Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pricing E-books

Thoughtful and informative piece on e-book pricing from Steve Bareham.

Coincidentally, just went to a presentation on ebook publishing in academia where the speaker noted that ebook textbooks were selling for about twice what the same book in hardcopy sold for. This, of course, makes no sense because the elimination of paper, printing, storage, and shipping costs should make ebooks much less expense. The presenter had no explanation for this, but said it was a clear and universal trend in textbook publishing. So, three possible explanations present themselves to me: (a) the academic text publishers are entering ebook market only reluctantly and fighting a rear guard action to prop up print market by reverse pricing, -- but that is a losing battle, so hard to credit that explanation; (b) the publishers assume a certain amount of piracy when making their texts available in ecopy, so build that into the pricing; (c) simple supply and demand: college and university students are moving to ebook format faster than other demographics so can be charged accordingly. Since one is often required to drag texts to class, and since texts weigh a ton, I wouldn't be surprised that students might actually be prepared to pay a premium to have all there texts on a Kindle.

But what the big textbook suppliers don't seem to recognize is that they are doomed. As a textbook author, what exactly is my incentive to go with a big publisher which is going to charge my students an arm and a leg for my book; demand that I change my book to meet the needs of some idiot instructor on another campus whose course has just enough overlap with my text that if I add five more chapters (which my students have to pay for) he might adopt it; and pass on almost none of the profits to me, the author?

I've sold my upcoming textbook to a small press (Five Rivers, of course) which will charge my students a quarter of what they are paying now and pay me five times the royalties. And my colleague was explaining to me how his self-published textbook is quickly spreading to other campuses and he's making 100% of the net. The big publishers were necessary when publishing was too complicated and time consuming for an academic to undertake him/herself. But today, the technology actually makes it simpler--and incredibly faster--for me to put a course reader together myself online then to have the university bookstore--let alone some distant publisher--do it. Producing and distributing a single author textbook is still bit complicated, especially if one is looking for decent cover art, book design, national distribution etc., but a small publisher can do as good a job as one of the big three, and they take a much smaller cut of the pie.

And, what is most important to me, the smaller publishers don't insist on controlling what and how I write. The big publishers have to sell thousands of copies at exorbitant prices in order to break even; so they have to insist on authors revising their texts to reach lowest common denominator in the marketplace. Which is why all textbooks are boring and cover the exact same content the exact same way. The last time I wrote a text, the publisher insisted on taking out all the funny bits because some of the instructors the publisher sent sample chapters to felt that funny has no place in a serious text. (Rubbish! Either they were afraid my funny bits would upstage their own lectures, or they simply too pompous to be allowed in a classroom. Funny not only makes reading a text more palatable, it helps students learn and remember.) I'm okay with an editor telling me my jokes aren't working, but I have a problem with the marketing department saying my text has to be rewritten so it can sell in Texas.

One of the more provocative (read: "outrageous") textbook chapters I wrote is still being reprinted and used in course readers on half a dozen campuses across Canada, even though the textbook it is from has been out of print for nearly 20 years. Precisely because it is funny and provocative and not the same as everything else. In those days, I had no choice but to try to get my text published by one of the big academic presses. Now, I can upload that chapter to a clearing house and get paid directly every time a prof reprints something I wrote. No intermediate editors, publishers, or distributors required.

So then the question becomes: how much should I charge for my article? Too high, and budget-minded instructors might cut it to bring their course reader down to something affordable for their students; too low, and revenues generated might not be worth the trouble. There is something to be said for giving it away free, since reputation counts for something in academia, but as Steve Barham points out, 'free' often implies 'worthless' to potential buyers. Tricky business, setting prices. Barham article is a good place to start though.

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