Thursday, December 11, 2008

ebooks: it's all good news ... except the price!

Good news on the ebook front: this headline ran in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago: "Turns out, Sony ebooks sell after all." ... the title tells the story in the ultimate nutshell.

People -- even tech heads -- had been sooooo skeptical about ebook readers. But since the Sony has sold 300,000 in the last 24 months, I would have to say the writing's on the wall. Maybe Sony has sold more than the other manufacturers (of which there are a lot, with Pocket PC previously being the most popular, if ebook download specs as quoted by Amazon are anything to go by), but you can still use the 300k figure as a means to estimate the size of the ebook reading market in the last couple of years.

An astute guess would be 500-600,000, with Sony accounting for around half of everything ... and since these gadgets are (still?) bloody expensive, you can bet your last nickel the whole lot have been sold in the US/Canada, Japan, and some parts of Europe, where the starting price of US$300 / A$450 + shipping won't quite break the budget.

This is better than it used to be. A couple of years ago I looked at these little devices (in Dick Smith's, as I recall), and the starting price was A$998. Ouch. That'd buy a lot of paperbacks!

So, the price is certainly dropping, and affluent readers in affluent parts of the world can afford to get into this. Add the low(er) prices of the ebooks themselves, and it's starting to look more and more attractive.

Nostrakeeganus's tip? Wait a while longer. If this industry is anything like TVs, PCs and plasma screens (and it is), a computer that would once have cost you five grand will soon cost about a fifth of that price. In other words, what started out at a thousand Aussie a couple of years ago will be A$300 in a year or so. Sony and their competitors will very soon have saturated the market that can afford something up around the five hundred buck marker for a palmtop reading device ... and as soon as the market's well and truly overloaded, prices will implode.

One wished the same thing could be said of the price of ebooks themselves! I've been looking more and more at ebooks as the cost of shipping goes berserk. And yes, I do realize that the carbon tax is what's doubled the price of shipping. We tried to send a little packet of three assorted calendars up to Alaska from the Lower 48 yesterday. Three calendars + postage, then run the exchange rate ... was going to be A$110. Nope, not going to pay that. Not that you couldn't -- just that you wouldn't, because similar calendars will be A$5 each as remainders in the after-Christmas sales!

And the same mechanism is at work right through the printed-goods industry. If you have to pay for shipping of the product ... much less the papers, inks, toners and fixatives that have to be shipped to the printshops! ... the cost is going to skyrocket with inflation, recession and the carbon tax. The answer to all this gloom and doom?

Pixels. Electrons. E-goods. Downloads.

So -- here I am looking at ebooks. And I'm at Diesel Ebooks, which is where I usually start because they have a hell of a range, and a pretty reasonable gay list. Also, they're a bookstore, not a publisher, so you're getting a monster range across a wide spectrum, rather than one editor's preference, which is the risk you run when buying from a publisher direct (and I know exactly what I've just said: the same down-side is true of my own backlist. Everything in the world is 'buyer beware,' from your new reading to the house you bought last week).

The sole downside with Diesel is that they don't give you (much) idea of what you're buying. You get a very small sample of the book, and no indication as to how long it is. They give you the file size. Now, a 500k PDF can be a few pages or 400pp -- depends on how the file was formatted, compressed, and so forth. One graphic, and the file size blows out.

So I ended up chasing a couple of these titles right back to the originating publishers, and on one of those pages there was a kind of "pointer." Their short books are 20-25,000 words, and the price for this is about US$4/~A$5.75. Their mid-range "regular" length books are 50-60,000 words, and you pay US$6.50 / ~A$9.50. Their super-length (!) novels are 80,000, and these are US$8 /~ A$12 or so. They don't do anything longer than 80,000 words.

Uh ... huh. My shortest books are about 45,000, priced at US$5. My longest are 205,000, priced at US$9.95.

I'd been wondering, lately, if my ebooks are too expensive. Turns out, I'm actually underpriced for what I deliver ... not because there aren't cheap(er) ebooks out there, but because what you get for the money is precious little more than a short story.

The price of ebooks is set by many factors. The author has bills to pay -- so does the publisher! There's the cost of having an account at Payloadz or wherever (it's not cheap), and then -- what about some advertising? I fully realize that no one is getting rich out of a US$6 for 60,000 word item! But that's getting perilously close to the A$10 mark, for the equivalent of a very, very skinny paperback, which you could read in one sitting.

My own impression is that the price of the hardware is going to have to come down, to make the ebook industry affordable enough, and big enough, for it to rival paper publishing. And then (and this is the part that's really going to smart), the price of the ebooks themselves will have to come down. If ebooks were -- comparatively speaking -- half the price you'd expect to pay for the same reading-value in a paperback, it would be reasonable. This would put a 60,000 word ebook at something like US$3, possibly even US$2.50. Right now, the item is just plain too expensive for what it is. Sure, a US$6 / A$10 pricetag is low by comparison with the A$25 pricetag of a paperback in this country. But for your A$25 you get up to four times as much reading ... and you don't have to spend five hundred bucks buying hardware, nor do you have to look at pixels. (There's no way I, personally, could stare at the PC screen for long enough to read a whole book; I'll become an avid ebook reader when I've got the hardware.)

The ebook industry is currently exploding, it's a fact. There are significant numbers of affluent readers in affluent regions. The plasma screen market also exploded. For a while. But the more contentious the pricing, and the more luxury-oriented the goods, the faster the market will saturate ... and soon the price cutting begins. We've seen this in every sector of electronics. We'll see it in the ebook industry as early as 2009.

And it's not just the hardware which will get cheaper, fast. It's the ebooks themselves. It's going to take a major shake-up. Some publishers apparently seem to believe that their ebooks are worth the same price as the hardcover or paperback! Don't believe me? See this:

Though they don't realize it just yet, such publishers are already up against a juggernaut: free fiction. Yep. Giveaway fiction that is top quality, well written, meticulously edited. The catch? No catch, really. You just have to look at a few commercials here and there, and for once in your life (ack! gasp! the agony!) click a $1 donation button to help the writer/publisher put groceries on the table and keep the lights turned on.

And that, folks, is where I'm going exploring very soon. I'm actually quite excited about this, because the innovation of the digital novel gives me total, complete, perfect freedom, which is something I've never had before. Now -- there is the real magic of the Internet. Come with me, and let's see what happens next!


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