My last post could have been a monster, if I’d tried to tackle all the issues relating to eBooks, piracy and the future of books and authors. I was responding to two things, Robert’s post and the two old blokes I met at a party. Robert’s post was in response to the idea that ‘one of the core conceits behind the notion of “hot new models,” namely that authors will find some way other than royalties from books actually sold to make their livings, and that these opportunities will abound’ (an elephant stamp to everyone who read the post!) Now, I don’t think that authors will have to say goodbye to royalties and start charging $30 a pop for autographs (and you can’t sign an eBook), as is the accepted practise in other industries. But I saw in Robert’s post many points that agreed with my own fear that the quality of books is going to head downward, and I brought up the Two Old Pirates (arrrrh!) to lead into the same idea about book quality.
I was curious to see what reaction I’d get from commenters. So now here are a few answers and thoughts in response to them.
Are Books Too Expensive in Australia?
Maybe. But I am not surprised that they are more expensive. Firstly, we’re a small market off the beaten track, and transporting smaller amounts of anything usually costs more. Secondly, the rising costs of paper and fuel have probably made books more costly (and sometimes the exchange rate makes Aussie books look a lot more expensive than os books than they really are). Thirdly, I’ll go back to the quality issue. When I first received the US edition of The Magicians’ Guild I was surprised at how much smaller it was and how awful the paper was. I set it on display and within two weeks the paper had turned a tea-brown colour. The UK paperbacks are much thicker, the paper is nice and they only go a teensy bit discoloured after some years. The Australian edition is close to the UK one, though they don’t hold up quite as well.
Do you want your books to turn brown? Do you care if they fall apart? Maybe you don’t, but if you do, you might not get much choice if book prices are forced downward. You could try ordering online – but how will you be able to tell how good the paper and binding is until it arrives?
Libraries, Second-Hand Books & Lending Books to Friends – Is Piracy Any Different?
Libraries, the second-hand market and sharing books are things have been in place for years – centuries, even – and authors and publishing has survived despite them. Ebook piracy is new, and despite all the ‘we/I don’t think it’ll have any effect’ claims I hear from readers and optimists all the time, nobody really knows what the effect will be. We’re all guessing.
In Australia we have a system called ELR and PLR that compensate authors a little for having their books in libraries. I don’t know if this exists elsewhere. I have never resented the library system, second-hand bookshops or people borrowing books from friends and family. In fact, I’m all for it. You see, like many authors, there was a time when I earned very little money. Even when I was writing my fifth or sixth book I was earning less than the minimum wage. Borrowing or buying second-hand was the only way I could support my reading hobby, though I always supported authors I knew or really liked by buying new books – from the independent booksellers who supported me.
The low quality of the US books bothers me because they won’t last as long, and that’s wasteful. Personally, I’d rather books were more expensive and shared than cheaper and thrown away, even if that meant I’d earn less in the long run.
The main difference between a library, second-hand or borrowed-from-a-friend book and a pirated book that the former was bought at least once. And piracy just doesn’t have the same warm and fuzzy, community spirit thing going as sharing does. One involves taking, the other involves giving.
I’m very intrigued by the response of the booksellers. Surely eBooks are a threat to your industry, since you are the ‘middlemen’ they will eliminate? Still, I don’t think paper books will ever be completely replaced by electronic – well, until the day paper’s scarcity makes it too expensive, and I reckon a paper substitute will be found before that happens.
How much is a book worth?
This is the thorny issue, isn’t it? People assume that if you get rid of printing and transportation costs, books should be a lot cheaper. But most people don’t know what’s involved in making a book, let alone how much each stage costs. That’s a subject for another post – probably by someone who knows more about the numbers than I do. However, printing for most books is done by low paid workers, and with electronic books you replace them with higher paid tech workers, new technology and the costs of trying to thwart piracy.
And then there’s another added cost. In every product you buy in a shop, a certain amount is added to the price to compensate for theft. Even with paper books, theft is amazingly prevalent. The same will have to apply with electronic books. If piracy is easier with eBooks, then it’ll happen more often and the price has to go up even more.
To Sum Up
As I said in the last post, I’m neither an optimist or a pessimist. I don’t believe doomsday predictions that say publishing and books will die. I don’t think there’ll be no effect at all. I think the market will decide. If it costs more to produce a book than it can be sold for, then either the price will rise or the production costs will be cut. These days customers have the expectation that they have a right to demand ever lower prices, without ever considering that this might come back to bite them.
Ultimately, you get what you pay for.