Awards and Ebooks

This month I’m posting two topics for the price of one. Bargain!

First, ebooks. For the past eight months my first novel has been available as a free download via my website, an experiment which my (fabulous, progressive) publisher agreed to participate in. (40,000 downloads and counting.)

I’ve blogged about the reasons for the freebie release before, and they’re not the issue right now. Instead, I want to talk about DRM and price.

From next month all my novels will be available as low-cost, DRM-free ebooks. (My (fabulous, progressive) publisher agreed to this over a coffee.) But why did I push for a DRM-free release when people might copy and share the books, and why ask for a low price when the higher the price, the bigger the royalty per ebook?

Personally, I believe DRM (Digital Rights Management or Copyright Protection) is the worst idea since one-size-fits-all self-cleaning underpants. Electronic gadgets are released at a staggering pace, and you can imagine a situation where encrypted files purchased five years ago are no longer supported by any new and improved devices. It’s the equivalent of a paperback with a security device preventing you from opening the covers unless you swipe your credit card through the slot. New credit card? Tough, throw the book away.

You already bought the content once, so if you want to read that fave ebook again you can either look for a means to break the encryption, roam the seedy underbelly of the internet looking for someone’s unproofed ocr version, or buy it again.

I don’t think anyone doubts that ‘buy it again’ are the 20-foot-tall words marching through the commercial landscape, crushing readers and reason beneath their oversized feet.

The problem is, I’ve never bought an encrypted ebook, and I never will. Either I get the content I paid for, in a format guaranteed to work forever, or my pennies stay unspent. And if you think I’m alone, just look up the pitiful sales of ebooks versus paper versions.

Another point: Once the aggrieved victim of a DRM scheme has finally managed to get at the content, they’re MORE likely to share the book than recommend others buy the same file they were tricked with.

As for pricing, I believe that selling ebooks for the same price as printed books is the worst idea since DRM, whether it’s applied to ebooks, voting machines or self-cleaning underpants.

If you walk up to someone and offer them a piece of paper with a link to an ebook on it, or a trade paperback, which will they take? The paperback. And if you said they could have either for five bucks, which would they buy? The paperback. Twenty bucks? The paperback. Three bucks for the ebook and twenty for the paperback? Now they might hesitate.

And there’s the issue: it doesn’t matter what publishers think an ebook is worth, it’s the book-buying public who will open their wallets when the price of an ebook clearly outweighs the disadvantage of the format.

The cost of producing each fresh copy of an ebook is zero. Forget arguments about servers, power usage, etc … that’d be a cent at the most. (And if the biggest cost per unit is the encryption, ha ha.) As for laying out the book in a new format, publishers could always knock out a quick conversion and then, if the ebook really starts to sell, revise and tweak it down the track.

But if ebooks sell so cheaply, what about royalties? To which I say: would you rather have fifty percent of 10000 sales at $4, or fifty percent of 500 sales at $9? For the mathematically challenged, the former is twenty grand in royalties, while the latter is just over two. I’m not suggesting lowering the price of an ebook will make anyone rich, but I am suggesting that $3-$4 may be a tipping point, just like 99c MP3s.

I believe DRM is harming ebook sales, not protecting them, and that high prices are keeping readers away from the format. I’m betting my ebook royalties on this.

The ebooks of my novels go on sale in February, and don’t worry, I’ll report back the results of this experiment.

Next topic … awards. This isn’t a topic you’ll hear authors talking about in public all that much. Sales, readers, editors, publishers, writing … they’re all grist for the blogomill. Authors can control many things when it comes to their work, but awards – thankfully – aren’t one of them. They’re one of those icing on the cake things, and a bit like standing in the garden with your hand out, hoping to catch a meteorite.

When it’s a popular vote award it can be dicey to let people know you’re eligible without seeming to be asking for nomination. (Witness the rash of ‘I hate doing this, but …’ LJ posts from authors around Hugo time. Perfectly acceptable, but a very public form of torture.)

When it’s a judged award, you might as well roll a D20. Tastes, judging criteria, the alignment of the stars .. who knows which factors are in play?

However the winner is to be decided, months and weeks roll by until you’re five or six days out from the announcement, and suddenly your mind begins to play the ‘I know I won’t win, but what if?’ game. You tell yourself awards aren’t that important, that you shouldn’t be wasting thinking time on them, but you still ponder the what ifs.

As authors, we tell ourselves that readers and sales are vital, whereas awards are nice. This ignores the fact that awards can influence the trade. Bookstore buyers, publishers, sales reps and so on … a prestigious award can boost a title, perhaps securing reorders or the offer of a new contract.

Awards can also facilitate the sale of overseas and translation rights, which means more readers and more money. In fact, they’re more than icing on the cake, they’re very desirable.

And there’s still nothing you can do to win one except be eligible, and write the best book you can.

My latest novel, Hal Spacejock No Free Lunch, is one of five works in the Aurealis Awards shortlist for best Australian SF novel of 2008. The results will be announced on January 24. I’ve already laid a bet with myself as to which of the five will take out the prize. If I win the bet I get chocolate, which is a desirable outcome because it’s more edible than a trophy.

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  1. 1. Kerry

    I believe DRM is harming ebook sales, not protecting them, and that high prices are keeping readers away from the format. I’m betting my ebook royalties on this.

    As a significant ebook reader, I agree with you 100%. In some cases, the ebooks even sell for MORE than the paperbacks. At that point I go to the library, so a sale to me has been totally lost. And don’t get me started on DRM which only hurts honest consumers.

    I sure hope your ebook royalties prove you right. I’m off to check out your books.

  2. 2. Satima Flavell

    Thanks for clarifying the position on DRM, Simon. I can see why you don’t want to be involved with it. And I hope the new releases sell thousands and thousands of copies:-)

  3. 3. Margaret Y.

    “Either I get the content I paid for, in a format guaranteed to work forever, or my pennies stay unspent.”

    Well, a paperback is a format guaranteed to work forever. I don’t have to do anything but open the book and gaze at the words.

    Just sayin’.

  4. 4. James Swezey

    So are you saying ebooks are a good thing or a negative thing, or is it perhaps the way they are sold and marketed? I was just recently published via ebook and I’m not familiar with DRM, although I can understand some frustration with at least marketing an ebook. I’m still working on how to market my book to the general public with what I have to work with. Its going rather slow. Any ideas?

  5. 5. Simon Haynes

    Margaret Y: I buy paperbacks all the time, without a second thought.

    James: I think ebooks are a great idea. It’s just that the execution (DRM) is lousy and the price is usually far too high. There seems to be this idea that if you lock up the file so only the purchasor can open it, then you can charge a high price because they have no alternative. The problem is that there are any number of people who will buy a paperback, slice off the spine, run the book through a duplex scanner and OCR the resulting images. They’d rather do that than pay for an encrypted ebook, and the file they end up with is all too easily shared.

    Most people can afford $3 or $4 for a small luxury every now and then – say, a nice cup of coffee. On the other hand, if coffee were $15-$20 a shot people would go without or only buy one when they were really treating themselves.

    I think ebooks should be purchased with no more thought than someone ordering a cup of coffee, rather than being rare treats to be saved up for and agonised over – like trade paperbacks.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Completely agree with you, Simon. And the changeover may come sooner than we all think, now that the economics of paper publishing, long in doubt anyway, are being severely challenged by the depre–, um, I mean recession.

  7. 7. Kelly McCullough

    What Sam said.

  8. 8. S. M. Payne

    I’m with you all the way on all your points. I like to know that if I buy a trash ebook, I haven’t wasted a lot of money. It’s so much easier sometimes to just walk in a bookstore, pick up the book, flip through and read a while, then KNOW I’m not buying junk. And don’t get me started on DRM!

    :)

    Hope you win the award!

  9. 9. Desiree Jarboe

    I completely agree with you. Personally, I’m eager for this to become common place (and kudos to your progressive publisher!). As a college student, I never purchased a new hardcover novel–couldn’t afford it! And as it is now, just over a year out of college, I only purchase 2-3 a year. Paperbacks and trips to the library are how I sustain my reading habits. If more writers had ebooks in the $3-$4 range, I would be purchasing probably twice as many books in a year, and cutting back my library time (and personally, I don’t prefer books that have questionable stains on the pages and smell…weird…).

  10. 10. Saje Williams

    Isn’t there an adage about security measures and the likelihood (or inevitability) of them being disabled? Any security measure the human mind can create, the human mind can evade. Or something like that.

    DRM will probably prove to be a major nuisance for everyone concerned, and will most likely simply entice people to try to beat it at the earliest opportunity.

    My thought is generally that if people respect an author enough to WANT his or her books, they should at least grasp that to steal those books would hardly be symbolic of that respect. That’s not to say I don’t grit my teeth when I see one of mine on a pirate’s list.

  11. 11. Simon Haynes

    If your eyes can see it or your ears can hear it, there’s a way to turn it back into data. Here’s an example: take the most encrypted ebook you can find, display a page on your screen, take a picture of that screen with your digital camera and then run the image through an OCR program. Add a tripod and a cable release and you could snap a 300 page book, two pages at a time, in minutes.

    Time consuming? Yes. Impossible? Never.

  12. 12. Emmalyn

    Well stated argument and I agree completely. I’ve never bought an e-book precisely because I was never certain the file would last (copy controlled or not, I have files I myself have written that I can no longer open due to changes and “upgrades” in the follow-on software) and it cost as much or more than just buying a book, when I KNOW it costs less to produce an e-book! (I have the same problem with DVDs–they are far cheaper than VCR tapes as a physical medium, and I only ever watch the movie, maybe occaional outtakes and making-of clips: why in the world to they cost some much more than a more reliable, less-likely to break tape?) On the other hand, if I could get an ebook significantly cheaper, I would be far more tempted to go shopping online (just as I’d buy LOTS more DVDs, even of movies I’m not certain I’d like, if the price was reasonable).

    ENE

  13. 13. Sherri Godsey

    As a person newly published online, I’m still in the mode of simply learning more about ebooks and the publishing process, as well as the overwhelming prospect of promotion/marketing. As an older person, although I have a good hand on word processing and the more simplistic online activities (like merely ‘surfing’ the web and building a website, let alone learning the whys and wherefores of blogging) I’m only just discovering the complexity of the system. Ergo, I came in here with no idea what DRM is, but by reading between the lines I believe I understand now. And I have to say I am in total agreement with your stand on this issue. It’s difficult for me to even find people who are willing to go with an ebook rather than a printed book, and it has nothing to do with the cost (at least that’s not the impression I’ve been given). I belong to RWA because it is an excellent organization that helps folks interested in writing to learn how to write, not just gum the concept. I tried my hand at romance (well, heck, I do like to read the good writers and some romance writers are superb) but I found it a tad restrictive. I grew up reading and loving sci-fi/fantasy and my greatest happiest (and most natural voice) is in fantasy. So even though I still belong to RWA and attend local chapter meetings because there is always more to learn (and I have many friends there) I have chosen to write fantasy. Finally, at may age and in all innocence, I have become the mother of a duology that is now e-published. However…it isn’t easy getting romance readers/writers to nose into a fantasy story (OK, some romantic elements, but when you hang out with romance writers you absorb some of the essence in the air), let alone getting people who love the feel of paper in their hands to look online. There are a few, of course, who are doing quite well online writing erotica, or if they are already doing well as print-book authors, their ebooks do OK as well. But I can’t even get my own critique partners to download. One bought the book as a means of support, but admitted she just doesn’t like to read off her computer, so won’t read it but will wait for the print version (if I ever manage to break into that media). The others will buy it as CDs because they seem to think that the concept of ‘downloading’ is beyond them…I mean, really! If I can do it, how can it be that difficult? Well, in any case, I am learning that there are a good many barriers against ebooks right out the gate, so learning that there are yet additional issues to consider is a little like swallowing a hairball. You either cough it up or choke a little and swallow it. I guess I’ll get the thing down, disgest, and pass–uh–move on in the business in the only direction I can, forward. It is so good to find a group that is versed in the issues, supportive, and willing to take chances to prove their own perspective has substance. More power! I hope you sell a ton of books and win your award along the way. If you guys don’t mind an older lady poking in and learning from your experience, I am most appreciative.

  14. 14. Lee

    DRM is annoying, and it defnitely flavors my buying decision negatively. That said, I do buy DRM ebooks. Given the option, I then rip them to something not DRM.
    The price is the real problem. I remember when good books were $4 per paperback. I could spend that once a week without thinking. Now, its $7-8 each, and they’re a buying decision. I still buy, but nowhere near the volume (in books or dollars) that I used to. Ebooks for that same price, or a paltry 15% discount, aren’t any incentive.

  15. 15. Blue Tyson

    What Simon says on DRM ebooks being more likely to be uploaded is likely to be true, I think

    Firstly, they piss people off, so they are more likely to do it because they are annoyed.

    Secondly, because of the ‘company X might stop authenticating them and allowing redownloads’ doing this gives you long term availability. Or pull the service from the shop you bought it at (this happened to me with a Year’s Best Fantasy book and Fictionwise) thanks to those Overdrive wankers.

    Thirdly, some people might do it because then people more tech knowledgeable than them might produce a DRM-free version of the book they paid for, then they get a morse useful version.

    Just the other day I saw an announcement from an author I discovered I like having a new short story collection – and an ebook – cool! I think.

    I go look, and it is Adobe only, with a link to click through that gives a 1 page explanation of how all the associated DRM etc. works with this one. No thanks, no sale.

  16. 16. Steven Klotz

    I’ve been thinking about transitioning from my physical collection of books to 100% electronic. I very much like the idea of having less physical stuff. That said, reading “slice off the spine” sent a chill down MY spine.

Author Information

Simon Haynes

Simon is the author of the Hal Spacejock series, featuring intergalactic loser Hal and his junky sidekick, Clunk. His website contains a number of articles on writing and publishing, and he's also the programmer of several freeware apps including yBook, BookDB and yWriter. In his spare time(!) he helps to run Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Visit site.

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