Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In Defense of Little, Brown

If you’re a James Patterson fan—or if you read The New York Times—you’ll know that, apparently for the first time ever, two Kindle editions are currently priced higher than their hardcover counterparts. The books, James Patterson’s Don’t Blink and Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants, and their respective publishers, Little, Brown and Penguin, have subsequently come under some criticism on Amazon. The Patterson novel, for example, currently has 5 five-star, 6 four-star, 2 three-star, 2 two-star, and 31 one-star reviews. Let’s sample them, shall we?

“I refuse to purchase this book IN ANY FORMAT until the publisher lowers the e-book price. It's time for them to come to terms with the technology.”

“I join in the consumer outrage that a print publisher would charge more for a digital edition than a paper edition. I sense that the conglomerate publishers need to learn a lesson, and having a book or three fail because of consumer backlash is probably the only way to get that message across to them.”

“This is corporate greed on display as the suits in their ivory tower think they can set the price for the digital version of the book anywhere they please and people will buy it just so they can have the e-book reading experience. They think we're too stupid to realize they're price gouging us. I'd like to hear one these publishing executives explain the rationale for this pricing. I'd be very interested in learning how the publishing industry can save us money by not publishing a digital edition.”

“Electronic books are definitely the way of the future, like it or not, and this pricing is how we now know it is true. Commerce has seen the future and it is with us ebook readers. Therefore the higher price, even though it is infinitely cheaper to produce and transport.”

“The publishing companies will not see the next decade unless they come to terms with new technology. Pricing an ebook more than the hardcopy is not the right start.”

Ultimately, of the 31 one-stars, five actually evaluate the quality of the writing. The others are spent complaining about either the ebook/hardcover price gap or about a misleading free sample button that Amazon featured on the book page.

Before addressing the anger these would-be readers feel, and the points they bring up, I have another question to ask. When did Amazon reviews become a legitimate place to rate anything other than the book itself? Dear ranters: other Amazon readers are not looking at the ratings to learn more about your personal politics, your views on the author, or your views on the publisher. In fact, those readers might just have their own opinions on those various subjects, and they’ll hardly need the benefit of your thoughts. No, they’re looking for informed opinions about the book itself, and that’s probably what you should stick to. Any review prefaced with “I haven’t read this book, but” is useless. Write an op-ed or a letter to the publisher instead, as I'm doing right now in response to your reviews.

Anyway, back to the Patterson reviews themselves. After all of this anger, if you click on five-star reviews, you’ll find four reviews that evaluate the quality of the book, and then this lonely little voice:

“Amazon is underselling other booksellers by making almost no profit on each book. It's akin to an insider bank thief skimming pennies from millions of accounts and making a fortune. The problem isn't that the kindle price is too much, it's that the hardcover is being sold for too little.”


Well, let’s just (tentatively) follow Mr. Five-Star’s suggestion, that maybe there’s a misunderstanding here, and discuss some of the claims both explicitly and implicitly made in the one-star reviews, with that thought in mind.

1) Claim #1: Publishers are setting a higher price for the ebook than the hardcover.
Actually, as the New York Times article points out, there are two separate entities with pricing power here. The first is, yes, the publisher, because in these two cases, they have the ability to set the Kindle price. But the second entity is Amazon, and they’ve set the hardcover price on their website. Amazon’s business model, in case anyone isn’t aware, is to buy large numbers of hardcovers at the wholesaler’s discount and to resell them to consumers at more or less this price. It’s a decision that benefits the consumer but is ultimately in Amazon’s self-interest: as Mr. Five-Star above notes, such discounts mean that Amazon makes a very slight profit on each book but ultimately establishes a monopoly, meaning that those few pennies become a fortune. So in fact, publishers are still setting a lower price for the ebook than their hardcover asking price. It’s Amazon that is undercutting.

2) Claim #2: Ebooks are cheap to produce and should be cheap to buy.
Makes sense. But here’s a rundown of publishers’ costs from “Publish or Perish,” an article by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker: “Traditionally, publishers have sold books to stores, with the wholesale price for hardcovers set at fifty per cent of the cover price. Authors are paid royalties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price. A simplified version of a publisher’s costs might run as follows. On a new, twenty-six-dollar hardcover, the publisher typically receives thirteen dollars. Authors are paid royalties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price; this accounts for $3.90. Perhaps $1.80 goes to the costs of paper, printing, and binding, a dollar to marketing, and $1.70 to distribution. The remaining $4.60 must pay for rent, editors, a sales force, and any write-offs of unearned author advances. Bookstores return about thirty-five per cent of the hardcovers they buy, and publishers write off the cost of producing those books. Profit margins are slim.” To summarize: only a very slim portion of the price of a book represents what is spent printing it. The rest goes to the people who are making the book the best it can be: the author and the editor, as well as the publicity, marketing, sales, and art teams. One might argue, with some validity, that many publishing houses today are overstaffed and could be run more efficiently, but that’s ultimately beside the point here. The point to be made is that just because something is digital, it doesn’t mean it’s free or even cheap. The same effort goes into any good book that is published, and these expenses will remain regardless of whether reading goes entirely digital.

3) Claim #3: Ebooks are the wave of the future, and publishers refuse to accommodate that fact.
Actually, publishers recognize this—more than you could know—and are working very hard to change. It’s not easy, as you’d probably guess. Publishing houses, like any company, are made up of a lot of different people with different kinds of knowledge and different vested interests. There are young people, mostly assistants, who are perhaps more knowledgable about technology and more excited for its potential. There are older employees who can’t tell an iPod from an iPad. There are those on either side who don’t fit the mold, including young employees who are entrenched in orthodoxy and older employees who are excited for technology but don’t understand it and those who do. There are those, like me, who are mildly excited for innovation but are ultimately pragmatic, and just see this as the inevitable, mostly unscary next step. What publishers do refuse to accommodate, though, is the belief that what Amazon says is the future is indeed the future. Ebooks, as an employee here said recently, are media’s next frontier, an untamed Wild West. From royalty rates to ebook prices (two points of contention that are ultimately linked, contested between agents/authors and booksellers, with publishing houses in between), it’s a world of brawls and uncertainty, and publishers are trying just as hard as Amazon and Andrew Wylie to figure out what’s right and best for readers—and ourselves—as we push forward.

4) Claim #4: Publishers are greedy—and hate us, the readers.
This is both an explicit and an implicit claim. The reviewers above seem to think that Amazon is on their side and the publishers are out to get them, to squeeze every last drop from them. But this isn’t true. The thing is, the people who work in publishing love books. That’s why we’re here—it’s certainly not a career to go into for the money. And because of that, we also love you, the readers. We’re here to see that what we love, good books, is something that continues into the future, and that those books always get to you. Now, there’s been a lot of talk about the death of print. Sometimes the wild talkers have cast you, the ebook reader—or maybe you, the American non-reader—as some sort of philistine. Either you’re not reading or you’re reading trash. I apologize for that talk now, because when I see ebook sales, I know that it’s not true. When I see soaring ebook sales, sales that put hardcover results to shame, I’m hopeful: because it means you care. It means you want our books. Yes, we want to sell them to you—but we also want to just know you’re reading. A world of readers means a world where our passions are still important and relevant.

There are plenty of other things I could address here—things that I believe in, like the continuing importance of at least a small print run, and of the value of the people who work at publishing houses, especially editors and copyeditors—but this has gone on long enough. Although I’m sad to see Stieg Larsson deposed from the top of the New York Times bestseller list, best of luck to you, James Patterson, and to your devoted readers—solidarity is exactly what we need as we move forward into this brave new world.


  1. amen, sister. but dear publishing ceos -- publishing houses are not overstaffed!

  2. I don't know. I hate to say it-- I don't want anyone to lose their job, of course-- but small independent presses seem so stripped down and efficient. Like a cheetah.