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13 April 2007 Blog Home : April 2007 : Permalink

There's No Demand For eBooks?

Over at the Charlie Stross ebook rant an agent called Donald Maass makes a very negative comment which I think is flat out wrong.

He makes 6 points and I'm going to argue about almost all of them but not in order. His last point is:

6) I note only one area in which e-books have been successful, erotica, and that "success" is only anecdotal.

Given how porn has driven most other electronic formats for things, this point means to me that yes actually there is a significant potential eBook market. But critically it is likely to be a different one to that for printed books in just the same way that electronic porn is different to playboy magazines.

Going backwards we then come to

5) E-books are about as useful to fiction authors as print advertising or self-promotion, which is to say their benefit is marginal.

Eric Flint would disagree with you strongly about this see his recent article at JBU as one example.
I put up one of my own novels for free. "Pirated myself," if you'll allow me the absurd expression. That novel, Mother of Demons, has been available online for free for almost seven years now. And . . .

It's still in print, and still keeps selling.

Soon thereafter, with Jim Baen's cooperation, we set up the Baen Free Library on Baen Books' Web site, which now has dozens of titles from many authors available at no cost to anyone who wants them. (If you're not familiar with the Library, you can find it by going to Baen Books Web site—www.baen.com—and selecting "Free Library" from the left side of the menu across the top.

The titles are not only made available free, they are completely unencrypted—in fact, we'll provide you, free of charge, whatever software you'd prefer to download the texts. We make them available in five different formats.

And . . .

The sky did not fall. To the contrary, many of those books have remained in print and continued to be profitable for the publishers and paying royalties to the authors. For years, now, in some cases. Included among them is my own most popular title, 1632. I put that novel up in the Baen Library back in 2001—six years ago. At the time, the novel had sold about 30,000 copies in paperback.

Today, six years after I "pirated" myself, the novel has sold over 100,000 copies.
Anecdotally I should point out that it is entirely due to eBooks and the Baen Free Library that I increased my spending on SF. Unless Donald represents a Baen author though it is highly unlikely that he has seen a penny of it because the increase has gone almost exclusively to Baen. I buy paperbacks from non Baen publishers about as frequently as I did before, but in addition I spend at least $15 a month on Baen Webscription eBooks and JBU (in 2007 I'd estimate that it is more than double that figure so far because of eARCs and the Liaden book packages).

This also addresses Donald's points 3) and 4)

3) You are right, Charles, in that high pricing is an impediment to people using e-books. What price threshold works? You've already said it: free.

4) I agree that giving away free e-books does no harm. However, I question whether it does any good. I have seen little to no evidence that promotional e-books sell more "dead tree" units.

I'm happy paying $5 for an eBook. I will pay $7.99 or so if pushed but except for Eric Flint's Arkansas War and David Weber's Off Armageddon Reef I'm not paying more than that for an eBook. Evidence above and elsewhere in the Baen publishing world shows that
  1. Many people will pay for an eBook. Ok so it may not be millions of people but, as Jim Baen said before he died, Baen makes more money through eBooks than it does from Canada
  2. Free eBooks are a great way to build awareness. The only reason why I started reading a whole load of Baen authors and I don't for one moment believe I am alone in that.
And that then leads us to point 2)

2) Blaming publishers, copyright law, ecryption, fear of change or anything else for the failure of e-books is a crock. Publishers and authors alike would LOVE to make more money.

 If publishers are so keen to make money why the (expletive) don't they copy Baen and publish DRM-free ebook versions of their books. As I just wrote earlier today, the marginal cost of creating a DRM-free ebook approaches zero. I'm sure someone in Baen can give more accurate figures about the work required but my guess is that going from the final RTF manuscript that is going to be typeset to the average eBook format is little more than running a script/batchfile and checking the result for sanity. If you are right and there is no market for eBooks but that they are harmless and may help promotion then adding this almost cost free step should be a no-brainer for the marketing department. If you are wrong and there is a market then failing to add this almost cost free step is tantamount to leaving money lying on the ground. Either way there seems to be no logical reason not to do so unless publishers are in fact run by clueless, risk-averse lawyers and accountants.

Which leaves us with

1) Better devices and downloading are not going to change anything. Consumers don't like to read e-books, at least not in big numbers. Period. Consider: iPods aren't cheap, had all the same issues and yet they took off.

That is just wrong. iPods were launched in 2001. MP3 music via napster and co was available in 1999 and was wildly popular; iPods took off because they were very well marketed by Apple. Sure it helped that there was a large exisiting base of content and they presented a number of design features that users saw benefit in, but Apple's marketing really really helped kick the market. There is probably sufficient eBook content now available so if Apple or someone came up with a marketing blitz for an eBook reader I expect it would be successful. So far though no one, not even Sony, has really pushed eBook readers.

Having said all of that though, I do agree with the conclusion he makes after his 6 points:

CONCLUSION: Sorry, but e-books are not now and never will be a magic bullet. Great stories coupled with great writing are still the only means to success.

That has been true since the campfire and will be true when "content" is beamed straight into our brains.

The point is that eBooks may help grow the demand for "[g]reat stories coupled with great writing" so that the market for fiction grows instead of shrinks the way it seems to be doing now.

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