The Amazon E-Book Price Fandango: In Which A Corporation Shares Its Opinion, Because Apparently Corporations Have Those Now?

To talk about e-book prices, I want to first talk about ice cream.

I like ice cream.

Fuck it — I love ice cream.

If you had ice cream on your person, I would seriously consider shanking you and robbing your bleeding body of the ice cream you thought you owned. Hell, if you were made of ice cream, I would eat you. I would eat you right up.

Sometimes, I make my own ice cream. This is relatively inexpensive.

Sometimes, I buy ice cream from the grocery store. I’ll buy Breyer’s, which is not particularly expensive, or I’ll buy fancy-shmancy-pantsy Jeni’s ice cream, which is particularly expensive.

Sometimes, I’ll buy ice cream from a place that makes its own. A local creamery nearby has good ice cream for cheap. Another local creamery sells weird artisanal ice creams (“Bilberry Thyme Witbier with Live Python Shavings and Maguey Sap”) for three times the price. I like both options.

On rare occasions, I will order ice cream online. Jeni’s, again, is good for this — if you thought it was expensive in the store, wait till you add shipping costs which require them to package it with a buttload of dry ice. (Caveat: don’t put dry ice in your butt.) It’s about four thousand dollars for a pint (I may be over-estimating). But, screw it, it’s basically what would come out of an angel’s head if you cracked open its skull. This ice cream is spun from the dreams of sleeping deities.

I like a diversity of options in my ice cream choosings.

And I understand — even expect — a variety of price ranges implicit in that.

The reason not all ice cream costs the same is because not all ice cream is the same. Local, organic, artisanal ingredients versus industrial-farmed Soylent goo. Glass containers versus plastic versus “I sell the ice cream in an old gym sock.”

Imagine, if you will, that your local grocery store wrote an impassioned-yet-clinical opinion piece on their own grocery store blog (is that a thing?) about how ice cream prices should be kept lower because people don’t want to buy expensive ice cream, and they note that people will buy more ice cream if it’s cheaper, and yay for that. They can buy whole clawfoot bathtubs of the stuff instead of these itty-bitty pints. Of course, choosing to lower ice cream prices into that range would benefit the store, but potentially hamstring some of the makers of the ice cream. That fancy artisanal brand won’t be able to use raw bison milk or rare moon-berries because the expected price of ice cream won’t support it.

Choosing to narrow the price diversity means narrowing the diversity of available options for consumers. If we become trained to understand that ice cream should cost between $3 and $10, anything outside that range is untenable and fails to sell and fails to exist.

Choices for all of us reduce.

Now, let’s talk about e-books.

I know, I know. E-books aren’t ice cream.

Still. Consider some things.

Amazon wrote a little letter (because corporations now have opinions and religions and stuff) and said some things about (yawn) the Hachette-Amazon cage match that is going on and keeps spilling over into our blogs (like this one; sorry!) and business-doings. In this letter they make some statements about e-book prices.

(You should go read what John Scalzi posted about that letter this morning.)

Amazon says:

A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out-of-stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market — e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can be and should be less expensive.

“Unjustifiably high” is something I would rather readers decide. I don’t often spend more than $9.99 on e-books, so, on this point, I agree with the sentiment — but that’s also my call to make, y’dig? Just as with ice cream, I’m willing to spend crucial parts of my anatomy to get a taste of Jeni’s ice cream, other folks would not be so willing to drop that cash.

(Regarding the note about e-book reselling, let’s also remember that Amazon is the one who a year ago sent up a flurry about the secondary market for e-books.)

Amazon the Entity goes on to say:

Keep in mind that books don’t just compete against books. Books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

It’s an interesting point, one with two axes that are not universally applicable to everyone: books compete with books and other entertainment in terms of both money and time. I have enough money to spend on a lot of entertainment choices because entertainment is relatively cheap. I do not, however, have time. Other people have tons of time but have to make real choices between how they spend their limited funds on something so non-essential as entertainment. A third group has plenty of time and plenty of money and can spend wantonly and consume wildly their entertainment choices, and a fourth group is limited in both.

By echoing the notion of competition (particularly books competing against books), Amazon is going against its own point here a bit: competition works when a variety of products is made available across an array of prices. The advantage of, say, an author-publisher’s work at $2.99 is very much in part because of that price point. It competes well in price against higher-cost offerings. Debut authors or otherwise unknown authors do better at lower price points, too. A Stephen King book doesn’t need to compete on price because, well, he’s Stephen King, son, and you know what you’re getting with his work, and if you’re a fan, you’re already willing to go above that $9.99 price point because STEPHEN MOTHERFUCKING KING.

What’s interesting, too, is that by echoing the non-book entertainment choices, Amazon is offering a poor analog — books are not other things, so how do you compare? Facebook is free, so should books be free? I can kill two hours on Facebook easy, just by tripping and falling into a rage-hole. Oh, but wait, a Blu-Ray or digital download of a new movie probably $19.99, bare minimum, and that’s only two hours long. A book will last you more than that so… should the book be $19.99? Or maybe a little less, in order to compete? $14.99, maybe. It’s an odd point to make and does little to enforce the argument that e-books should be cheaper just as it would be a bad argument in terms of demanding e-books be more expensive.

It’d be like saying ice cream should be cheaper because soup is cheaper. Or ice cream should be more expensive because Kobe beef is more expensive. IT’S ALL JUST FOOD FOR YOUR FOOD HOLE, AND BOOKS ARE JUST DISTRACTIONS TO FILL YOUR JOY SOCKETS.

None of this even factors size of the books.

Some books are 60,000 words.

Some are 120,000 words.

Some are twice even that (epic fantasy, I’m lookin’ at you).

And what about quality? The quality of the prose, the editing, the storytelling.

Are you really buying books based purely on the components? The base physical costs? (If that’s true, why don’t you just go buy a box of bricks or something.) Isn’t art weirder than that? Doesn’t art — whether it’s art versus art or art all on its own — resist easy pricing schemes?

It’s all a little weird, a whole lot slippery.

Amazon says:

So, at $9.99, the total pie is bigger – how does Amazon propose to share that revenue pie? We believe 35% should go to the author, 35% to the publisher and 30% to Amazon. Is 30% reasonable? Yes. In fact, the 30% share of total revenue is what Hachette forced us to take in 2010 when they illegally colluded with their competitors to raise e-book prices. We had no problem with the 30% — we did have a big problem with the price increases.

(Noting the “illegally colluded” part is a catty jab, Amazon. What are you, 13?)

I certainly support authors getting more money.

And if anything, I think this is a volley across publishing’s bow that Amazon is making a very serious, hard-driving play for the hearts and minds not just of readers, but of authors.  If publishers want to make a statement, maybe it’s time to offer authors a meatier cut. Sorry. It just is. If you want to play this game and win at it, you need to start finding ways to become partners with your authors — which is true for some publishers, and not true for many others. That means offering them things Amazon cannot offer them. More money. More data. More control.

See, that’s the funny thing here. On the surface, I agree with what Amazon is saying. I prefer cheaper e-books because they fill that niche. They’re disposable. Non-corporeal. Often licensed, not-owned. They don’t have to go through the cattle chute of physical printing, shipping, distribution, onerous returns. They also require expensive-ish e-readers to consume them. So: like I said, I’m on board with lower e-book prices.

I’m just not excited by Amazon being in possession of that lever.

I don’t want Amazon having that control.

I want publishers and author-publishers to have it, and I want readers — not Amazon — to decide whether they’re going to reject it or not. If we’re really so sweet on the idea of competition, fine. Do it. Don’t hobble the race-runners so they’re closer to one another. Let publishers run the race and see who the readers and the authors think are winning.

Here’s a handful of reasons, and all throughout it’s vital to remember I’m not a MONEYOLOGIST. I am likely to possess an entirely naive understanding of how commerce works, and you’re free to school me on that (politely). Remember: I write about robot Pegasuses and cranky psychics.

1.) Amazon already controls a whole lot, and frankly, I’m cool with them not controlling everything that touches book culture. Which leads me to point number two —

2.) Amazon has not demonstrated that this control has been universally favorable to authors. The ability to self-publish isn’t enough. Amazon controls an alarming number of access points and algorithms in terms of how they sell your books. Sales rankings, author rankings, also-reads — all these things exist outside not only an author’s control but also outside their understanding. They have put up a rather large curtain in the Emerald City, and we can’t see who or what hides behind it. Author-publishers who have been stung by changing algorithms or changes to their relationship with Amazon (and by proxy, to their readers) know this all too well.

3.) Amazon has already set a fundamental price range for self-published books — $2.99 to $9.99 is that range. If you fall outside of it, you fall away from their 70% cut (not a royalty, remember). They’re shepherding you into a price point which is ostensibly what they’re trying to do here with traditional-publishers — the problem is, establishing that with bigger publishers creates limited variability on price. Which means:

4.) Self-publishing will find one of its more notable advantages undercut. When $9.99 is the top cost for trad-pub e-books, you’ll see debuts and unknown authors drift to less than that, and those prices will encroach upon territory presently owned by author-publishers. The prices in self-publishing have been drifting upward. If this window tightens for larger publishers, self-publishers will need to move back downward into some kind of pricing oubliette. So will mid-list authors, debut authors, and unknown authors. (I’m actually a little surprised self-publishers are so invested in this battle. A battle that is, ostensibly, a battle over traditional publishing — a battle between publishers and a distributor. Self-publishers have done well in part because traditional-publishers have been risk averse, keeping contracts strict, prices high, money low.)

5.) Higher cost e-books from publishers help subsidize debut and unknown authors.

6.) Saying “pay the author more!” is very nice, but then also saying, “And charge less for books!” is a bit curious because it’s like saying authors should get a larger cut of a smaller pie. That can work out economically if sales are robust, but also is far from a guarantee. How about instead we just stick with “pay the author more!” and stop there? (Also, Amazon noting the “35% to authors” is cool and all, but do remember that some of their imprints still offer 25%, not 35%.)

7.) Diversification of price is meaningful just as its meaningful in all other aspects.

So, to recap:

Amazon maybe shouldn’t be in control of prices, not literally, not with emotional pleas.

Let publishers set the prices.

Let authors and readers decide if those prices work.

Let the market do its market-flavored thing.

Let’s remember that Amazon and publishers are neither saints nor evil-doers.

Let’s all eat ice cream.

[Note: I will unlikely be present in the comments. As always: be polite.]