An American Editor

July 5, 2010

Finding an eBook to Buy

How many hours do you spend sitting at your computer for work and pleasure? How many hours are you willing to spend reading an ebook on your work computer? How many additional hours are you willing to spend to search through ebook websites to find an ebook to read?

I find these latter two questions to be the ones that haunt me as I try to find an ebook to buy and read. I broached this topic in an earlier article, Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers, but didn’t really delve into the problem of reading on my computer.

Beginning with the first question, I spend 6 to 8 hours every day (often including weekends) working at my computer. I’m an editor and these days, most editing is done on the computer, not using paper and pen. Included in that time is some time spent on “pleasure” activities, such as bill paying online or finding information on why my cat is retching on the carpet. Important stuff that is not work related and thus must be pleasure related.

So now I’ve spent a considerable amount of time surrounded by the 4 walls of my office, staring at my 3 monitors, and reading, for the most part, manuscript that is in need of my editorial skills. Now I want to relax, leave my office behind — especially my computer — and read an ebook for pleasure rather than work. I do not want to continue sitting in my office and reading on a computer screen. Yes, I do own a laptop, so I could move to a more comfortable spot and read on it, but using my laptop is just an invitation to do more work; my laptop is essentially a duplicate of my desktop system except that it is a single-monitor system and portable. I stared at an LCD screen all day; do I really want to do it some more?

Besides, the laptop isn’t exactly lightweight. It is difficult to hold like a book so that I could lie in the hammock and read. Well, truth be told, I can’t really take the laptop outside because I can’t read the screen in the sun. So now my Sony Reader comes into play. Using it is like reading from a paperback. I can hold it easily in 1 or 2 hands and at the easy-to-read angle depending on how I am relaxing. For me, at least, using my Sony rather than my laptop for pleasure reading is a no-brainer. And the e-ink screen is easy on the eyes, just like a printed book.

OK, the first 2 questions are answered: I spend too much time working on my computer screens and, no, I do not want to spend any more time reading for pleasure on those same screens. The idea of pleasure reading is that it be enjoyable, pleasurable, and somewhere other than in my office. That takes us to the third question: How many additional hours are you willing to spend to search through ebook websites to find an ebook to read?

If I want something from the latest bestseller list, finding the ebook is easy. For me, I can just go to the Sony eBookstore. The problem is that I rarely read books from the bestseller lists; I want to find new authors whose books are worth reading and reasonably priced. I do not want to pay $12 to $14 for an ebook that I am essentially borrowing.

Consequently, I tend to migrate to places like Fictionwise (which appears to be on its death bed as a result of recent moves by its owner, Barnes & Noble), Smashwords, Books for a Buck, Feedbooks, and other similar places. But there are so many and there are way too many choices to sort through. I recently timed how much time I spent at Smashwords trying to find a few ebooks for July 4th weekend reading. Truth is that after an 30 minutes, I simply abandoned the quest. Why? Turns out Smashwords is having a great sale this month on some books. But “some” is a big misnomer — there are approximately 800 books being offered just in the category Newest & Longs — that’s 80 “pages” of books to sort through in just this filtered category; if I don’t filter by using Longs, there are 1446 pages, each with 10 ebooks on it!

And I have to read the descriptions of many of the books to make the determination of whether I might be interested. Sometimes I can tell simply by the title or the price (e.g., I’m not interested in 450 Home Business Ideas nor in paying $9.99), but most times I at least have to read the description. So, after a relatively short time I say enough — I no longer am willing to stare at my computer screen.

When I suggested that better filtering was needed (Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers) by ebooksellers, several commenters wrote to praise Amazon’s filtering methods. Alas, however, I do not have a Kindle (and so cannot use an ebook bought from Amazon), so the response was I could get the free Kindle applications that work on my cell phone or PC. Yup, just what I want to do — read an ebook on my cell phone; and I’ve already — I think — dismissed the idea of reading on my computer.

The real answer is for places like Smashwords to become more in tune with customer needs, and, concomitantly, author needs, by offering better filtering. Think about those authors whose books appeared on pages 20 to 80 of the 80 pages I was looking at before the holiday — I never got to their books, so they never had a chance to sell me a copy, because I lost interest long before I ran out of options.

eBookstores have the technology available to offer customers and authors better filtering options. If they want to succeed down the road, they need to implement those options. If anything is going to hurt the indie author, it is the frustration in trying to find his or her book — to find that needle in the haystack of needles.

May 7, 2010

Smashwords is the Real Threat to Agency Pricing of eBooks

Smashwords and ebooksellers like Smashwords (such as Books for a Buck) are the real threat to agency pricing and the Agency 5 (Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and HarperCollins). The reason is simple: the combination of quality and low price.

I find it hard to justify paying $14.99 for a fiction ebook unless I am absolutely enthralled with the author, and even then I am more inclined to pass on the ebook than spend that kind of money on a read-once-throwaway ebook. No need to repeat all the reasons; they have been bandied about the Internet and the magazines for months. And if I don’t know the author, I certainly wouldn’t pay the agency price. Amazon may have had it right when it set a top price of $9.99.

But look at Smashwords and similar sites. They sell ebooks in many categories from authors with whom I am not familiar for a reasonable price. I’m much more likely to spend $3.99 on an unknown author than $14.99. Of course, that isn’t enough to be a threat to the Agency 5. The Smashwords threat comes by Smashwords’ authors also being available in the iBookstore and Amazon, but primarily in the iBookstore.

It is in the iBookstore that the Agency 5 are face to face with competing books that cost significantly less. In publishing, it isn’t the publisher who sells an ebook; it is the author, the story synopsis, the ebook itself. No one goes around and says “I bought a great Hachette ebook yesterday.” Publisher branding value among ebookers is nearly nonexistent and I suspect noninfluential in the decision whether or not to buy an ebook.

For agency pricing to succeed, by which I mean the Agency 5 at minimum do not see a decrease in ebook sales from the pre-agency days, ebookers have to equate quality reads with the names of the giant publishers. Otherwise, all that will happen is that the blockbuster bestseller from the Stephen King-/Dan Brown-recognition-level authors will sell at the agency pricing and less-recognized authors down to unrecognized authors without the Oprah kick will have less-than-stellar ebook sales.

It is these second- and third-tier authors who have to compete against the Smashwords authors and for whose readers price is a major component of the decision to buy or not. In a bricks-and-mortar world, the Smashwords authors stand little chance, but in the Internet world they stand an equal chance — the Internet is the great sales leveler.

The playing field is level because all books display a cover, offer a sample read, have similar story blurbs. The differences are price and publisher name, but the latter has little, if any, swaying power, especially when you get down to the subsidiary names with which few readers are familiar. (Can you tell me who owns Ballantine? DAW? Basic? Do you care?)

The advantages that the Agency 5 do retain really relate to the level of professionalism in putting together the ebook — the professional editing, the professional cover design. But that advantage is easily eliminated by Smashwords authors who could hire these services independently [see, e.g., Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1) and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)], and with the right pricing, is readily overlooked by ebookers. Even though I am an editor and find amateurish errors annoying (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), I am more forgiving of them in a $1.99 ebook than in a $14.99 ebook, where I won’t forgive them at all. (Perhaps the Agency 5 should rethink offering a warranty of quality; see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty.)

The big gamble that the Agency 5 is making is that ebookers will associate quality reading with their brands and be willing to pay an inflated price for that quality. The reality that will strike home eventually is that such thinking is delusional. eBookers do not equate quality with the Agency 5 brands; if anything, the Agency 5 have done such a poor public relations job with every aspect of ebooks that any association of their brands with quality have long disappeared. eBookers, as is true of most readers, look first for an interesting and seemingly well-written story. Then they look for pricing and production quality.

Combine an interesting and seemingly well-written story with a reasonable price and you have an ebook sale. The ebooker doesn’t care if the ebook is from Smashwords or Hachette. Consequently, Smashwords-type ebooksellers are the real threat to agency pricing and the Agency 5. The more Smashwords and its companion ebooksellers, like Books for a Buck, do to increase quality of the books they offer and the lower the prices they offer those books for, the more in trouble agency pricing and the Agency 5 are. I’ve yet to meet an ebooker who only buys Simon & Schuster ebooks. And we haven’t even touched upon the all the places that offer free ebooks, such as Feedbooks.

Smashwords, Books for a Buck, Feedbooks, and other smaller, independent publishers or ebook outlets are squeezing ebook pricing. eBookers want a good read at a reasonable price, which is what they get from these alternatives. The Agency 5’s plan to force ebookers to “value” ebooks by keeping pricing artificially high will not withstand the assault. Yes, the very top authors — the most popular authors — will probably be able to command the Agency 5 ebook prices, but they are not enough to sustain traditional publishers. There are too few Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings to build a business around the popularity of their books.

If iBookstore sales aren’t significant for the Agency 5 at the higher end of the agency pricing scheme, and if iBookstore sales for the Smashwords-type publishers/sellers show growth, the Agency 5 are doomed. Of course, it doesn’t help the Agency 5 that Random House is sitting on the sidelines. Imagine if its ebook sales continue to grow while the Agency 5’s sales decline.

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