjus­ti­fi­ably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no print­ing, no over-printing, no need to fore­cast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no ware­hous­ing costs, no trans­porta­tion costs, and there is no sec­ondary mar­ket — e-books can­not be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

It’s unclear from the let­ter if Amazon believes that every ebook, regard­less of length, depth, sub­ject, or audi­ence, should be priced at $9.99 or lower. Is that price ceil­ing intended only for mass mar­ket fic­tion or all types of books? Hachette’s cat­a­log includes fic­tion and non-fiction. If it’s Amazon’s point that $9.99 should be the top cover price for all books, then I, as an author, object.

Does Amazon expect my pub­lisher and me to sell my 500-750-page tech­ni­cal books for only $9.99? The print ver­sions of those books are typ­i­cally priced between $29.99 and $49.99, which is the aver­age for sim­i­lar books. Were we to sell the ebook ver­sions for only $9.99, three things would hap­pen. First, no one would buy the print ver­sions. Next, both my pub­lisher and I would be inun­dated with email accus­ing us of price goug­ing on the print ver­sions. Again, $29.99-49.99 is the indus­try aver­age for such books, and it’s a price range that pays a small amount to every­one involved in the pro­duc­tion of the book (about 14 peo­ple per book, includ­ing myself). Many would-be read­ers, how­ever, would per­ceive the ebook price as the actual value of the book and the print price as being inflated for no good rea­son. And, finally, $9.99 is sim­ply not a fair price for a 500-750-page tech­ni­cal book on dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing, InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, or sim­i­lar topic that took the author(s) a few hun­dred hours to research and write with sim­i­lar time and effort invest­ments from one or more tech­ni­cal edi­tors, a devel­op­men­tal edi­tor, a copy edi­tor, an indexer, one or more lay­out artists, and a lay­out proof­ing team. Then, in addi­tion to the team directly involved in pro­duc­ing the con­tent, there’s the author’s lit­er­ary agent as well as dozens of other peo­ple at the pub­lish­ing com­pany whose pay­check is fed solely by sales of books.

Amazon argues that 174 books are sold at $9.99 for every 100 sold at $14.99. I’ll have to trust Amazon on those fig­ures. They make sense, but only in terms of books that have a very broad appeal across demo­graph­ics. Readers of my books are a rel­a­tively nar­row mar­ketpro­fes­sional or semi-professional design­ers, pho­tog­ra­phers, and pub­lish­ing per­son­nel. It seems unlikely to me that sell­ing Mastering InDesign for Print Design & Production for 1/5th of the print version’s cover price would gen­er­ate 5X the sales. If it didn’t, then some­one doesn’t get paid. Should that be the author (me), my ded­i­cated tech edi­tor, the pub­lisher who has to make pay­roll for a few thou­sand employ­ees, the lay­out artist who arranged my words on the page, or some­one else? It would mostly likely be all of us because pub­lish­ers sim­ply won’t buy books on which they can’t make a profit.

If pub­lish­ers don’t buy the books, read­ers can’t read them. Thus Amazon’s argu­ment that set­ting a price cap of $9.99 only ben­e­fits, and can’t hurt, read­ers is naïve and erro­neous. As it is now, pub­lish­ers are buy­ing fewer and fewer books due in part to Amazon’s prior price-fixing, which leaves read­ers look­ing to self-published ebooks and the Web for very often sub­stan­dard, error-laden, even com­pletely wrong non-fiction and tech­ni­cal infor­ma­tion from… (I have a hard time using the word “authors” here.) …writ­ers who don’t always really know what they’re writ­ing about. Say what you want about book pub­lish­ers (I’ve got plenty of com­plaints myself), they vet their authorsbefore and dur­ing book writ­ingensur­ing that authors actu­ally know the sub­jects about which they publish.

As com­pelling as Amazon’s let­ter was, I’ll have to dis­agree: price-fixing, sell­ing all ebooks regard­less of length, sub­ject, or audi­ence at below $10 is not the best thing since the inven­tion of the paper­back for any­one but Amazon.

Read the entire let­ter from Amazon here.

Laura Dawson, the Product Manager for Identifiers at Bowker (read: the gate­keeper for U.S. ISBN num­bers) chimed in on her blog, too, with the post Go Home Amazon. You’re Drunk.


Update: 2014-08-11, 1:30 PM EST

Michael Pietsch, Hachette’s CEO, did indeed receive “a few emails” appar­ently at Amazon’s urg­ing. In a story on Digital Book World, Pietsch’s response email quoted in its entirety, includ­ing the fol­low­ing pas­sage:

  • More than 80% of the ebooks [Hachette pub­lishes] are priced at $9.99 or lower.
  • Those few priced higher—most at $11.99 and $12.99—are less than half the price of their print versions.
  • Those higher priced ebooks will have lower prices soon, when the paper­back ver­sion is published.

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2 Responses

  1. Laura says:

    Please note that the blog reflects my own per­sonal opin­ions and not those of Bowker. I don’t know what Bowker thinks, as an orga­ni­za­tion, because Amazon is not a cus­tomer of ours.

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