Watching the watchers #1: Washington Post December 27 2009

I make mistakes…oh boy, do I make mistakes.  ;)

Since I’ve been blogging (only since late August 2009), I certainly have empathy for people who write on a deadline. 

If I was writing a couple of hundred words once a week, or if I could wait to publish until I felt everything was perfect, well, everything would be pretty darn near perfect (or at least, to my satisfaction).  What would be left to debate would be debatable topics…opinions, not grammar, spelling, and facts.

It’s inevitable that people in the media are going to make mistakes. 

I used to see it all the time when I was following a controversial and marginalized area very closely.  People would make the simplest mistakes, as if fact-checking was unimportant on that topic.  Assertions would be made, and arguments would hinge on them…and two minutes of checking could have shown that they were, at the least, under dispute.

Well, I’m going to take this post to respond to another article.  :)  I’m not looking to be critical of the person, but I do want to look critically at the assertions in the article.  If I agree with them, great, I’ll let you know.  If I think I can provide you some counter evidence, I will.  It’s not a competition: you might like both articles, or neither of them.  You might decide that the evidence supports one side or the other…or again, both of neither.

One more thing: would I welcome this kind of analysis of my own articles?  Absolutely!  I’ve been able to go back and correct some things to which people alerted me, and I really appreciate that.

Today’s article is by Marion Maneker, a Washington Post Staff Writer, and was published at that publication’s Website dated December 27, 2009.

You can read it here.

I’m not reproducing the article itself, of course, because that would violate their copyright.  I do suggest your read it, though.  I may quote a few short snippets.

The first interesting assertion to me was that there are two camps in the e-publishing world: readers and authors versus publishers.

That seems odd to me: why would we put the authors with the readers, rather than with their publishers?  Certainly, most authors are probably readers and consumers of books…but many of them are also publishers (or in the publishing industry). 

If we look at it purely selfishly, it would seem that the authors and the publishers have more similar goals than the authors and the readers do.

For example, it benefits both authors and publishers for people to pay higher prices for books (assuming they actually pay them).  It benefits readers for the prices to be lower.  Sure, many readers want to see authors get a fair royalty for their work…and some even realize that the publishers deserve money for their work as well.  ;)  However, if a million copies would sell at twenty dollars a book, that benefits both authors and publishers.  If those same million copies sell for five dollars a book, that is good for readers.

Is it because we think of authors as individuals, like ourselves (as readers)?  Do we think of publishers as big bad corporations?  I think that’s overly simplistic. 

There is a conflict between authors and publishers in the sense that publishers would like to keep the costs low on books…and authors are part of that cost (and rightly so).  Authors would probably be as happy getting five dollars of a ten dollar books as they would be getting five dollars on a twenty dollar book. 

Maneker also says that while there is all of this debate going on between Amazon and the authors and publishers, there is “…little time for conceiving new content…”  Is the suggestion here that there are fewer books being published because people are too busy fighting?  I don’t have enough months’ worth of data to say for sure, but for December so far, the average number being added per day is still over 500.  It’s possible, but I don’t think that’s clear to me.  The interesting thing is the possibility that the titles are being added increasingly by independent authors who publish through Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (DTP).  That’s something I think traditional publishers (tradpubs) need to fear.  While people are waiting for those backlist (older but still under copyright) titles to get published, they are discovering new authors, and new places to get books.  That’s an erosion of market share that they need to fear.  Indies are lighter and nimbler and tend to have a shorter publication cycle.  Since a tradpub needs to negotiate for the book and work all of that out, they probably won’t keep up…unless they get books that are already written and negotiated into e-book form rapidly.

The next thing is that the author of the article points out the success of the Kindle, but describes the device as “limited and rudimentary” and having a 1980s computer vibe.  Hmph.  Does he not like keyboards, maybe?  It might be embryonic, but I wouldn’t call it rudimentary.  I think this is the techies’ misconception that a device has to do more, more, more.  It can do more and it will do more in the future, but it largely has accomplished the goal of giving you access to a library in your hand, and books that you can read long form without eyestrain.  Yes, the contrast will improve, yes, we’ll get better organization, yes, page turn speed will get faster.  The Rocket eBook reader fit the definition of rudimentary for me…this can do what it needs to do. 

He also suggests that it is hard to choose what material to read on the Kindle.  Well, yes, the Kindle store could be friendlier.   I think many of us shop for Kindle store books through the Amazon website…that’s what I usually do.  There is a lot of good information there, some of it consumer provided (like reviews).  They could improve categorization and definitely could improve understanding how a book fits into a series.  However, I feel like I get a lot of information to help me decide (ratings, reviews, publisher’s descriptions, sometimes author interviews, what other people are buying who looked at this…and so on).

He says that publishers are not reacting to what people want and are instead consolidating what they already have.  I’d agree with that for some publishers, like those that are following the strategy of staggered releases for some titles.  Blocking text-to-speech (which he doesn’t mention) is an even bigger sign of a turtle pulling back into its shell, in my opinion.  The race for readers is on, and some publishers are pulling into their shells.  Oh, they may not get hurt that way (they aren’t taking a risk), but they aren’t going to win.  I know, I know…slow and steady wins the race, right?  Perhaps…but I don’t think inert and backwards is going to win it.  Why protect an already shrinking audiobook market at the expense of an exploding e-book market?  I think there may be a lot of internal politics going into that.  On the other hand, some publishers (like Pocket) are embracing the race: they are diving off the starting block, while others are sitting down and hugging their legs to their chests.

The next assertions have to do with price, and here, the author makes a statement that is simply…contrary to the evidence I’ve found.  He says that most e-books are priced “much higher” than $9.99, and seems to be suggesting that’s true at Amazon for Kindle books.  Here is what I found:

 Of the 399564 books in the Kindle store right now, 150363 are more than $9.99…that’s only 38%. I’m going to arbitrarily say that “much higher” would be at least 150% of the first figure…only 85965 are $14.99 or higher (22%). Nearly half of those (47%) (40733) are $50 or higher…few of those will be popular novels or non-fiction. They’ll tend to be more specialized titles.

Then there was this statement:

“Amazon’s customers have made it clear that $9.99 is still too high for their taste. Most titles in the company’s list of top 100 Kindle bestsellers are priced below $9.99, and the most popular price point is $0.00.”

Um, it’s not clear to me from the data at all that people think $9.99 is too much.  Let’s break this down.

First, these ratings change hourly, so I could be looking at different data that Maneker saw.  I certainly admit that, but my intuition is that it isn’t massively different.

The idea that free is the most popular price…well, yes, based on the top 100 that’s true.  63 out of 100 of the titles I saw were free.  Some were promotional titles, some were public domain.  No argument, publishers could probably move a lot more titles if they gave them away…you know, until they went bankrupt.  :)

However, once we get past that, the most popular price point is…$9.99. 

Seventeen of the remaining 37 titles are priced at $9.99.  That’s 46 percent of them. 

The second most popular price point: it’s a six-way tie for ones that have 2 each!  Those are: $0.99, $4.25, $6, $7.99, $8.80, and $9.60.  All of the other prices only have one book each. 

What that says to me is that, outside of free, $9.99 is by far the most popular price point in the top 100. 

That’s in the top one hundred…it may change as you get further down.

The other thing is that $9.99 is a price point for books that are currently in hardback as well…I don’t think anybody expects that a book that is in paperback for $7.99 is going to be $9.99 as an e-book, regularly.

Next up, the “Battle for the Backlist”.  Random House did recently send out a communication claiming that they own the rights to e-books, because an e-book publication is a publication in book form.  An astounding statement is that there aren’t that many books involved, because, according to Richard Curtis, e-book rights became standard in 1990.  I don’t know that is true, and it would surprise me…but it could be true.  Still, there are tons of books that are under copyright and marketable that were published between 1923 and 1989 in the US!  It’s not “few books”, in my opinion. 

An interesting statement is that Stephen Covey is getting fifty percent for the well-known books he is doing as Kindle exclusives, as opposed to the twenty-five percent he would have gotten from Simon & Schuster.  Typically, if you self-publish through Amazon’s Digital Text Platform, you get 35% of the Digital List Price you set.  A tradpub presumably typically gets fifty percent.  Covey is reportedly going through RosettaBooks, which basically came out on top in a legal issue with Random House some time back.   So, is Amazon paying Rosetta more than fifty percent for the books?  Possibly.  Rosetta could also be taking a loss on those books to promote others.  According to rumor, Apple is offering publishers seventy percent for the rumored new iTablet (likely to be announced on January 26, 2010).  If that’s true, they’ll be making less per title…but I would guess it’s to attract exclusives.

Next is an interesting suggestion that in the past twenty years, the right strategy was to increase book supply.  Certainly, Amazon didn’t advertise itself as “The World’s Most Efficient Bookstore”.  :)  Amazon says the key elements are price, selection, and convenience. 

He says that the nook was going to win through better functionality…and failed at that, at least initially.  Really?  I thought the nook (sic…he capitalizes it, which Barnes & Noble doesn’t) was going to win by looking cooler, and giving people more options (like customizable sleep mode pictures).  He says that having a device is not enough to enough to get the market…and that’s true.  However, one of the big advantages of the Kindle is that they have more books in copyright and better prices.  Yes, having a slower interface might be a disadvantage…but I’m not sure how sophisticated people are about that.  Most people won’t compare them hands on before deciding.  He says that “Amazon’s advantage is its customer base and brand loyalty.”  Yes, that counts…especially the large customer base part…for online shopping, anyway.  Readers presumably have loyalty for B&N as well.  I think that one reason Amazon jumped past the Sony was that book readers had faith with Amazon as a bookseller.  Another big reason, though, was the wireless access.  Sony has that in the latest version (although it’s much more expensive for an inch bigger screen, compared to the Kindle 2), and of course, the nook has it. 

I’m going to leave her conclusions alone…I do want you to go read her article (which is well-written), so I’ll leave you wanting more.  :)  Besides, that’s opinion and projection, and those are valuable commodities. 

Well, let me know if you found this valuable.  I may do it again, but I’d love to hear what you think first.

This post by Bufo Calvin first appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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