The Great (Ebook) Debate: Author Robin Spano and Steph in Conversation
Steph and Robin don’t see eye to eye on ebooks. This conversation started on Twitter and continues, (because we were having so much fun) in a more fleshed-out form here.
ROBIN: Hey Steph, where do you stand on the ebook question? You’re about as book-loving a person as I think I’ve ever known.
STEPH: What an awesome compliment! I’ll never, ever have an e-reader. I am undecided, though, as to what’s more important: that we don’t take sales from those who’ve suffered because of ebooks, or that perhaps more people read.
ROBIN: Suffered? Really? I love what ebooks are doing for new writers. It used to be a huge disadvantage to be new and unknown. Unless you were Stephen King or Margaret Atwood, most stores would spend more time out of your book than carrying it—making it fairly impossible to get your work into the hands of each reader who wanted it. Suddenly, with online booksellers and ebooks, new writers’ work is nearly as accessible as the old established guys.
Haha. But I just realized what I said. You’re a bookseller. Ebooks and online booksellers have probably murdered the world of independent bookstores. What kind of changes have you seen at work?
STEPH: Had to chuckle when you remembered what I do because that’s where my answer is coming from, for sure, but I’ll answer that last question about the bookstore in a minute. First, I hear what you’re saying, and I understand about getting out there to more people, and being more affordable as well, especially when people are trying to be money conscious. If this is all about price, if more books will sell at cheaper rates, why would I argue? I want to spread good literature and help authors as much as the next booklover. I also want more people reading, preferably good books. I have no idea, but are authors and publishers making more money discounting books so much? If they sell at such cheap prices, there are bound to be cuts somewhere, I would think? Perhaps not. I assumed royalties as well as indie booksellers and publishers were suffering. Perhaps ebook sales are so high there is no loss for you or publishers. I don’t know. There are articles on this sort of thing all over the place but the wording always seems a bit misleading in them.
ROBIN: I think the theory is that as the ebook industry moves forward, the author will get a bigger piece of a smaller pie (double the royalty percentage of half the price = no change). The publisher can charge less because the production/distribution costs are minimal. At the moment, it’s all in chaos—everyone has a different deal with their publisher, and really the publishers’ costs haven’t gone down because they’re still more likely to lose money than make money on a book if they print any copies at all. That’s why it’s so important to ask these questions now, while the industry is reshaping itself to accommodate these new-fangled ebooks.
STEPH: So is the ebook industry moving forward? Is it truly experiencing raging success? Or will this be a trend that peters out as technology keeps developing or as people have issues with their e-readers? I haven’t heard much about how people actually like their machines, so maybe that’s not an issue. But I can’t stop thinking of the ECW Press fall launch you were at in Toronto, when Chris Eaton was trying to do his reading from his e-reader and it just wasn’t working out. It was hilarious!
ROBIN: Yeah, Chris was super funny—I admire his ability to wing it like that. We actually went on a date in university but it went really badly. We hadn’t spoken since then until we saw each other at that reading. Yeah, I actually think that as the software gets less restrictive and the kinks get worked out, ebooks will take a higher market share—not peter out at all. You know they’re at 8.7% of total book sales as of this month?
STEPH: A date that went really badly…could there be some fodder for another story there? Too funny that you were both published by ECW!
Though you mentioned in an email that the 8.7% was up from 1.5% in the first quarter in 2009, it still seems kind of unimpressive to me, considering all the hype. Also makes me think that, yeah, probably ebooks haven’t made all that much difference to indies as much as discounted books at box stores and also changing values. But does that growth, which you and others are saying is major, indicate that price doesn’t really matter? And then, there is more to this debate than simply price. I believe, like others, that publishing and reading have both lost a great deal to ebooks in general. As one editor friend said to me a while ago, publishing used to be an elegant trade, but now the focus is really on the bottom line, which affects the quality and process of books. I argue that bookselling has also lost. It too was an elegant occupation, but how we run, what we carry, etc., are all now dictated by what it takes merely to survive.
So to answer your question about bookshops: yes, online shopping hasn’t helped indies all that much, especially if the books are so discounted. I don’t know to what degree we struggle because of ebooks, though. I’m not sure our community is all about e-readers. From my experience at Chapters, the public library, and now our indie, I’d say there’s not a huge population with them here, considering we’re predominantly a retired or shift-worker community.
So if not ebooks to a large extent, then what? Ebooks arose out of a need to up sales, I imagine, as well as increase exposure. So what was the root cause of the decline in book buying, the catalyst for cheaper books and increased online presence? Was it price? Was it that more people live online rather than go out into actual stores? Something was lost, and I am struggling to determine what it is. Perhaps it depends on the community, though since bookstores, and not only indies, are closing at alarming rates, I’m convinced there’s been a universal shift in priorities or values. Particularly for our store, it’s the presence of Chapters and discounted books in drugstores and grocery stores that have hurt us most, as well as our downtown, which is not vital.
ROBIN: I’ll admit I’m a bit of a capitalist. I see your point about elegance, but I don’t like to see progress stifled. I love independent bookstores—the way they smell, the way I feel inside them, the intelligent, book-loving staff who can chat literature with customers. These stores do a great thing for the book community. But instead of resisting the online revolution, maybe we could convince our government to help bookstores weather this storm while we navigate the new road together.
STEPH: I’d have no problem with that, and I admit my resistance is mostly personal, but I’ll admit to being super skeptical about convincing the government to fork out! For the arts? Ha! Maybe if we were an auto company? :) But yeah, grants would sure help!
ROBIN: I actually think it’s a great time to petition government for a bookstore leg-up program. A Conservative government is more likely than a Liberal one to help a business or an industry. Yeah, they’re less likely to help the individual artists—and they don’t want to make blanket donations to opera houses or theater companies. So I wouldn’t ask for a grant. But I think if you approached them with a solid business plan, maybe ask for a reduction in property taxes or employee taxes on behalf of the industry, I think they’d take notice. Politicians are people (ha ha, even though I killed a bunch in my book, there are several who I like in real life). They respond like anyone else does to a strong argument from someone who’s committed to making good things happen. Maybe don’t bring a bunch of screaming lobbyists and protesters—but you’re an intelligent, reasonable person. People like you can have real influence.
STEPH: Thank you! I’d like to think so. I’ll have to think on this more as to the approach and what to say. I’ll bring it up with my boss and my fellow indie friends. Since you’re a politics junkie, I’m trusting you on this!
ROBIN: I’ve also grown up with politicians in my family. Trust me: they are totally real people—funny and smart and compassionate, even. And I’m loving David Miller right now—the former Toronto mayor who inspired the plot about killing politicians [link to Robin's youtube discussion with Miller at end of post]. He Tweeted to tell me he likes Clare—and he hopes she’ll make up with Kevin for the next book. But yeah—major tangent! The issue I’m having this week, the one that got us talking, is pricing. You know my publisher, ECW Press. They’re awesome people. But they’ve priced the ebook at $10.99, which to me seems so high. I know it’s standard for new releases, and I get it: they don’t want to devalue literature. But I think it’s prohibitively high—I don’t see someone with an e-reader clicking yes on that purchase when the paperback is $10.79 online.
STEPH: If it’s an ebook they want, will they not buy it for an extra twenty cents? Saves them time they’d have to go to the store for the paper copy, shipping if they were buying the paper copy online, and space. But I hear what you’re saying: it’s an ebook: there’s no paper, no boards, no binding, nothing tangible, really. I think $10.99 is really cheap for a book these days, but that is almost the same as a typical mass market paper copy, so yeah, perhaps something like $7.50 or something would be better. That’s a great deal when compared to the paper copy. I think your price is too low; I don’t like that ebooks are often so cheap. It takes from the author and so many involved in production, even in that format. This is where it takes away from bookstores selling only the paper copies, as well. Returns cost money, too, if they don’t sell because people are buying the ebooks. Anyway. I just want all to get their due. Publishing, one of the most important industries, does not pay well. Authors, who contribute so much, aren’t paid well.
ROBIN: True, we’re all paid terribly. But that’s almost the point. Until I can tell my husband to retire, I don’t care if I make $5 or $5000 a year. The joy is in having my story connect with an audience. Hearing readers talk about Clare, I can almost see how it is for people with children—I could listen forever. So I want the book priced where readers will buy it, which my gut says is closer to $4.99.
But I see your point about production. Publishers aren’t laughing all the way to the bank at the moment. Even if it’s almost free to distribute each ebook, the publisher still has to pay for cover art, printing, and all the overhead at their office. So if an ebook is too cheap, the publisher might lose money on the print book and not make it back with electronic sales. The capitalist in me doesn’t like that very much either.
STEPH: So the answer is compromise… But I have to add: you’ll never be able to tell your hubby to retire if you’re making $5000 a year!
ROBIN: I know. Have you met him? He says he’s waiting for me to buy him an Aston Martin. He even knows what shade of blue he wants.
STEPH: Now there’s some encouragement! :) I know it’s about the love of writing and getting your book out there. I can totally appreciate that. No real author does it for the money. And you put so much into each book that you just want to make it as accessible as possible, which means using all the avenues of sale and perhaps highly discounting it. But when you or bookstores or publishers are losing money, or even reputation, I’m not so sure that method of exposure is the most effective.
ROBIN: Makes sense. And though Dead Politician Society is holding its own, I just can’t see it being valued that high as an ebook. $1.99 is too low— that’s just for the experiment [explained below]—but $4.99 strikes me as a happy medium—good value, a price people will actually pay if they want to read the book.
STEPH: I totally get saving money, as I said before, but there’s one thing even I, broke as we are, will pay full price for—books. To me, it’s worth it. I’m so tired of the grumblers, the cheapass comments on how expensive books are! I love telling people in the shop what goes into a book.
ROBIN: THAT is awesome. Because those “cheapass” people would gladly pay more for a case of beer.
STEPH: Exactly! I understand that it’s all about priorities. But then don’t expect the prices of things to reflect your personal preference for where you spend your cash. Books are not expensive for what they are. They are expensive for the budget you’ve decided based on your values. There are those who love paper copies who buy only hardcover, let alone pay full price for paperback, and I’m not talking only wealthy people. There are those who value books and would pay $30 for a long-awaited one while they wouldn’t pay $30 on an item of clothing! (Okay, that’s me.) I can’t change a person’s priorities, but I especially hate the comments if they’re buying a gift for a booklover. Then they seem selfish. This isn’t about them; it’s about the booklover, the recipient.
ROBIN: People are selfish. Instead of hating them—us—for it, I think our best bet is to work with that, or work around it. It’s like the devil you know, right? So if $4.99 is what people will pay, I think that’s what the ebook should cost.
STEPH: Yes, but you can’t lowball. Like with negotiating of any kind, try the higher price first. Not ridiculously high, but not low such that they agree immediately and have you wondering if you could have charged more. Of course they’ll pay $4.99 and $1.99, but those prices also lead me to question the value of the story or the status of the author. That’s just too cheap for a current title. As I said, I get discounting your books to get more sales and the name out there. But won’t Tweeting and Facebook and blogging and all the other social networking avenues we have already help that without skimping on price? Even a podcast, just once, can work amazing wonders to drive regular purchases (look at Terry Fallis’s success because of this!). And book trailers, and so on… I know you are using most of these, but maybe we just need more media push?
ROBIN: That’s the million dollar question, or maybe the $1.99 question. ECW is such a cool publisher that instead of telling me to shut up and go away like most publishers would, they’re actually running a challenge this week—making Dead Politician Society $1.99 at iBooks, Kindle, and Kobo.
And hey, coincidentally, ECW has given me the go-ahead to copy Terry Fallis and podcast the whole book, chapter by chapter. I even asked Terry if he’d mind being copied—I didn’t want him to feel like his originality was being devalued—and he’s all for it.
Anyway, the idea behind this challenge is that, if you and ECW are right, sales won’t jump dramatically this week – and I’ll concede that a lower price isn’t the way to get my book into the hands of more people. But if sales do jump, ECW Press is watching closely. They might conclude that a lower price does lead to better exposure.
STEPH: Yes, but THAT low?? That’s almost skewing the results before they happen!
ROBIN: Haha, you’d think. Except ECW has done this at least twice before with other books, and sales didn’t jump in the slightest. And you’re right that it’s not an exact science: selling just 5 times the normal volume won’t show anything. In a challenge this short, we’re looking for dramatic results, like 10 or 20 times the regular ebook sales.
STEPH: Ah, okay. Because yeah, there are so many other factors that could affect those sales, too. Other than price, I mean.
ROBIN: Yeah, because the book is getting a lot of extra attention from the blogosphere this week, so visibility is also a factor.
But as the first book in a series, I almost see Dead Politician Society as a loss-leader—an invitation into Clare’s world. I think this series is going to be cool, following Clare undercover to different weird and wild places, watching as she grows into a woman and becomes a better cop. All I’m really looking for is readers to come with her on that journey, at whatever price they think it’s worth. I love that it’s in libraries, circulating among strangers all over North America. One day, I hope to make a living from writing, which is a surprisingly lofty goal. I think the way to do that is to care less about short-term profit and more about reaching a wide audience.
STEPH: I can’t wait to meet Clare again in Death Plays Poker, and can I stick in here that if ECW doesn’t send me the ARC I’ll pay full price for it? :)
ROBIN: Aww! Okay, that just made my heart melt. But you see what I mean? That’s the payment I’m looking for at this point in my career. I figure that if enough people react like you to the first couple of books, there will be enough money down the road as the series grows more popular.
STEPH: I guess this really comes down to individuals and who makes up the majority. Unlike many, the way I won’t eat more just because it tastes good or is there in front of me, or is cheap (if we want to make this relevant), I also won’t buy more books because they’re cheaper. I go for whatever I want at the time, whatever format (hc or pb), whatever price. And I buy only what I want to keep.
ROBIN: I’m half and half. If I want to read a book, I’ll buy it at whatever price. But if it’s a quick read I’m grabbing for the airplane, and I’m tossing up between two choices, one of which is half the price, then yeah, I’ll probably grab the cheaper one if it looks just as good. Still, my argument isn’t that I want my ebook to be cheaper than other ebooks, it’s actually that I think an ebook is only worth about half what a paperback is worth.
STEPH: Yes, I agree: the ebook should be cheaper than the paper copy, assuming less money goes into it than into a paper copy. The readers aren’t getting the entire experience when the book is digital, and they know that.
I would love you make a living writing. (Hell, as much as I enjoy bookselling, I’d love to make my living writing!) But if you want to do that, I think it’s less about what you charge and more about making your name and showcasing your writing with your words (you’re a writer after all!)—in other words, not by cheapening your product. It’s been proven, you’ve seen it, that writers can sell, even if they’re hardcover, if there’s enough hype. You need a dream team behind you, comprised of ECW, friends, family, booksellers, libraries, and anyone else who wants to read a great mystery series. Because genre fiction, as left behind as it always seems to be, is huge in Canada. In my experience as a library worker and a bookseller, what people buy and borrow most isn’t literature, it’s fantasy and mystery, and of course popular fiction. Those people read voraciously, like no others I’ve seen!
ROBIN: I feel like I do have a dream team, but in a quirky indie way. ECW gives me latitude to try weird and wild things—like this week’s challenge—and they support each weird thing I try. Have you met Jack (the owner of ECW)? He’s one of the most interesting guys I’ve met: he actually told me proudly that his office is full of strong-willed free-thinkers who don’t always get along with authority, or each other. He empowers his staff the same way he empowers his writers to fight for what they believe in, even if their fight is with him.
STEPH: I know only a couple of the staff at ECW, and we’ve never actually met in person. But I hope to be proofreading for them come January! Hey! Maybe I’ll get to work on one of your books. Pick me! I’ve always had problems with authority!
ROBIN: Yeah! Proofread mine, and, um, stick in some content editing if you like. Your review of DPS is one of my favourites, because it made me learn as a writer. If I could have those eyes on my next book BEFORE it sees the light of day, I would be thrilled.
STEPH: Whoa, thanks, Robin. That really means a lot to me! Maybe ECW will hook us up some day. That would be cool. I’d be honoured.
Back to ebooks. I just had another thought: maybe this mostly comes down to your audience. Typically, mystery or genre fiction in general is mass market. So genre readers are used to paying lower prices. The big-name authors right now, like Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, Charlaine Harris, and so on, do sell in hardcover, and series tend to help this because people can’t wait for the next one to come out. But generally what I’ve noticed is genre fiction readers buy tons of these mass markets and pass them on. They rarely keep them. Which makes me wonder if ebook buyers like cheap books because they don’t typically keep their books. They read them and then delete them. At least with a paper copy, you can leave it for someone else to read!
ROBIN: Hey, that’s genius. That actually might be the key point. Because this book is genre – it’s a fast, fun read that probably won’t change anyone’s world view, and it is the kind of book you’d pass on – maybe a lower ebook valuation is fair.
And maybe books like The Sentimentalists should have an ebook price that’s up on a par with its print price – it’s less likely to get passed around, and the person who buys it is buying it because they want to read that book, not just something in its genre.
STEPH: That touches on a whole other aspect: pricing according to author and type of book rather than pricing to sell. I often wonder about that with paper books; how do they decide what to price? What are all the many factors included in that decision?
The other thing is, and we kind of touched on this earlier, how do you know it’s the price and not the word of mouth to friends, family, tweeps, facebook acquaintances, and fans (tweeting, facebooking, blogging, etc.,) that are getting people to buy the book? So if the book sells awesomely at $1.99, is that because of advertising? If it doesn’t sell, does that mean there wasn’t enough or does that mean the price made people wary? There are so many factors as to why a book moves or doesn’t: type of book, cover design, name of author, etc. And, of course, what format the book is in. If it doesn’t sell well, does that mean that more people are into paper books still than ebooks? Conversely, if it does sell well, does that mean that your book is more one that suits the ebook format or that more people are buying ebooks than paper books? How on earth does one know without endless surveys?
ROBIN: Word of mouth is still—according to everyone’s surveys, including Bowker’s—the single biggest factor in book sales. And I wouldn’t keep the permanent price for the ebook at $1.99 for exactly that reason: it would make me wary as a shopper that the book was no good.
STEPH: At some point, you and I have to come to a conclusion, just for this discussion. I imagine the universal debate itself will be ongoing. For my part, although I know I’ll never have an e-reader, I’m not totally against ebooks, knowing that authors, like you, depend on them to reach more people, and that some people who don’t normally read are doing so now electronically at least (like your husband!). There are tons of people who prefer to be digital, to save space, to not own books, whatever. I think Stephen King kind of started this whole thing, and I know that if The Sentimentalists, having been difficult to acquire after the Giller win (I’m still waiting for my Gaspereau edition!), hadn’t been available on Kobo almost immediately, sales likely, sadly, would have been lost.
Curious to hear the result of your experiment, and how your approach might change for the second book. And here’s another factor that could help make the first in the series more attractive: a second book with a complementary cover! Genre readers love that!
ROBIN: Totally. I like the pink one they’re looking at, too…
STEPH: The pink one is my favourite! Let’s link to that so our readers can get excited, too. Death Plays Poker: A Clare Vengel Undercover Novel, number 2 in the series. Stay tuned!
Hey everyone, thanks for making it this far. Robin and I were pretty stoked to be having this chat, and we hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we did.
ROBIN SPANO is a crime writer who wishes she lived inside the Charlie’s Angels TV show. As consolation for that being impossible, she writes a series where she sends a young female cop on cool undercover assignments places Robin would love to go if she wasn’t petrified of danger. She lives in Vancouver with her more practical husband, Keith. Also, she rides a motorcycle, just like Clare.