The Mockingbird Killer

After writing yesterday’s post, I decided to pick up a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. These days I prefer e-books over traditional, so to Amazon I go, where I find that an e-book version will set me back $10.99, while paperback goes for $9.36, and mass-market paperback for $4.94. The e-book version of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, is listed at $13.99, with a paperback for $16.79. So much for that idea. I went away, well, not sorrowful, but without buying either, with plans no to drop by the library instead. I’d like to read To Kill a Mockingbird to see what the fuss is about, but not enough to shell out more for a book made of 1s and 0s than one made of ink and paper.

This isn’t a new problem with e-books. Never having worked in the halls of traditional publishing, I can only speculate based on hearsay of why the major publishers tend to sell e-books at premium prices. Here I must be careful, lest my words come back to haunt me. It’s obvious that in addition to time and expense in writing and producing books, there’s what the market can bear, which just means what the customer is willing to pay. This makes pricing a ticklish thing. If you price it less than your expenses, you go broke. If you price it less than expenses and reasonable return on your time, you still go broke. But if you price your product too high, you lose sales and go broke. But, paradoxically, you can also set your product price so low that you lose sales, too, with the impression that it’s low quality.

As I’ve written before, I don’t know what I’m doing. In pricing my books, I tried to choose what I thought was reasonable. Creating a quality e-book requires more than running a document through a converter. It involves tinkering in HTML, and getting the formatting just right in CSS, and creating a cover and dealing with artwork, and making sure the graphics fit certain standards, and so forth and so on. The upside of all this is that if you do it right, you can reuse your CSS file, which makes life much simpler. It’s like making a pattern or jig, which can take a lot of effort, but once you get it done, you don’t have to do it again, except for minor tweaks.

This also means that traditional publishers can – or should – do the same thing, which means getting from manuscript to e-book can be more of a matter of macros and templates. Is it less than preparing a printing run? I do not know. I do know that, unlike the printing run, you don’t have to invest in ink and paper and presses and binders and trimmers, or boxes or trucks. I really suspect e-book production costs are much lower. Something to think about when you see an e-book that’s more expensive than a paperback.

Most of e-book prices are likely based on what someone thinks the market can bear, where even the author’s name can be a factor. Since I’m an unknown, my books have no name value. Ah, but a well-known author can command a higher price simply because more people are willing to put out money. This is what we called “buying the name” when going to the tractor place to pick up expensive name-brand parts. Or think of the author name as a brand. See Stephen King’s name on a novel, and you have a good idea what you’re getting. So it is that Stephen King’s name, like other popular authors, is placed at the top of the book, because his name alone is good for sales. That’s name value. It’s also what the market can bear, because people are more willing to spend money on Stephen King simply because they liked other books he’s written.

Beyond this, the “what the market can bear” thing resembles a dark art more than a science. Well, even here it does, because a publisher must ask how much people are willing for name value. Experience plays a part, but so does assumptions, and both can fool you where there’s rapidly changing technology. So it is that Harper Lee’s publisher apparently assumed people would be willing to pay more for an electronic file than a paperback. The question is why and is that assumption valid?

It’s entirely speculation, but it may well be that traditional publishers see e-books as attracting the well-heeled, who are more willing to pay premium prices. The reasoning here is that e-readers are pricey, so if someone can afford an e-reader, they can afford to pay more for a book. That might have been true once, but even then it was questionable, due to a marvelous thing known as refurbished. These days there are tablets and smart phones and free apps to read e-books on them, and while these devices aren’t cheap, they are also multi-purpose. This means someone might justify this cost more than a dedicated e-reader, which, by its nature, is severely limited in what it does. I’ve used mine to go on the web, and while it’s possible, it doesn’t work all that well compared to a tablet.

If that’s the case, the assumption that e-book buyers are more willing to shell out more money for intangible 1s and 0s may no longer be valid. Considering the popularity of free, public domain, works, it may never have been valid at all.

The other unknown is the point where you earn less for fewer sales at a higher price than for more sales at a cheaper one. Is my walk-away point lower, average, or higher than most? I have no idea.

I do know if To Kill a Mockingbird had been cheaper, at least less than the paperback price, I would have bought it. Instead, I’ll see if I can find it at the library, where I won’t have to spend a dime.

I’d say the price killed that mockingbird quite nicely.