The other night, in one of my frequent sleepless spells (my mind doesn't seem to take any notice of my body's manifest need for sleep, these days) I found myself thinking about the price of eBooks. Most writers who are publishing their backlists or their own new 'inventory' tend to go for the cheaper option, keeping the price around the £2.00 mark or less. Much less, in the case of small collections of stories, for example, which generally sell at 80 - 90p.
I've heard various pronouncements from conventional publishers on this score, most of them attempting to justify their prices for downloads which are generally much closer to the prices charged for 'paper' books.
But no matter how good the cause, there is an optimum price beyond which people - especially young people, who are in the habit of downloading music and games - are reluctant to go. In fact there is some evidence from the overall download industry, that reasonably low priced downloads tend to curb piracy. Illegal downloads are and will increasingly become a problem, but all the same, current evidence suggests that the majority of people are law-abiding - at a price! It may not say much for public morality, but it's a fact that if people can download cheaply and legally, that's what most of them will do.
I've heard publishers and even writers justifying their higher download prices by talking about 'payment for content' and it's a reasonable point to make.
The amount of work that goes into a novel is huge. Nobody is more aware of that than a novelist! But then the amount of work that goes into - for example - even a small downloadable I-Phone game is also huge, and generally involves three or four or more people going flat out for months. The single geek, working alone in his bedroom, much loved by news programmes, is rare these days. Game development is a professional pursuit and commercially licensed software costs a fortune. So does the necessary hardware. And yet these downloads are generally sold for pennies rather than pounds, with their makers depending on volume of sales to bring in the cash.
Besides, the pronouncements of publishers declaring that they (and we) must 'pay for content' would be somewhat more credible if conventional advances were not already so low and royalties so tiny that most authors almost never manage to 'earn back' even very low advances, so that they are left in a constant state of guilt - an unhealthy state of affairs and one which isn't conducive to good working relationships.
However, the thing that gave me my small moment of clarity, at three o'clock the other morning, was the fact that I was finishing an extraordinarily good book called Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris and - dear reader - I must guiltily admit that I had bought it from the second hand bookshelf in our community shop. You can salve my conscience by going away and buying a copy right now. Not only that, but as I finished it, with a sigh of satisfaction (it really is a very good book!) I found myself thinking of my various relatives and friends who might also like to read it, mentally making a little list, who to give it to first, and then she could pass it on to that friend and so on and so on...A chain of people, reading the novel, and not a sou going back to Joanne or her publisher, who put in all that work in the first place. (I do buy new books, often, honest - but I still felt guilty!)
But it also struck me that - now that I have a Kindle - if I had come across this novel at, say, £1.90, as a download, I would have clicked and bought it without a second thought. But if I had seen it in a bookshop, I maybe wouldn't. If I had money I might, but I can't even afford to heat my house, so books are a luxury. Reading, however, is as essential as breathing, so I can justify low priced download treats.And it also struck me that most of the friends to whom I had considered lending the book would almost certainly have done exactly the same. And then I started to add up the small amounts of money which would be generated for writers and publishers by each of those downloads, and it very quickly came to more, quite a lot more, than the price that somebody paid for the original book, the same paperback copy which lots of people will have read, by the time it has been passed around.
I can't believe that publishers live in such commercial seclusion that they are unaware of just how much casual borrowing of paperbacks goes on, here in the real world. Wouldn't it be better if we paid just a little for a download instead?
Of course, charity shops will suffer in the future, if this takes off in a big way. But then there's all the difference in the world between the small charity or village shop with its shelf or two of paperbacks, and the big charity business, competing with struggling bookshops, and selling thousands of freely acquired, almost new books at commercial prices, with no benefit to writer or publisher at all. The former will have no trouble finding donated books. The latter may begin to struggle a bit. I know they do sterling work, but still - I find it quite hard to have much sympathy.