An American Editor

March 2, 2011

Waiting for Common Sense — Not: The Agency 6

It used to be the Agency 5, now it’s the Agency 6 as Random House has caved and instituted agency pricing. This further changes my book-buying habits.

Let me start by saying that I am not outright opposed to the agency system. What I am opposed to — and appalled by — is the pricing. Granted that Agency 6 pricing clearly demonstrates lack of competition bordering on price collusion (Isn’t it amazing how similar the Agency 6 ebook pricing is across the board?), but that isn’t the primary problem I have: The primary problem is that the selected price points are extortionate considering the restrictions imposed in the license (and note that it is a changeable, revocable license). Compound this with Rupert Murdoch’s greedy ploy, through his HarperCollins subsidiary, aimed at libraries, the last bastion for education of the poor, and what you have is a devil’s cabal.

(In an interesting aside, Murdoch’s Fox News has been denied access to Canadian TV because of its lack of impartiality. See Regulators Reject Proposal That Would Bring Fox-Style News to Canada. Maybe that is why he feels he needs to bleed American libraries — to make up for lost revenues and bias outlets.)

In the past I have spent significant sums of money building both my hardcover library and my cache of ebooks. It wasn’t so long ago that I could be counted on to spend $5,000 or more in a year on such purchases. The Agency 5 put a big dent in that spending. I felt compelled — if not honor bound — not to buy books, p- or ebooks, published by the Agency 5 (except where necessary because I already had several volumes in an ongoing series). So I focused my purchases on self-published, indie presses, academic presses, and Random House books. The consequence was that my expenditures on new releases dropped by more than 50% last year.

With Random House now part of the Agency cabal, my habits will shift yet again. If I want a new release in hardcover, I will wait to buy it on the remainder or the used book market, when I know that neither one of the Agency 6 nor their author will receive any compensation. But my ebook buying will (and has been) change even more dramatically.

A good example of the change occurred yesterday. Yesterday, the long-awaited second volume in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (the first volume was The Name of the Wind; the second volume is The Wise Man’s Fear) was released. My previous practice was to buy both the hardcover and the ebook versions; not this time, however. This time I bought just the hardcover because of the agency pricing (the ebook is virtually the same price as the hardcover and no ebookseller can sell it for a price lower than $14.99, which is exorbitant).

That is but one example. Increasingly, I am only “buying” free ebooks and ebooks that cost $2.99 or less, and those I am buying from Smashwords. The reason I buy from Smashwords is that most authors let you sample their work before you buy, some offering up to 75% of the ebook as a free sample. I admit that in the case of the free ebooks I don’t sample them, I simply download those that seem interesting, but for those that do cost some money, I generally read a portion of the sample before buying.

At Smashwords I discovered several self-publishing authors whose works are excellent. Granted they do not have the cachet of a Stephen King, J.D. Robb, or Robin Hobb, but they do know how to write a compelling story. A good example is Safina Desforges’ Sugar & Spice, a 99¢ mystery/thriller that compares well to any P.D. James novel.

The point is that the setting of exorbitant pricing by the Agency 6 has compelled me to look elsewhere for book purchases. Money that I previously spent supporting the traditional publishers is now going elsewhere — and it is costing me less yet giving me comparable enjoyment.

Yet there is one more thing that has to be said about the agency system. Currently, it is limited to ebooks. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me over the long run.

Under the more traditional wholesale system, the publisher sets a retail price for a book and the bookseller pays to the publisher approximately 50% of that wholesale price for each copy sold, regardless of the price that the consumer pays. (Yes, there are more wrinkles in the system, but I’m simplifying it for this discussion.) This is how it started with ebooks. The excuse for going to the agency system where the publisher sets the retail price below which no ebook can be sold and which pays the bookseller a fee for each sale was that low ebook pricing devalued the book and its content.

If that is a valid and sustainable argument, how does low pricing of the hardcover not devalue the book and its contents, too? Logically, there can be no difference. After all, a book is bought for its content, not for its package, and supposedly the content of the p- and ebooks are identical.

What this means to me is that we are the road to a major shakeup in the book industry. I think the agency system is only beginning with ebooks and will either have to be abandoned for ebooks or spread to pbooks. Although agency pricing has not been a big win so far, spreading it to pbooks could solve a major problem for publishers — the problem of returns, which would also solve the problem of excessive book print runs and remainders, and minimize the secondary market.

With the Agency 6 controlling more than half the publishing market overall and probably 75% or greater of the nonfiction market, the path they take could well become — and quickly — the path that smaller publishers take. The bulwark against the spread of agency pricing is the self-publishing market, but that market has to find ways of uniformly increasing its standards before it will supplant the traditional publishers.

In the end, it is clear that the Agency 6 lack common sense. At the same time that one or more of the Agency 6 publishers expects ebooks to grow to as much as 20% of all book sales in 2011, they try to thwart the one avenue of growth by imposing extortionate prices and limiting competition. Simultaneously, they allow the wholesale model to continue for pbooks, thereby devaluing their product and its content. Some day they will get it together; unfortunately, when that day comes, I expect it will not be to the consumer’s advantage.

In the meantime, I’ve changed my buying habits significantly and may well represent an unrecoverable customer loss for the Agency 6.

March 8, 2010

On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (I)

I have been thinking about what goes into my decision whether or not to buy a particular book. An ever-increasing number of books are available every year — enough to overwhelm any dedicated book buyer. I suspect that the only time the decision was (relatively) easy was in the days of scribal versions and the early days of the printing press and moveable type. I recall reading that even at the time of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, thousands of books and pamphlets were being written and published every year.

Books have always been a treasure for me. I remember, in my childhood, going to the library every week to borrow a dozen or so books to hold me until the following week’s trip. And when I began to earn money, I spent more money buying books than on anything else that was leisure related. Although book buying isn’t my most expensive outlay today, I still spend thousands of dollars every year on books. Some of those books are books I plan to read some day when I have time, but which in reality will never have the binding cracked because something else will take reading precedence — and eventually time does run out.

So how do I decide which book to buy and which to pass over? The process is really more complex than I had thought, especially considering that (according to The Economist) more than 400,000 books are now published every year in the United States and United Kingdom. Plus, I need to separate ebooks from pbooks because the process is different in several respects, not least of which is that ebook purchases are always fiction whereas pbook purchases are almost always nonfiction.

Over the course of the next 3 articles, I plan to examine what goes into my book-buying decisions. Admittedly, this is a personal approach, but I suspect that many book buyers’ approaches mirror at least some of my approach. Let’s begin with reviews.

Reviews

Reviews as a factor do not need to be separated by the book’s format. The bottom line is a review is applicable to either the ebook or the pbook, unless the review is focused on formatting gaffes that are peculiar to one version rather than to both.

There are essentially four types of reviews: online starred reviews at the bookseller, independent online reviews, friend reviews, and magazine-type reviews, such as the New York Review of Books (NYRB), The Atlantic, and the New York Times Books Review (NYTBR). Each has its own credibility level. For me, I’ve listed them in ascending order, that is, least credible are the starred reviews, more credible are independent online and friends’ recommendations, and the most credible, for me, are the magazine-type reviews (including newspaper reviews).

A number of people have commented that when buying a book they look at the bookseller’s, such as Amazon, rating: What have other readers at this bookseller thought about a particular book? Some readers apparently give great weight to the online reviews, others scant weight. I give the reviews at the booksellers no weight whatsoever; I don’t even look at them.

Why? Because I believe that too few of the reviews are honest reviews of the content; instead, the reviewer has some other agenda (such as pricing or religious or political protests) and I have neither the time nor patience to weed through the reviews. If a book has 100 reviews, 95 of which are 1 star, how can you be certain — regardless of the review’s content — of the verity of the content review. Plus I have no idea who sallyfromarkana is or why I should care whether he/she liked or disliked a book: How do I know  sallyfromarkana really read the book? Or understood the book? Or isn’t bosom buddies with the author? Or isn’t a bitter ex-spouse? How knowledgeable about the subject matter is sallyfromarkana? Can sallyfromarkana really tell me how this book compares with the previous three books on the same subject, which is important in the case of nonfiction?

Then there is the “King” complication. I already know that hundreds of thousands of book buyers love to read Stephen King, James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.D. Robb, and many other authors. These best-selling novelists represent the King complication; that is, if sallyfromarkana reads these authors, how in tune with my tastes is she when I avoid their books? How do I know what other books he/she has read and/or reviewed and the quality of those reviews? Of how much worth is sallyfromarkana’s review of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book to me when sallyfromarkana gives Stephen King 4 stars, Dan Brown 1 star as a price protest, and Doris Kearns Goodwin 3 stars?

This problem also surfaces with the independent online reviews. Additionally, those reviews require searching to find and a lot of effort to discover whether the reviewer is good or bad, thorough or not. It requires a lot of time and work, something I am not desirous of expending looking for a review.

Friend’s recommendations have greater credibility for me, as I suspect they do for most book buyers. The problem is that our reading tastes rarely coincide; my taste in books doesn’t even coincide with my children’s. None of my friends have read, for example, Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But they have read the new Dan Brown or Clive Cussler novel.

That really leaves me, as far as reviews go, in the hands of the professional reviewers, such as the NYRB and NYTBR. The reviews in the NYRB are my particular favorites. They are in-depth, tell me whether the author knows the subject matter well, and refer me to other books on the same subject or from which the reviewed author obtained information. I’ve bought several books that have been mentioned in a NYRB review that are not the subject of the review.

Alas, outlets like NYRB and NYTBR are limited, especially for nonfiction. There are only so many reviews that each can contain in an issue. So although these types of magazine reviews do influence my decision making, they do so on a limited basis, simply because of the limited number of books reviewed compared with the ever-expanding number of books published. But also worthy of mention, at least in the case of the NYRB, are the book ads placed by university presses. With all the books being published each year, one of the things I rely on to learn about a new university press book are publisher ads. They aren’t reviews but they at least alert me to something that may be of interest to me and that I should check out.

Part II, tomorrow’s article, discusses the role and importance of a well-designed cover. Part III, the final article in this series, discusses the final two legs of the decision-making process: content and pricing.

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