Author Douglas Preston on e-books

 Douglas Preston is a New York Times bestselling author.  While he is probably best known for his thrillers written with frequent collaborator Lincoln Child (including Relic, which is not yet available as a Kindle edition), I first became familiar with him for his non-fiction book on the Smithsonian, Dinosaurs in the Attic (which has also not yet been Kindleized).  However, Preston is well-represented in the Kindle store, with more than ten books:

Douglas Preston’s Kindle books 

I recently contacted him, to see if he would like to make a statement to the readers of I Love My Kindle.  E-books are changing publishing, in a way as rapid as the genetic manipulation about which Preston has written.  Authors, publishers, retailers, and, yes, readers are all talking about the changes this new medium will bring to the way books are created, distributed, and how we read them.  Since people truly love books, emotions can run high about them.  Looking at comments on public forums, people will swear to “never do this” or “never do that” because of a decision someone has made with which they disagree.

It’s a good thing that people care this much about the topic, in my opinion.  While I wish that everyone would always express themselves in a respectful manner, the depth of passion speaks to how important books still are in today’s world, and in the future of our culture.

Mr. Preston’s most recent book, Impact, has been the subject of  postings in the Kindle community.  Published in hardcover by Forge on January 5 of this year, the Kindle edition is scheduled for a May 4th release. 

I appreciate the author taking the time and making the effort to respond to my e-mail, and giving me permission to share it with you.  I think you will find his comments thoughtful, insightful, and heartfelt.  Outside of that assessment and this brief introduction, I will let his words stand for themselves in this post.  I may comment on it later, and you are certainly welcome to comment on this post as well.

Hi Bufo, 
Please feel free to use my email in your blog. To answer your questions, I have always deferred to my publisher when it comes to decisions involving business, pricing, and marketing. I am a writer, not a businessman. I could second guess their decisions and raise a stink about something and probably get my way, but I have always shied away from playing the difficult and demanding author. That’s not my way. 
My publisher, my agent, and all the book sellers I have spoken to say the $9.99 ebook will destroy the publishing industry as we know it, since it doesn’t cover the creative content of a book. So I do agree with my publisher’s decision to delay the ebook release. 
I have been discussing this issue almost constantly since the ebook release, with my agent, publisher, with Lincoln Child, and others. I wish I could see a clear answer but the bottom line is this: the $9.99 Amazon ebook price, if introduced at the same time as the hardcover, will essentially end the local independent bookstore the same way Wal-Mart ended local businesses. It may bankrupt my publisher. It will make it almost impossible for beginning writers to get published, no matter how good their work is. It will end the careers of many midlist authors. So I would ask these outraged Kindle owners if they are willing to trade all this for their “right” to have a cheap edition of a best-selling book on the day of publication. 
As for the public comments, they can be sorted into two categories: the angry shouters (a minority to be sure) and more thoughtful Kindle owners (the vast majority) who naturally would like to be able to acquire the ebook on the day of publication and wonder why the ebook release has been delayed. 
I would never bypass my publisher to publish an ebook with Amazon directly, and I’ll explain why. First of all, my contract would not allow it. But even if it did, I would not consider this. Yes, I would certainly make more money. But what about all the work my publisher has put into the book? What about all the support I’ve received these many long years from my publisher, who sent me on tour when I was an unknown author, who advanced me money when I had none to give me time to write, who labored over the manuscript and helped me make it right, who edited it and designed a beautiful cover for it? Would it be fair for me to then take this book, which is as much a product of their good work as my own, and contract with Amazon to publish the ebook, bypassing them and stealing all their value-added efforts for myself? Amazon seems to think that a book just appears, fully formed and ready to read. Not so. Every writer needs an editor and publisher. 
Clearly, the future of the ebook is very promising for the manufacturer of the ebook device and the retail seller of the ebook edition. It seems to me that denying consumers what they want (which is a cheap edition on the day of publication) may be a losing strategy. What is the answer? To ask the American consumer to pay the real value for something, as opposed to the cheap Wal-Mart discount value? Frankly, I don’t have an answer, except to say that the sense of entitlement of the American consumer is something that, in my opinion, is damaging our country. From the price of energy to fast food to cheap Chinese goods to home mortgages and on down, it seems that many Americans have come to feel they have God-given “rights” about getting what they want, when they want it, at a price so cheap it doesn’t actually cover the real cost. From an economic point of view, this attitude contributes to our vast trade deficits, our dependency on China and Saudi Arabia, our oversized contribution to global warming, and the decline of our family farms and our industrial sector. I believe this is a serious problem, of which the demand for the cheap ebook is only a small, but telling, symptom. 

When told that I would be publishing the above statement in the next couple of days, Mr. Preston added this comment:

I will look forward to it. There are a few other points I’d like to make. First, I have no publicist as some are speculating on the threads. If I sound rude, it’s because I’ve been rude, and if I sound reasonable, it’s also because I’ve been reasonable. I would never allow a publicist to go out there and pretend to be me. I like interacting with readers directly and honestly. And if I’ve responded rudely, for which I am sorry, you can be sure I was responding to an an even ruder email or comment. I’m a mild person and my mother tells me I’m quite nice, actually…

I’d like to thank Amazon Kindle community member magznyc for starting this thread, which led to me contacting Douglas Preston for this article.  Mr. Preston said that I could include excerpts from the e-mail that was reproduced there, but I would rather that it stands as a piece.  He did want to emphasize one point: he and Lincoln Child are both Kindle owners, and he described it to me as a “marvelous device”.    He said specifically, “We are not at all against the ebook — on the contrary.”

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

11 Responses to “Author Douglas Preston on e-books”

  1. Sally Says:

    Thanks for publishing this, bufo.

    I understand why he believes that eBooks will “destroy the publishing industry as we know it”. I don’t doubt it. The same way that mp3’s ‘destroyed’ the music industry, email ‘destroyed’ the postal system and cell phones ‘destroyed’ land lines. Now texting is ‘destroying’ voice communications and so on. I don’t think anyone (except those being forced to adapt to these changes) is going to feel too bad about seeing these milestones give way to new horizons. Although I do sympathize, having been forced to change a few times myself. The older I get, the harder it is, but it’s always easier the sooner I accept it.

    But as far as pricing goes, if Amazon chooses to sell a book at below cost, doesn’t the publisher (and author) get the same amount as if they hadn’t? I thought that figure was ~50% of the list set by the publisher. So isn’t Amazon selling it at a loss akin to my grocer selling bread as a “loss leader” to get me in the store? Is it right for Aunt Millie say they can only carry day old bread if they’re going to price it below cost?

    Perhaps I’m missing something here.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Sally!

      Your understanding is correct about the pricing. The concern isn’t the current book, where Amazon’s pricing benefits both the publisher and the author. The concern is “price value devaluation”…where in the future, people think the price of a book should be lower.

      If we take the example of a book which currently has a Digital List Price (DLP) of $25, the publisher would probably get $12.50 for it, and the author might get $6.25.

      So, if Amazon selling it at $9.99 means that they sell, oh, a thousand more than they would have at, say $14.99, the publisher and the author would make a lot more money. Amazon, though, has lost $2.51 on each one in direct money.

      However, in the future, let’s say that readers no longer think $25 is a reasonable digital list price. Yes, they care more about the sale price, but the sale price is based on the list price. If, in the future, readers will only buy books that are $9.99 or lower, Amazon won’t continue to choose to lose $2.51 on each one of those forever, if they can’t make it up on other books with a higher profit margin. It will drive down the list prices, and that will hurt the publishers.

      Mr. Preston addressed the question of authors publishing independently, and I think his insight on that is important.

  2. Al Says:

    I totally agree with his comments on needing an editor & publisher. There are lots of hopeful writers out there that don’t have a good command of spelling or grammar and need that help. On the other hand there are not enough publishers to go around. Because they have a nearly infinite supply of stories from which to choose, many authors are left by the wayside.

    I don’t understand his arguments about the $9.99 book. Does that also apply to paperbacks? Does not an author of a book not deserve more than a very small share of his work? Does sending paper galley proofs back and forth cost more or less than sending electronic versions? I think the publishers and editors, who are stuck in the old way of doing things are influencing his attitude, and many are not going to agree with him. E-books are not the enemy, and if the publishers would embrace them, I think the publishers would be much better off in the long run. We no longer have much of a market for buggy whips, although I still see them being used.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Al!

      The issue isn’t the objective price of $9.99, so much, but the fact that price is considerably lower than the current price. If you could simply mandate that all gas stations sold gas for a dollar a gallon, a lot of them would fail immediately. That’s because businesses don’t tend to just stockpile money, but to use the money they have. That might include having more staff, better lighting, more insurance, and so on. It would take some adjustment, and some of them would figure it out, some wouldn’t.

      New hardbacks are in the neighborhood of $25. Cutting the new hardback price to $9.99 would be the same sort of abrupt change as I cite above.

      The concern is that hardback prices will be driven down by e-book prices. In the current structure, they aren’t making a lot of profit on hardbacks…but they may be making “enough”.

      Your comparison with buggy whips is also interesting. The question is, when should the buggy whip manufacturers have cut and run? When automobiles were ten percent of the market? We aren’t there on e-books…in overall publishing in the US, I don’t think they are near ten percent. Buggy whip manufacturers who switched to making rumble seats too soon would have moved into a market they didn’t understand, and might not have faired well.

      The risk here, really, is that the authors could go indie…I’ve compared it before to the end of the studio system in Hollywood in the 1950s, and I think that’s a reasonable analogy. It’s not that we’ll have fewer books, but that they will come from more places with less power for each one.

      Fascinating to watch!

  3. Gina Says:

    Why don’t publishers make the e-books better value then?
    I would pay more than $9.99 for a book if it was well laid out, no typos, beautifully rendered pictures and so on. If the publisher puts as much effort into making the e-book as they do into the hardback, then we should pay more. But most publishers don’t.
    I would also pay more for an e-book that was released on the same day as the hardback. To have something straight away is worth paying a premium for, so why don’t Amazon set two price levels for e-books. Say $20 when it is first released, reduced to $10 when it is released in paperback.
    The publishers could also make the e-book better value to get the same price as a hardback. I just bought Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which actually had an e-book extra added chapter in it. This had also been released with later editions of the paper book, but it certainly added something special. I’m not talking about Apple’s awful ideas on embedded video and such, maybe just an interview with the author, or questions for book clubs, or even a run down on how the book was written/published/turned into an e-book.
    In short, I will pay the same price for an e-book as a paper book when publishers put in the same amount of effort into making one.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for posting, Gina!

      The Kindle price already typically changes when the paperback is released…and at lower levels than you are suggesting.

      This is dependent on what the publisher does, largely.

      The publisher sets the list price (digital or paper). Amazon then discounts that. Currently, for a traditional publisher (tradpub), Amazon probably pays fifty percent for either.

      Let’s say that when the hardback is released, the publisher sets both the paper and digital list prices at $25. It’s common that they are both the same.

      If it’s a popular book, Amazon may set the Kindle price at $9.99 (while it is on the New York Times bestseller list, or otherwise particularly hot).

      Amazon is paying $12.50 for each download, most likely, losing direct money on each “copy”.

      When the publisher releases the paperback, let’s say tha they lower the digital and paper list prices to $7.99. Amazon may then set the Kindle price at $6.40 (twenty percent off). Amazon is paying $4, approximately, for the download, and making direct money of $2.40. That’s one thing that allows Amazon to lose money on those $9.99 bestsellers.

      Certainly, publishers could improve the quality of the e-books…I agree with that. However, even though I’m not suggesting that e-books should cost more than p-books 🙂 , they are already more valuable to me. In particular, the ability to increase the text size, search, and annotate without degradation are important to me.

      I’ve suggested a tiered pricing scheme in the past, but a bit different than yours. I suggested that the two tiers come during the hardback release. This is what I suggested as one possible strategy:

      The Thriving Publisher is released January 1st

      Hardback: $25 list price

      Amazon price for the hardback: $20

      E-book: $20 list price

      Amazon price for the e-book: $12

      March 31st, you drop the digital list price to $15

      Amazon re-prices the e-book to $9.99

      December 1, you release the paperback for $7.99

      Amazon re-prices the e-book to $6

      Just one possible idea…

      Thanks again!

      • bonzi Says:

        Your proposal for a tiered pricing scheme looks reasonable to me. Wasn’t Thor experimenting with something similar recently?

  4. kehalvor Says:

    I agree with Bufo’s last post – about $20 for a brand new ebook would be fine with me. I guess I wonder what Amazon is thinking — do they not have an interest in a thriving publishing industry if selling gazillions of kindles, ebooks, and paper/hard cover books is at least a lot of their bread and butter? Sure, Amazon probably could gradually increase prices as the ebook market starts to stabilize…but if they are really hurting publishers in the long and short run, aren’t they really hurting themselves?

    Or do they just view books as replaceable widgets and plan to shift toward pushing ceramic lawn dwarves once this book-thing tanks. I also hope that independents can belly up to the ebook bar quickly – I love them deeply and want them to survive.

    I’m sure Powell’s is few people’s idea of a vulnerable independent in dire need of protection (although I understand that they are struggling right now) but I really appreciate the fact that they now sell ebooks. If the smaller ones in my region did, I’d go there first, potentially even at a higher cost (oh yeah, can’t read the Powell’s Adobe Digital Editions on my kindle…but I can on my imac which is halfway to OK).

    In the end, I have no desire to send a penny more to Amazon and stopped buying “real” books from them years ago in favor of “real” bookstores. Now they’ve managed to extract a lot of $ from me for my kindle and ebooks because they have something particularly terrific to offer (I know I can buy my ebooks at some other places) – the minute I know of independents who can sell me ebooks at an OK price (doesn’t have to be $10) I’ll stop buying from Amazon. I give them credit for doing some things well, but view them as the Walmart of books (more of a problem than something I want to support).

  5. Eric Welch Says:

    Ironically, it’s not ebooks causing the death of the hardcover, upon which the publishers still pin their business model. The death and slow decline began with the introduction of the paperback, a pricing revolution that certainly devalued books, but ironically made readers out of many people who otherwise could not afford to buy books. Paperback publishers had the same editorial and printing issues as the hardcover publishers but they made up in volume what they lost in price. I suspect it’s too late for the Big Six to realize they may have won a small victory but will lose the war. They will have to embrace the new ebook technology and use it to their benefit. Amazon, Target, Costco, etc. all understand that you make money by selling more of something and you sell more by reducing the price, not increasing it. Amazon’s (and iTunes) pricing was inspired and notice how they have come to dominate the market. The fact is that once a book has been contracted for, editorial work done, art work paid for, etc. those costs, when applied across the board to all formats become more and more negligible as more copies are sold. So to say that the cost of an ebook, which can’t be sold or lent, has to be as high as a discounted hardcover doesn’t make much sense. Especially since the ebook cost might be higher than the paperback. If the publishers are so concerned about the independent retailer, where were they when B&N and Borders were driving out the independents by doing precisely what Amazon did with ebooks: discounted them heavily. The fact is that John Sergent and his bosses in Germany dislike ebooks and have made no bones about it. They would just as soon have them go away. There is no such thing as a “fair” price. Price is determined by what the customer is wiling to pay. Period. We’ll just have to see what that ultimately is, But the same arguments now being leveled against ebooks were used to try to eliminate paperbacks.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Eric!

      Yes, I agree. While certain megasellers have helped keep the hardback market alive, e-books have hardly toppled a thriving industry.

      I’ve joked about the parallels with paperbacks and such in the , but I’ve written seriously about it as well. E-books are part of a long trend of making books more affordable to the masses…especially, in the case of e-books, all the free distribution of classics.

      E-books, by the way, are rarely higher than the paperback (inside the US). When they are, there are a few typical reasons. It’s a bit different outside the US, where they may two dollars more or so for the e-books…when you get down to a price of seven dollars, that can make a big difference.

      I don’t think Sargent hates e-books…I think the Big Six realizes that their market dominance is inevitable. However, it’s to their advantage to delay that. It’s very hard for indies to compete in the paper world…that won’t be the case in the digital world.

  6. Eric Welch Says:

    It’s perhaps indicative that John Sergent does not allow MacMillan ebooks to be loaned by libraries. I think he does, indeed, have a distaste for ebooks in the mistaken (IMHO) belief that it will inevitably lead to piracy. If ebooks are priced above that certain intangible tipping point, I would agree, and that’s why I think it’s imperative for publishers to keep the price of ebooks relatively low compared to their paper alternatives. Amazon was right in choosing $9.99 as their break point for popular titles only, it should be noted, because it encourages impulse buying. Especially on a wirelessly connected device. At $13+ the impulse is lessened. I buy several thousand dollars worth of books a year. I have a Nook and a Kindle and also read on my laptop and iTouch. At $9.99 or less, I click the buy button almost without thinking. Above that I check the used book prices (I prefer reading the ebook,) and above a certain threshold, unless I really, really have to have a book (never fiction) I’ll get it from the library. Notice that under the last two scenarios, the publisher and author get nothing.


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