April 27th, 2011

Ebooks, Publishing, Pricing

I've been reading recent posts over on Konrath's blog and today, looking at some other blogs about ebooks, selfpublishing, publishing in general, etc.

First, a little plug for David Derrico, in particular his posts about publishing:

http://www.davidderrico.com/category/always-write/publishing/

I was quite surprised by how orderly his writing is. He is chatty without being verbose.

Second, I decided to check in on the Amazon top 20 paid.

The first thing that struck me about the list was the total and unremitting familiarity of a lot of the titles on the list: 3 by Suzanne Collins (which is sort of interesting: 3 of the top 20 paid kindle ebooks today are published by Scholastic, and are aimed at the 10 and older crowd. Think about _that_ for a few minutes), 2 by Michael Connelly, a Baldacci, a Stieg Larsson, Tina Fey's book, _The Help_. Actually, let's think about _The Help_ for a moment. It's a top 20 paid kindle at $9.99; the mass market paperback has been released and has been gone for a while, IIRC. Wow. The first _Game of Thrones_ book is on the list. That's _half_ the top 20: not only are those all big 6 published books, they are exactly the kind of same-old same-old bestsellers that annoy people who are rah-rah about self-publishing.

The number 1 slot is held by a non-big 6 published book, but that should not reassure anyone who thinks the the ebook future holds out a lot of hope for the displacement of big publisher choices by self-published authors. The book in question is _Like Water for Elephants_, and it is published by Algonquin Books which is an imprint of Workman (yes, the Page-a-Day people who also publish Boynton).

There are some self-pubs on the list. Conspicuously, John Locke has the #4 slot with one of his .99 Donovan Creed books. Slot #18 is _Trojan Horse_ by David Lender. And I'm a little uncertain how to categorize #9, because it's published by Stonegate Ink, which isn't selfpub, but is e-pub primary, I guess I would call it.

What are the other 6? There's a religious press entry at #3, _Heaven is for Real_. Krakauer's Kindle Single is at #14. There are some less-familiar-to-me Big 6 big names, as well: Lisa Gardner at #20, Lauren Hillenbrand of Seabiscuit's _Unbroken_ at #17. _Something Borrowed_ by Emily Griffin (which appears to be something that is often considered chick-lit and people say its somehow better than that and other people disagree) at #6; there's a movie version out soon? Already? I'm not sure. Finally, Paula McLain's _The Paris Wife_, historical fiction probably aimed straight at the middle-aged woman who enjoys her book group (I am a middle-aged woman who enjoys her book group, but not because of the book selections, typically).

I do not see in the top 20 any reason to think that the Big 6 and their agency model need have any particular fear for their ability to rake it in off their bestsellers.

I'm going to take a look at the top 100 next, but will not do as detailed an analysis. As usual, the exercise was, for me, completely worth it.

ETA: Dang it. Here's the pricing analysis.

Most expensive (1) : $14.99
Cheapest (3) : .99
Most common (5) : $12.99
1 at 11.99
1 at 9.99
1 at 8.99
1 at 8.40
2 at 7.99
1 at 7.14
1 at 6.13
1 at 5.00
1 at 2.99
1 at 4.17 (Water for Elephants)

vapor-books

Not really. But there's a Charlaine Harris _preorder_ at #48 paid for $14.99. And it's entirely probable that I helped put it there. Geez.

Amazon bestsellers, paid kindle vs. books (approx top 60)

Why did I look at the top 60? I don't know. I got interrupted on the kindle side and by the time I came back, things had shifted around. On the paper side, I was just matching the earlier work on the kindle side.

I think the most interesting discovery is that out of the top 60 bestsellers in books at Amazon (when I did this), only _10_ do not have a kindle edition. Let's contemplate those 10.

(1) A preorder "children's" picture book called _Go the F**k to Sleep_
(2) A boxed set of Martin's Game of Thrones (components available for the kindle, so this is sort of a borderline case.
(3) A tie-in journal for the Greene diet book
(4) Paltrow's cookbook
(5) The APA style guide
(6) Grayling's _Good Book_ This is the clearest should-be-available-but-isn't case.
(7) Another cookbook
(8) A preorder of a book based on a website and previously self published and sold on that website
(9) A Curious George picture/sticker book, bargain priced
(10) A book about how to be stylish, that involves a lot of pictures

Basically, with the possible exception of Grayling's replacement bible for humanists, every book in the top 60 bestsellers on Amazon is _also_ available on the kindle. If it's not available yet (a preorder), there is a preorder button for the kindle version as well. Grayling's book is a recent enough release that there's a good chance the ebook has been windowed and will be available later (I just saw the author on Stephen Colbert's show, which means it's in the middle of a big push at the moment).

It's really hard to argue that "legacy publishers" are not taking ebooks seriously with this kind of coverage.

The next most obvious thing is how much overlap there is between the lists. #1 in books is #19 for kindle. #2 in books is #3 on kindle. #3 on books is #5 on kindle. That Charlaine Harris/Stackhouse preorder for kindle? It's #5 in books. #6 in books is #69 on kindle. #7 in books is #71 on kindle.

There are a _lot_ of diet books high in bestsellers books that _are_ available on the kindle, but didn't show up in the top 60ish that I looked at. And John Locke is all over the place in the top 60ish on kindle, available in paperback format, but not showing up in the top 60ish in the general books bestseller list. It's hard to know precisely how to interpret this, but it looks a lot to me like the population buying books for the kindle is different than the population buying books on Amazon more generally. I'll devote a later post to some speculation about why that might be, and how that might evolve over time.

ETA: Yes, it might mean that the two populations are the same, but that they buy differently in different contexts. I don't think that's the case, but I'll explain why in more detail in that later post.

The Story So Far: Publishing Transitions to eBooks

I do not immediately recall what I was thinking when I decided to surf through ebook coverage recently. I remember being pretty amazed by the AAP numbers for February, and really surprised at how little was being made of it online. I was sort of curious about what Konrath was up to, and I was also interested in how the transition from publishing paper books was going for what Eisler terms "legacy publishers".

This turned into an effort to answer a couple questions.

(1) Are the Big 6 and other smaller publishers making a concerted effort to put their books out in ebook form?
(2) Have self and/or small e-pubbers been able to gain/maintain a foothold on the kindle?

For a lot longer than the kindle has existed, there have been genre authors pushing hard to legitimize self-publishing. Genre authors have a different find-the-audience experience than many other categories of general books. Genres have a dedicated fan based small in number but which buys a lot of books. A genre often has significant events associated with the media not organized by publishers (conventions and so forth). It makes a lot of sense to self publish in this situation: you can find your audience much better than a big publishing house can. The real bummer has been the cost associated to produce limited run books; e-publishing has eliminated that issue. Genre fiction authors also often produce long running series which have a highly committed audience; they're a really recognizable brand. This has some great aspects (simplifies marketing) and some downer aspects (if someone else controls the rights to early books in the series, life can really suck when you switch, whether to selfpub or a different publisher).

I really would not have been shocked to see a kindle bestseller list full of selfpublished genre fiction. That is absolutely not the case, however. The only genre heavily represented by selfpublishers in the top 60ish is horror/thriller. Either Konrath or one of his recent guest bloggers wrote something which helps explain this in part. If you've selfpublished on kindle, you need to get a ways up the list in order to vault up to the top tiers. The easiest way to do this is to crack one of the genre lists. And the easiest genre list to crack is the horror list. Authors who think of what they are writing as "thriller" are encourage to self-categorize as "horror" as well, because this is so much easier to break into. Once onto a sublist, it's vastly easier to make it up further (apparently).

If you look at the Horror list, the only NON self-published and/or primarily epublished cheap titles seem to be written by Stephen King (that's not entirely true: _World War Z_ is there also, and the Harris/Stackhouse books are a little lower down, and after that there's Moning and so forth.).

What does this mean? On the one hand, fuck if I know. I generally hate horror, altho I like the Stackhouse series, I don't tend to think of it as horror. On the other hand, this is too weird a phenomenon to completely ignore.

(1) Are publishers underserving horror fans? This seems like a real possibility. If you compare the Horror list to the Romance list, there are a lot more primarily-paper books listed in the kindle bestsellers Romance list than on the horror side. But that could also mean:

(2) Perhaps horror fans are even broker than romance fans? Or:

(3) Perhaps horror fans are more willing to adopt a new author than romance fans? Or:

(4) Maybe romance presses and horror presses were serving their fans about equally well, but the romance publishers did a better job adopting digital in sync with their readers than the horror presses did. Or:

(5) Maybe there are just a whole helluva lot more people buying romance than horror, making it tougher to game the system.

My first instinct, honestly, is #5. Harlequin in particular adopted an effective digital strategy before most of their fans were mad at them for not adopting an effective digital strategy (good timing).

Despite extensive presence of selfpublished and/or primarily e-published books on _many_ (Horror is just a really extreme example) genre sublists and, occasionally, lists, self/epubbers have not been able to convert this into a similar dominance of the top of the general bestseller list for kindle.

And I don't think that's going to change.

A wide variety of people online have complained vigorously about the agency model and price points for ebooks above $9.99. Yet it's abundantly clear that people are perfectly happy to pay more than $9.99 for ebooks published by "legacy publishers", at least when that book is very recently released. The composition of the kindle general list and the "books" general list has enough overlap to suggest publishers can probably keep doing what they are doing with some confidence that people will continue to buy what they are selling.

The big differences between the general list and the kindle list can probably be chalked up to where we are in the adoption curve in conjunction with books-the-kindle-handles-poorly. There are, for example, an awful lot of diet books in the top 60ish on the paper side (more than on the kindle side). There are also more books that I would characterize as _really_ conservative on the general side, vs. the kindle list (Corsi's book is on the general side, as is Ron Paul's book, and the bio of Bonhoeffer -- they are all available for kindle, but much lower down on the kindle list). There are a couple obvious ways to organize these differences. (1) Conservative people are conservative: they change a little slower, so they aren't over on the kindle side (yet). (2) Diet books and political books are the kinds of books bought by people who buy a small number of books a year; the kindle list reflects the purchasing habits of people who buy a larger number of books a year.

The answer to my two questions are thus: (1) Yes. and (2) Not a very big one, and it's a bit precarious.

It's late enough that I'm taking a break for now, but I hope to come back to this tomorrow and do some research in support of another question I have. So far, the assumption has been that "legacy publishers" will come out on the other side of this transition to digital with a different cost structure/thinner profit margins. Is this assumption true and, if it is, what changes does that imply for publishers? If that assumption isn't true, there are likely to be some changes anyway, as the number of retail bookstores inevitably continues to shrink over the coming months and years. What does that imply for the way publishers do things?