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13 April 2007 Blog Home : April 2007 : Permalink

The Broken Book Market - Exhibit 51

The Instapundit and spouse had a podcast where in part, they interviewed Mischa Berlinski, author of a new book about missionaries, anthropologists and primitive tribes - Fieldwork.

I listened to the podcast with interest and thought that it might be an interesting book to pick up, if I happened to see it in a bookstore at the right price etc. It seems I was right about the interesting part, no less a writer than Stephen King has written that it is the sort of book that keeps you reading past midnight. Unfortunately that article is also exhibit 51 for the idiocies of publishers:

If this is such a good read, what's the bad news? That's easy. As of March 26, Fieldwork was No. 24,571 on the Amazon best-seller list, and not apt to go much higher. The reason why is illustrative of how the book biz became the invalid of the entertainment industry, and why fiction sales are down across the board (with the possible exception of chick lit). Critics, with their stubborn insistence that there's a difference between ''literature'' and ''popular fiction,'' are part of the problem, but the publishers themselves, who have bought into this elitist twaddle, are also to blame.

[...]Fieldwork's cover is a green smear (probably jungle) and a gray smear (probably sky). It communicates nothing.

Or take the titles[...] Fieldwork could be a treatise on farming. In his acknowledgments, Berlinski tells us the editor hung that says-nothing title on the book. The guy should have stuck to editing.

I picked Fieldwork up because I saw interesting words on the flap (fascination, taboo, sexual), but when I think about how close I came to passing it by, I just get mad. As it was, I grabbed it on impulse, thinking: I know you don't want me to buy you, you dull-looking thing, but I'm going to. Just to spite you.

Why, why, why would a company publish a book this good and then practically demand that people not read it? Why should this book go to waste? Is it because there are people in publishing who believe that readers who liked The Memory Keeper's Daughter are too dumb to enjoy a killer novel like Fieldwork? If so, shame on them for their elitism. Hey, guys, why not put the heroine on the jacket? Martiya in the jungle at night, or embracing her lover, or dancing with the native tribe of which she almost becomes a member? In other words, why not actually sell this baby a little?

Yes even mega authors like Stephen King do judge a book by its cover. And tend to let the boring ones, or the one that look terribly arty farty pass them by, especially when what they want is some sort of literary comfort food.

King stops there but I'll add a bit of my own additional reasons for not buying. The book is a hardback and has a list price of $24 and Amazon and co sell it for at a discounted $17 or so. This is Mischa's first book so he doesn't have much of a reputation. He has a website with the first few chapters online, but his publisher's website (with statements like "Copyright ©2001-2003 Farrar, Straus and Giroux" on the search page) doesn't make its page about the book easy to find - if I didn't know it was there I doubt I'd find it - or contain much information about it.

My biggest gripe is the hardback price. As Eric Flint has written in his various DRM essays at Jim Baen's Universe $24 or even $17 is a fairly serious chunk of disposable income for many would be readers, and unless they have read excepts, positive reviews etc. are unlikely to make this an impulse buy. If the cover is crap then the impulse buy sales are going to drop further and hence sales of this book are unlikely to be large unless the book or author gets some publicity such as being picked up by Oprah. This is really bad for the author because publishers are pretty ruthless about pruning writers who don't sell and once pruned you rarely get a second chance. It is well known that most publishers lose money or barely break even on most of the books the publish, and that they are particularly prone to losing money on new authors. It seems to me that they don't do themselves any favours here. A new author is a risk. In other fields of commerce you compensate the buyer for taking the risk by lowering the price and then, once he's hooked you raise the price on the next ones. In publishing its the other way around. You have a high price to begin with, then if that is successful in attarcting a few readers you lower the price by reprinting the book as a paperback. This may make sense for well-known authors where you are charging people a premium for reading the book sooner, but it makes no sense at all for authors who have no track record. These new authors need publicity and new readers, soemthing they are much more likely to get with a flashy paperback priced at $6.99 than a $23.99 hardback with a "cool" cover.

Oh and if you don't like the idea of a paperback how about copying Baen and simultaneously releasing the book as a cheap ($5 or $6) ebook as well as a hard cover? The incremental cost to produce the ebook (assuming you don't have to pay some silly fee because you insist on an expensive DRM technology) is close to 0 because all the expensive bits (editing, proof reading) are already done for the paper version and thus any sales you get from it are going to be nearly 100% pure profit. The fear stated by publishers is always that a DRM-free eBook will be pirated so much that it will impact paper sales. This is so wrong as to be basically laughable. Charlie Stross's rant about the broken eBook market explains why in fact some piracy is actually good and nothing more than the elecrtonic equivalent of lending a book to a friend or borrowing it from the library in the paper world. In both cases the benefits (basically due to growth in numbers of readers) are perceived to outweight the fatc that the secondary readers don't pay for the book. The same applies to eBooks with an additional benefit: given that eBooks are a lot less conveinet to read, people who read a cheap eBook and really enjoy it are likely to then plunk down the $24 to have it in more permenant and easier to read hardback format.

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers - do please take a look at some of my other recent posts such as the one about Todd Goldman and this eBook followup post

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