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05 September 2007 Blog Home : September 2007 : Permalink

More on Ebooks and Hugos

Dr Pournelle has written his column of the SFWA/Scribd affair, (and linked to this blog so welcome Chaos Manor readers). Probably coincidentally Cory Doctorow has written his latest locus column on ebooks. There is a disconnect. The disconnect it seems to me is driven primarily by the author's income sources and status. Cory Doctorow is, as he admits, a midlist writer. He's a reasonably successful one which means his books have sold a few tens of thousands of books total. He may have sold over 100,000. I doubt he has sold over a million. Jerry Pournelle is one of the bestsellers of SF dom. A single paperback printing of one of his titles is in the 100,000 range. I would estimate total sales of all his books (and his collaborations with Larry Niven) put him in the 5-10 million range of books sold, possibly more. Admittedly this is over a lifetime of some 30-40 years but it's on the order of 100 times as many books as Cory has sold (I'm talking orders of magnitude here it could be 50 times it could be 250 times as many). In summary Jerry Pournelle makes a comfortable living from residual royalties and advances for new works that are anticipated to sell 100,000 or more. Cory Doctorow has to supplement his writing income with boing boing and other gigs and almost certainly doesn't have anything like the total income that Jerry Pournelle does.

The result is that a) Dr Pournelle has a lot more to lose if book stop being bought and b) more incentive to think long term. I think there's a Heinlein saying somewhere (possibly based on Dr Johnson's hanging one) about how needing to survive today means you don't think about the consequences for tomorrow. Doctorow needs to survive today and he can increase his income as a writer today by giving his books away on-line. Dr Pournelle doesn't need to do this, although he does (some of his works do appear on the various Baen CDs and the Free Library), and does need to face the potential of a dramatic loss in income if the paperback market goes titsup.com.

I believe, as I wrote in yesterday, that a combination of some works available for free electronically and others available in non-DRM formats for a reasonable price ($4-$7) is going to be a viable business model. Currently this is "dip a toe in the water" time but Dr Pournelle is certainly dipping his toe in the water; with Baen he has a bundle of his Codominium stories up for sale electronically in precisely this price range (and I bought them even though I have almost all of them in paperback). He also has a few books available free via Baen's Free Library. I'm sure we all await the results of this experiment to see if he gets a reasonably number of sales but it can't be considered the only possible one. The Codominium stories were all written many years ago (I bought the bundle partly because most of my paperbacks were bought second hand and I wanted to actually give the author some money) so success or failure here is merely a question of extracting money for books that have already earned their author a significant amount of money. This is interesting but not critical.

What we need to see is whether the same model can work for newer books; books that not everyone has heard of but which are still likely to be reasonable best sellers. Here is where the Hugos tie in comes. Over the last few days I have bemoaned (again) the state of the Hugos as has Cheryl Morgan over at SFawardswatch.

For those of you reading because you care about ebooks bear with me a second while I recap the Hugo problem. The problem the Hugos have is that relatively few people who could vote bother to do so. One reason for this is that many people feel they should not vote because they haven't read all the entries and cannot therefore make a good judgement. The result is that the Hugos are chosen by a potential clique of some 500 SF fans. There is a comment on someone's live journal that says that you can predict a winning Hugo novel as being not Baen, not a blockbuster and not the recipient of fawning buzz on trendy blogs (I paraphrase possibly inaccurately because I've lost the link but it was something like that). I think that is true and it makes the award rather less meaningful than it should be. There is, I believe, some agreement that this is the case, although people also don't like the idea that the award should go to the "bestseller" simply because it has been most popular and successful. At SFawardswatch there are a number of suggestions such as making the award a con attendee only one, having a prize draw and valid drawbacks for these sugestions (and the bestseller one).

I have (cue Blackadder voice) a cunning plan to use ebooks to widen the Hugo electorate slightly without, as it were, letting in the great unwashed completely. A vote by 500 people is pretty much a clique - although it is better than a jury in some ways - a vote by 5000 people would be about right (and if it went up to 50,000 some years that would be fine too). I think having to pay to vote is a really really GOOD idea, so how do we increase the voters to 5000+ and make sure they are informed?

[sidenote: It also worries me that, as I wrote before, it would be relatively cheap to buy a Hugo. If I, as a fan, were to try and do that then it would be a significant investment in time and money with little hope of a payoff beyond some emotional satisfaction, however a publisher might think that winning a Hugo was better than spending $100,000 or whatever the going rate is to get their lead author's book in a prime position in Borders and Barnes&Noble (and Waterstones in the UK etc.). So far it seems clear that the risk of discovery and the obvious resulting bad publicity means they don't do it, but I can see that a new owner or relatively small newly established publisher might decide to try this, especially if it looked like the choice was this or bankruptcy. ]

My cunning plan is to make the short-listed works available electronically from the Hugo website for worldcon attendees and supporting members. In other words for your $40 as a supporting member you not only get the right to vote you get the right to read the works in competition. This removes the 'haven't read the short-list' excuse. The list comes up in the early part of the year and anyone with a membership is able to read the short-listed works over the next 3 months or so before voting.

As for the price. $40 is not far off the cost of 5 $5 ebooks plus a couple of online magazine subs so it would be easy to justify as a reader becuase you are getting the right to read stuff at a similar price as it would be if bought electronically elsewhere. However $40 is still a significant hurdle and ebooks are not for everyone so it still limits the franchise a bit thereby ensuring that it is the dedicated who read and vote not hoi polloi. It would I think even be possible to raise the price slightly (say $50) assuming that the breakdown of who gets what (e.g. WSFS $10 for admin etc., novel publishers $20, short form publishers $20) is clearly stated.

This would be a great way for publishers to dip a toe in the cheap eBook market without getting too worked up about piracy because it would only be open to relatively few readers (you only get access if you've forked over $40 or $50). Experiments could be done about the acceptability of DRM with some publishers offering their works DRM free and others not. Likewise texts could be offered in a variety of formats and statistics could be gathered to see which format was most popular. Another reason why publishers might like this is that since the award is for works printed the year before it might well help sustain the buzz and sales of the book -typically books sell about 80% of their total sales in the first 6 months after release - and given the dire state of the short fiction market it might help attract more novel reading SF fans back to the short form.

And of course if it turns out that $40 (or $50) is considered a reasonable price for such a bundle then maybe the deal will help to increase the sales of ebook readers and thereby drive the price down for them too. In other words making the Hugo nominees available electronically could significantly increase the sales of the books, the acceptance of ebooks and the sales of ebook readers. Oh and it would make money for publishers and authors, something which I think we all believe is a good thing...