Sticky Floors, Agency, and Mental Eye Candy

Agency is back in the news, just as I’m beginning to think about setting the price for the second book – and the news is supposed to give me pause to consider.


At issue, if you haven’t kept up with this particular topic, is how large publishers sell books to book retailers. Prior to the advent of Apple’s iBookstore – and I’m going way back here – publishers wholesaled their books to retailers for half the suggested list price; retailers then marked books up from there appropriately. Once Amazon appeared on the scene, its immensity allowed it to do the unthinkable: accept wholesaled books at half price…and then mark them down to loss-leader status in order to move huge volumes of books (with hopes for add-on sales). That, the publishers decided, was removing their ability to control pricing of their product. So, thus, it was bad.

On to the agency model they went, in which publishers set the price and the retailer takes a cut of the proceeds – Apple, for instance, takes 30% of the price of books sold through its iBooks app. That returned control of pricing to publishers, but caused ebook prices to rise sharply (thus screwing the consumer). So, thus, it was bad, too. (See where this is going?) And this time, it’s made the Department of Justice unhappy enough to stop hosing down its rose borders, hitch up its pants, and go inside for the squirrel rifle.

I’m supposed to be all concerned about this upcoming litigation on the part of the DoJ, because lowered book prices – if they come to pass – are supposed to create more pressure at the bottom of the market, where indie authors like myself live. The logic being bandied about goes like this: if the current slate of wildly overpriced $19.99 ebooks are suddenly marked down to $9.99 or even $7.99, I will need to take a proportionate reduction in the price of my book to make everything ‘seem’ rational to the consumer once again. Because God knows readers equate price with value. Right?

I’m not buying it. If I produce a car that I go to market with for $20,000, and a group of large automakers conspire to raise the prices of their cars – for no supportable reason – to $100,000, and are then sued and forced to reduce their price to $50,000, that doesn’t mean I have to cut my price to $10,000 to keep everyone’s mental fractions intact. Those prices didn’t make any sense before the cut, and they still don’t; the same is true of ebooks. The prices currently being charged by large publishing houses for ebooks are ridiculous; there’s no printing involved, no physical stocking of books, no remaindering the unsold copies, no endcap advertising, none of it. So selling an ebook for $15.99 and a hardback for $28.99 is somehow supposed to convey to me that the content is worth around $15 (I’ll be generous with transmission costs on WhisperNet here) and the delta is entirely made up of production cost, an argument I don’t buy for a second. They’re both wildly overpriced, and that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with my own work and how I price it.

Part of that has to do with top-down versus bottom-up pricing. Starting from the bottom up, the pricing conversation for about any book would start at the unrealistic – “let’s give it away” – and proceed through a volume-building price point ($0.99 is the going Kindle rate for developing your market, apparently) and on up to some point where learned consumers in the room would start to look around and say, “I’m not sure I’m spending $12 on a book. Let’s come down from there.” Whereas the top-down discussion is free to start wherever you want, with some sort of ascribed sanity to it. “Who thinks $50 is too high? All right, then. What about $45?” It sounds like a rational discussion, but it’s not.

So fuck the agency model, and fuck the wholesale model; fuck all of it. I don’t really care what large publishers are doing. Whether you feel screwed by their pricing model is your own decision; I don’t believe any book is worth $28.99. Sorry. I just don’t. My decision to make is how to price my book. And, really, that decision leads on to a deeper discussion of what any book should cost. Pretty much every track on iTunes is $1.29, whether it’s Mahler or Gotye or dogs barking ‘Jingle Bells.’ We’ve arrived at a price for music, apparently; THE price. Why haven’t we found the price for books? What the fuck?

Well, here’s my personal philosophy on it.

A book should cost about what a good movie costs ($10)  – they offer roughly the same level of entertainment – with a few modifications. First, you have to do all of the casting, lighting, and special effects in your own mind; so I’ll pay you a few dollars (three, to be exact) to be your own personal Stan Winston and put creature effects in as necessary. Consider yourself on the payroll. I’ll also knock off a dollar for not being the beneficiary of any trailers beforehand, but add back a quarter or so because you don’t have to sit through inane pre-movie advertising and watered-down Entertainment Tonight reporting; you can start reading a book whenever you want, without having to wait for the featurette about ABC’s shitty new fall dramas to end. I’m adding a dollar because you can re-read the book anytime you want, whereas you have to pay to get back into the movie; I’m also adding back the $0.25 in gas it would take you to get to the movie theater, since you can download a Kindle/Nook book anywhere. I’m subtracting two dollars because a book takes longer to read than a movie takes to watch, so it’s an investment of time, and time is money. I’m adding a quarter because you can listen to whatever soundtrack you want and you’re not at the mercy of whatever half-rate score the movie was saddled with. I’m deducting $1 because all eye candy, male or female, must specifically be generated by you, the reader, but I’m adding $0.25 because your choice of eye candy is limited only by your imagination, and you have an unlimited casting budget. I’m adding back $0.25 because your selection of snacks is much broader, and of much higher quality. Finally, I’m adding a quarter because I won’t make you wait until after the credits for any hidden scenes, sitting alone in a sticky-floored theater with the lights already coming up.

That’s $10 – $3 -$1 +$0.25 +$1 +$0.25 – $2 +$0.25 – $1 + $0.25 + $0.25 +$0.25 = $5.50.

There you have it. Five-fifty. It passes the eye test; it lives in that I’d-expect-to-be-entertained-for-that-price realm; it’s an amount of money that you’re not going to debate for a long time (kinda like the iTunes $1.29 price point), but one sufficient to make you feel entitled you to a seat at the critical review table once you’re done.

Maybe I’ll start with that. And if the big publishers want to adopt it for their next slate of gripping page-turners, I’ll license this logic to them for a small fee.


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