Now, back to where I started when i was so rudely interrupted by Kathleen Hale and her “light stalking.” I’m still not sure where light stalking rests on the hierarchy of criminal complaints; somewhere between a dash of armed robbery and a smattering of homicide, I think. But enough about her ridiculousness. This is what I was working on when I was sidetracked. Anti-climactic, I know, but then being sane and rational is always more dull than batshit crazy.
I got into a bit of a pissing contest in the comment section of a pretty solid piece on how crucial (or even accurate) the advance system used by publishers truly is by author William O’Neil on The Digital Reader site a couple weekends back. Normally, I let these things go, but in the last comment left by author Rick Chapman, in response to the moderator admonishing him for being too confrontational, he conveniently left a bullet point list of areas where he thinks I’ve been misled or not properly informed. Personally, I do so enjoy a good confrontational argument, so let’s go through it point by point. The discussion, by the way, bounced back and forth across various comments to the post. Feel free to go check out the entire thing at the above link, if you’re interested. Here’s the full comment, in italics, with my thoughts interspersed in plain type.
“I have been completely factual in my statements. Facts aren’t confrontational. Facts and dispassionate analysis are always acceptable. Dan, on the other hand, has made repeated misstatements of fact. I believe he has read too many times on too many sites assertions about Amazon that are misleading and untrue. These include:
* Amazon pays royalties. Amazon pays no one royalties except with the exception noted. Amazon should immediately stop making that claim and accurately describe what it’s charging you. A “retail usage fee.” A “download fee.” I’ll let them define it. But it’s not a royalty.”
I didn’t say anything about whether it was a royalty or not. I’m not sure it really matters, though. Generally speaking, a royalty is a negotiated percentage paid from the revenue (or some version of net) generated when you license a work for use. When I put something up on Amazon, I am licensing them to sell, reproduce, distribute, etc, the work. For that, under the terms of the license, I get 70% of the gross in defined price ranges and 35% of the gross in others. You can make a case that it is, at least, a form of royalty.
I don’t think it matters what you call it, however. The important thing to remember is the difference in the type of payment you get from a publisher and what you get from Amazon. With Amazon, the payment hasn’t had any production expenses incurred backed out or accounted for. It’s up to me to determine how to use that payment, in what percentages, to recoup my expenses. In this sense, I agree that it’s not always made clear and can often be presented as an apples to apples comparison when it’s not. Arguing whether or not it’s a royalty, a fee or whatever is a semantic exercise that has no real bearing on the facts at hand. Amazon’s payout is before production expenses are backed out or accounted for, one from a publisher is after. This could be made more clear and the 70% to 12.5% (or what have you) comparison is not strictly accurate.
To use a somewhat imperfect construction analogy, Amazon’s payment is like the check a contractor gets for work from a homeowner. The contractor has to pay labor wages, materials, etc, from that. A publisher’s payment is more like the paycheck a laborer receives from the contractor. You can make a good salary as a skilled laborer, but everyone in construction knows the real money is in being the contractor. I saw this phrase the other day and I like it, so I’m gonna co-opt it here. It’s called “Controlling the Capital.” Call it a royalty, call it an expense, you get a cut of the gross and you retain your IP. The cost of that is 30% and you cover production expenses (which you also control).
“* Amazon complains about agency pricing but imposes a modified version of it on indie publishers. Their margin is locked in a la agency; you have very limited pricing flexibility as I’ve noted. Accurately. And not every author is writing a book about the Zombie Apocalypse. Or Vampire Love. Or Dating Werewolves.”
Amazon still retains ultimate control over the pricing. As such, any price flexibility I have is at Amazon’s discretion. I’m not sure how much “agency” one can exercise when their actions are entirely at the discretion of another party. You can call it modified agency but when the modified part serves to restrict the agency part, it seems to be a bit of a misnomer. But again, it doesn’t really matter what you call it. I have no right to tell Amazon what to do, Amazon retains that power in total in its agreement with me. A big part of Agency type agreements is that the supplier has some or all of that control. I don’t. Amazon encourages me to price within a certain window by offering a higher cut of the gross in that range. I have limited freedom to price how I choose, even outside that range where I’d incur a lower cut of the proceeds.
But Amazon could change it at any point and I’d have no recourse to stop them, other than to pull my material. That’s an option not available to me if I’m under contract to a publisher, by the way. Can’t just pull my book from them if I don’t like what they do for me. That’s another benefit you’re paying for in that 30% cut, too. Flexibility is underrated and can be expensive if you give it up. Call it modified agency if you like, doesn’t matter. It’s not the same thing as a deal where the publisher can restrict or prevent discounting or otherwise dictate terms to the retailer. What it is is far more important that what it’s called.
“* Amazon is attempting to create a pricing codex. It says so on its website. I note that no one here will address that truly remarkable statement. If you would like to, I would like to hear your speculations on how the codex will be created, maintained, and enforced.”
(First off, here’s a link to the author’s piece about the pricing codex he believes Amazon is trying to impose, as background.)
I’m not sure what you’re point is here, that Amazon is trying to set up a pricing framework for different types of ebooks within its store? Why wouldn’t they? And how’s that tangibly different from the pricing structure publishers have put upon books forever now? Or is it just sheer random coincidence that books of similar style and form all seem to be priced within a few dollar range of one another? In fact, I’d argue that most of the more dramatic swings in pricing you see come from the retailer discounting or otherwise setting their own pricing. In this way, it could be said that the retailers ability to control prices has prevented publishers from establishing a hard and fast pricing codex, as you call it, of their own. The healthier, more competitive market, in my opinion, is when the retailer has more power over the consumer-facing prices rather than the manufacturer.
“* Amazon buys MOST of its E-books via wholesale, not agency. Amazon wants to stop agency pricing because it want to gain control over the E-book pricing structure. I neither condemn nor approve them. This is business. But their pricing box is part of that strategy. Again, I describe the motivation of both sides on my blog.”
I think you’re missing my point here. I’m not disputing whether Amazon is getting ebooks from publishers under wholesale, agency or any other terms. My point is that when you say they’re buying ebooks wholesale, that’s not correct. You could get me to agree that they’re buying licenses wholesale or they’re paying an agreed wholesale price with each license they sell, but they are not buying the ebooks. Ebooks aren’t sold, they’re licensed for use. You say they’re buying ebooks wholesale like they’re buying a pallette of print books and that isn’t the case. It may amount to the same ends but the difference between a sale and a license has huge implications for use and buyers’ rights. Amazon is clearly getting some sort of right of resale but they’re not getting it through first sale like they would if they were buying physical books. They’re getting it as part of the terms of the contract or the license they are acquiring to sell the end-user ebook licenses to consumers. What no one at any level is doing is buying the ebooks; wholesale, retail, agency or otherwise.
I think too many people play fast and loose with the term “sale” when discussing ebooks (myself included, sometimes). A sale has implications of title transfer and relating use and resale rights. None of that exists with ebooks. Now I’ve often argued that they should because the ways ebooks are distributed through retailers is nearly indistinguishable from a genuine sale. I think the licensing arrangement is a bit of a scam designed to both give the supplier more power and restrict the rights of consumers. But right now, that’s how it is. That doesn’t mean the basic differences between a sale and a license should be conflated. Especially when it directly impacts the rights one party in the transaction has with respect to future use.
“* Amazon’s pricing box HURTS indies. I’m not going to break it down in detail here; I’ll do that on my own blog. But you don’t have to be a marketing genius to figure out what’s wrong with a seven dollar pricing box.”
I’m not sure I agree with you here. There is a case to be made that heavily researched nonfiction work combined with Amazon’s pricing strategy can be problematic. Even Amazon said so. That sentence from them seems to be the basis for you codex theory. I just said it too. Am I tying to institute a pricing codex? It’s a fact that seems self evident. Ebooks are an extremely young market. Not every sector or contingency is properly served as yet. This is one of them, in my opinion. There are situations where $9.99 may not be adequate.
However, for the vast majority of writers, a $7 per book cut is more than sufficient and in most cases, downright great. In fact, that number amounts to several dollars more than a traditional author will be bring in per book on a $25 hardcover. That’s more than adequate. When you subtract the actual physical production/distribution costs with print, it’s more than most publishers’ take on that same $25 hardcover.
The $7 box you refer to constitutes a sizable range with margins from $2 to $7 per book. Indies writing strictly fiction aren’t harmed by that at all. In fact, it’s the range many of us, independent from Amazon, feel that the books should be priced. Even if I had total pricing control at 70% up to any list price I want, I still wouldn’t be putting up $12 or $15 works of fiction. That barrier at $10 isn’t even relevant to me because exceeding that price isn’t a consideration. It’s not harming me because it’s not even a factor.
I believe you could argue that by encouraging indies to stay in an optimal pricing range, they are actually increasing your overall margins on a book with the multiplier effect of increased sales at lower prices. For some nonfiction works, I agree, this can be problematic. For fiction, though, the $7 box isn’t destructive or harmful. It’s what most of us would be doing anyway.
“* The big publishers DO NOT have to live in that pricing box. Only indies do.”
Yeah, so? They have infinitely more influence, money and leverage than your average indie does. They can negotiate out of it. Or not, possibly, from what I hear. There’s some speculation that the S&S/Amazon deal has some sort of descending cut at higher prices. Still very likely better than having your take cut in half at $10, but enough to be a serious consideration in pricing. Besides, the “ceiling” of that box doesn’t matter when your best case for maximizing revenue doesn’t even approach that figure. If and when that factor changes, the discussion does too.
“* 30% points to use a downloading service is a very steep price to pay. Amazon’s NET margins on indie sales is close to 30 points because E-book publishing and distribution are electronic. No warehousing and shipping. Now, of course, you are free to not use their service. But it is accurate to note that 30 point margins are incredibly wonderful in most channels, never mind book channels. 65 point margins are beyond awesome but for an indie, ruinous.
Fortunately for the publishers, none of them are paying 65 point margins. Only indies face it. How nice for us.”
Fortunately for us, we’re not paying any kind of marketing fees or anything like that. Is 30% too high? Not really. Is 65%? Yes. I’m in complete and total agreement with you on that. As I said in one on my comments, I’d rather see a sliding scale where the percentage declines gradually in proportion to the increase in price in a way that still serves as an inducement to generally keep prices low but also allows for books like what you describe; higher production costs, a limited less-price sensitive audience, not likely to get a low price multiplier bump; to be able to collect a larger per book total revenue figure.
Amazon is providing access to millions of potential customers on by far the most popular ebook platform in the world. That’s worth something. I’m in the minority, though, who isn’t concerned that that percentage will drop. I actually think it will increase over time for two simple reasons. One, it’s a volume business. Higher volume means more sales means more revenue. That’s Amazon’s core belief. And two, anyone who wants to compete with Amazon in this space and attract quality work is going to have to offer a better cut, and that will drive an increase in the percentage available to indies. Don’t underestimate subscription services, either. If it comes to show that Kindle Unlimited makes some kind of dent in sales, Amazon may well have to sweeten the pot to keep writers and their books in the program.
“Amazon’s pricing strategies undercut the entire theme of your article. Let’s say you do want to write a piece of “literature” or perhaps a specialized history on a topic most people find obscure. That means you have a far more limited audience that someone writing about Vampire Love. Or Dating Werewolves. Or Bondage with Billionaires.
Yet, the time and effort to produce that work will be as great, if not far greater, than that required to do your research on the best way to flog a besotted masochist.
And then you are stuck in Amazon’s pricing box trying to sell a book that can’t pay back your time and effort at $9.99. The audience isn’t big enough to make up in volume what you’ve lost in revenue. And, of course, since you are an indie, you’re going to have pay for ALL the expenses incurred by having to market and sell your book. And you will have 30 points less revenue to do it because you will be paying that money over to Amazon right up front (and don’t forget the transmission fees, which you also pay).”
Here’s where I can see your point. The problem, though, is that if you have a book with an inherently limited market, good luck getting a publisher to fork over a sizable advance or do any marketing at all for it. If it’s a captive audience at a high price point who will pay $15 or $17 or more for the ebook, the assumption you’re making is that a lower price point isn’t going to increase your overall market. I’ve seen this argument from writers before with the notion that anyone who will pay $8 a book will pay $12 and you’re just leaving money on the table. I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now, with very few exceptions. And those exceptions, in my mind, are almost entirely complex scholarly work. I don’t think that’s reasonable. That doesn’t mean I don’t think higher prices are justified for some work, just that I’m not sure that high prices combined with a publisher getting 70-80% of the proceeds (or more) is going to pay back your time any more than you keeping 70% at a lower price point. As for 30% percent being too much, remember, that’s the number the publishers themselves imposed on Amazon with their collusive agency deal. If it’s so egregiously wrong, why did they break the law to Institute it themselves?
“Indies in these markets are driven, by necessity, back to the major publishers who may be able to price your product at a level you hope will make your time and effort somewhat profitable. And relieve you of the cost of marketing. Because they don’t live in the box.
Or, maybe, they can apply to be a member of Amazonium Codexorum. If they can demonstrate the “legitimate” reasons to be on the approved list.”
I love the phrase “Amazonium Codexorum” by the way. Every time I see it, I can’t help but think of some dark tome bound in human skin and written in blood that Jeff Bezos is using to cast his evil black magic to raise the dead and dominate the world. You seem to be thinking that Amazon is planning to create some beurocracy that gives thumbs up or down like a Roman Emporer on a case by case basis on whether they’ll be allowed to price above $10. I don’t think that’s the case. I believe it’s far more likely that they’ll try to institute a pricing range, much like KDP, that aims to find an optimum price for maximizing revenue for these works and incentivizes it by paying higher percentage in the preferred range. Amazon won’t be deciding anything. Publishers will be self-segregating in those ranges because it’s in their best interest to do so, making the granular case by case decisions on their own, just like indies do.
As for high-cost-to-produce nonfiction, I’m not sure why you assume $9.99 isn’t sufficient to generate a good return unless you’re presuming a market with a hard ceiling, i.e., a strictly limited potential paying audience. But if that exists, publishers aren’t exactly going to be lining up to dump resources into it either. You’ll still be doing most, if not all, of the marketing and getting a far smaller payout at the end of the day.
But here’s the kicker, if what I have to do to be successful doesn’t fit with what’s available to me through Amazon, I won’t use them, or I’ll adapt what I’m doing in some way so what they offer serves my ultimate ends. Amazon is known for its commitment to low prices. If you have a project that needs high or, at least, higher pricing, the low price store may not be the way to go. If I had a high-end designer clothing line, I’m not trying to cut a deal to get my wares stocked in Dollar General unless I’m prepared to sell them at $5 a shirt. I’ll look to outlets that support my needed price and can produce the customers who will pay it. It’s entirely possible that neither Amazon in its present form nor the publishers in their’s are the best choice for this kind of work.
As I said, ebooks are an extremely young market. This is a potential class of books that’s underserved by what’s currently available to them. I’d dispute that you can’t make a good return on $9.99, considering you still retain the IP (control the capital). Maybe you can’t make it all from Amazon, but nothing is stopping you from exploiting that property in multiple ways. In my opinion, Amazon is best used as one stream of many. Some trickle, some roar, some are steady year round while other others run high and low seasonally. And some do inevitably dry up. If the pricing structure for one particular product form for your IP at one particular retailer, no matter the size, can make or break you, you need to get more baskets and spread those eggs out a little.
Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron