The new JK Rowling book and ebook pricing

So it has been pretty quiet here. I have been meaning to explain my absence, but procrastination builds on procrastination. I will eventually explain, but in the meantime, a post from the news…

I have been notified by Amazon, Facebook and a number of news outlets that the new, non-Harry-Potter book from JK Rowling is due out September 27th. There is an understandable level of curiosity about how she will follow up after such a successful series. She is not only leaving the Harry Potter universe behind, but the new book is also not in the very hot Young Adult genre. Some are calling it a sophomore effort, which seems odd after writing seven successful novels, but there is no question there will be heightened scrutiny to go along with the hype.

I am curious just like everyone else, and followed the links to see what the story is about. But before I could get to the book jacket description, something at the head of the page put my guard up.

The price.

The publisher will undoubtedly capitalize on the built-in, anxious market and sell millions of books, but they have chosen to do a little gouging in the process.  The suggested hardcover price is $35. Though few will pay this (as Amazon.com is already discounting it to $21), $35 for a piece of hardcover fiction seems out of touch.

I felt the same way when I saw the $36 price tag of the Ken Follett book Fall of Giants. I am a big fan of his writing, and know that he does extensive research beyond the writing to make his books historically accurate, but the $36 price tag priced me out of his market. I was excited to read it, and wanted to have a copy to keep, but decided to wait in line at the library instead. If it had been priced more typically, I am sure I would have bought it, but the price forced me to wait and I ended up reading it for free (thank you again, robust library system).

All this said, I rarely buy hardbacks anymore. There is no money in the budget to be an early adopter anymore. I almost always wait for the paperback, ebook, or eventual library availability. So though $35 sticks in my craw, it is sort of irrelevant. What really grabbed me on the JK Rowling book was the ebook price.

$20.

Much the same way that iTunes has effectively set the price of a song at about a dollar, Amazon made $9.99 the top end for a ebook for a number of years. When you consider that a market paperback is generally at or below that price, and there is no additional printing costs for an ebook, it seems a fair level. But traditional publishers continue to fight against the ebook market, even as it grows exponentially. A quick check of the Ken Follett novel on Amazon:

Hardback – $23.76
Paperback – $16.50
Kindle – $18.99

Even though the production costs are lower, the shipping costs are essentially non-existent, and there are no returns of unsold books from bookstores to account for, the ebook price is higher than the paperback.

There is debate about the sweet spot of ebook pricing among self-published authors. Authors obviously make more money on a higher priced book, and it is tempting to cozy up close to soft ceiling of $9.99. At 99 cents, you make very little on each copy, but the volume may make up for it. Where the lines cross is a matter of anecdote and experimentation.

I priced my ebook at $2.99. This seemed like a fair price for a novel-length work. The paperback is priced at $7.99, so the ebook feels like a real bargain. And because of production costs, I actually make a little more on each ebook sale.

There is value in a piece of writing. Writers should be paid for their hours, days and years of effort. Publishers, distributors and bookstores need to make money as well to keep the doors open. I am absolutely willing to pay read a good book, even when money is tight. But when publishers set prices unreasonably high, they shrink their market. Rather than getting $10 or even $25 dollars from me, they get no incremental money when I check the book out from the library instead.

I am sure JK Rowling’s publisher will sell untold copies of her new novel regardless of the price. The pre-sale is already high up on the Amazon charts. They can get away with the price gouging on these hot authors with their built-in markets, but the system is changing and publishers are no longer the gatekeepers they once were. If they continue to price ebooks high to try to keep people buying the paper versions, they will likely go the way of record companies clinging to CD sales while the market moved on to MP3s and iTunes.

And just to be clear, this is not what I am rooting for.

The paperback vs the Ebook

Share the Road is available in three different versions – Paperback, Kindle and Nook. This is how my January sales were split between the three.

The order does not surprise me. Even though it is priced higher, I figured that the paperback would sell more quickly in the first month. I was pretty sure the Kindle would outsell the Nook, but the number of Kindle sales were higher than expected. They were not that far behind the paperbacks, and they clearly trounced the Nook.

What was a little surprising, if you combine the two Ebook formats, the paperback just edged them out. I am a fan of Ebooks, own a Kindle myself, and have been hearing all about their increased popularity, but I was still a little surprised that the markets were almost equal in January.

In the next few posts, I will pass along my experiences with preparing and selling each version, and let you know how I would do it differently next time.

Why self-publish

The world of book publishing is changing by the minute. The introduction of both the Ebook and the ability to Print on Demand have opened up access to the market. No longer are book publishers the gate keepers to decide what books do and don’t make it into print.

And of course most authors need an agent to even get in the publisher’s door. This adds another level of gate-keeping, for you need to convince an agent that your work is worth their time, and it adds another person who needs to be paid for their work.

By some estimates, three out of every ten thousand unsolicited manuscripts ever get accepted for publishing. And the lag time is significant. Even if you are one of the lottery winners to make it through, your work won’t see the light of day for 18 to 24 months.

Some say the current model is broken, but it is resisting change. Many of the major publishers continue to discourage Ebook sales by pricing them too high. Publishers make most of their money on hardback sales. They not only delay Ebook release as they do with paperbacks, but they often price the Ebooks higher than the paperback, even with the reduced production, shipping and return costs. But trying to kill the Ebook appears to be a losing battle with the increased popularity of the Kindle, Nook and iPad.

But I didn’t self-publish Share the Road because I wanted to thumb my nose at traditional publishers because of their broken system, or because they rejected me. I did not find an agent, and I knew that after the first draft was finished that I wanted to self-publish the book. There would be no monetary advance, book tours, and my book will likely never grace the shelf of a bookstore. So why self-publish?

Share the Road is not a typical book. And I don’t mean that it breaks new ground that hasn’t been seen or understood by the fiction genre. What I mean is that I can’t point to the book and say that it is similar to the work of this author, or this type of book. I can’t say it is the next Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Girl Who Plays With Fire.

Chasing what is popular in the moment can be a pointless exercise with the built-in delay to publishing, but agents and publishers need to feel confident that there will be an established audience for your book. They don’t want to risk their time or money on a brilliantly written book that no one will buy. They want a sure thing, they want the next John Grisham. Movie houses are much the same, which is why we see so many films that are near carbon copies of past hits. There are no zombie, vampires or wizards in my book. Just a guy and his bike.

Another reason I self-published was the ticking clock. Share the Road ended up being a pretty personal book. I feel like I understand things better for having written it, and I think that others may find their own meaning in the story. Also, a portion of the book was written to honor a friend who had passed away. I think that those that knew him and know me will appreciate the story. And quite frankly, no one knows how long they have. I didn’t want the book sitting on my hard drive never to be read.

Do I think the book would have made it past the traditional gate-keeper? We may never know. I am proud of the book, and I think it could find an audience. Otherwise I would have just printed up copies for my Mom and not released it on the world. It is possible that it could get picked up by a traditional publisher at a later date if it does well, but that might be another three in ten-thousand type of shot.

I may try to find an agent and submit my next book to traditional publishers. I have not yet tried the typical route, so I am not soured by it. The self-publishing adventure has been a great learning experience, and I am glad I chose to do it for Share the Road.

One more place to pick up the book

Share the Road is now available as an Ebook for the Barnes & Noble Nook. Just like the Kindle version, it is $2.99 and can be purchased through the link in the left sidebar. Or you can just search for “Share the Road” on the Barnes & Noble site. Or I could just point you there.

I will have a post up soon on my first impressions with Ebook publishing.

Scrambling at the last minute

My goal was to get my first novel published by the end of the year, and I got it in just under the wire.

I finished off the latest edit, and I sent off a copy at the end of November to one of my beta readers to check for typos and grammar errors. While I was waiting to hear back, I read it again. And edited it again. This really could go on forever.

As I mentioned in my last post, the book still needed a new cover before I put it up for sale. I had some initial pictures and better ideas were developing, but then rain and a trip to Seattle for the holidays stalled progress on the new cover.

While I was in Seattle, I got my typo report back, fixed them, worked on the website and other background stuff, but I couldn’t do anything about the cover until I got back in town. I returned the night of the 26th and headed out on the 27th for another photo shoot. After lots of dashing back and forth with the self-timer, I had thirty more photos. I couldn’t really see how the photos turned out with the sunlight bouncing off of the camera screen, so I went home hoping I had something good. I ended up using the last photo I took, so I am glad I kept trying.

I updated the cover with the new photo, and was ready to submit it for file approval. And I was still messing with the text. I had to get this thing out of my hands. I uploaded it to CreateSpace and waited for them to make sure there weren’t any formatting problems. I received their approval on the 29th and immediately ordered a proof. Now I had to wait for the hard copy to show up so I could make sure everything looked okay in print.

The anticipated ship date was sometime around January 6th, so I wasn’t going to make my year-end deadline. But I was so close I was willing to call it a victory. Then, somehow, during the post-Christmas chaos of shopping and shipping, CreateSpace and the Post Office had the proof in my hands on the afternoon of December 31st.

I filled out all the last minute synopsis, author bio and pricing information and hit “Approve” at around 5:00pm. I was published. More or less. The book could have been purchased on the CreateSpace site that day, but it didn’t show up on Amazon until January 1st. The listing still isn’t completely ready as the web machines haven’t attached the synopsis and preview, but it is available for sale!

My first novel.

A new cover to judge it by

Back in May, I printed  up a couple of copies of my book, even though it was still a work in progress. I had earned a free copy from CreateSpace by completing the NaNoWriMo 50,000 word challenge. The coupon expired sometime in June, and I didn’t want to see it go to waste.

Even though the book was not ready to be published, it was a great opportunity to see what it would look like in paperback form. I found a nice sunset photo that I had taken at the Grand Canyon. It has nothing to do with the story, but it was a nice picture. I was impressed with the printing and the look of the cover, but I knew I would eventually have to change the cover to give a reader a better idea of what the book was about.

I had vague ideas floating around in the back of my mind, but had done nothing of substance in the past six months. If I was going to make my goal to publish by the end of the year, I needed to come up with something soon.

I took my camera and drove down the coast. I had a certain image in my mind, though I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to make use of it. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I was mostly scouting on this first past through. Almost as an afterthought, I backtracked to another place off my route and got out to take some actual photos.

Armed with a self-timer, I tried to find a place with a good backdrop and a place to prop up the camera. I used benches, garbage cans, and the bike rack on my truck as makeshift tripods. I took several shots, dashing back and forth, trying out multiple looks, and trying to ignore the odd looks I was getting. I ended up with some good initial shots, and just seeing these first attempts gave me some more ideas.

I went out for another afternoon in a different location. On the second day, I found some spots where I could have a wider photo that would wrap around the book from front to back.

After two days, I had several good shots and started playing around with them in my photo editing software. The more I messed with them, the more ideas started to take shape. I had the back cover figured out, and just needed to go out and re-shoot the new idea for the front cover. But then a strange thing stopped my momentum. Rain in San Diego.

I didn’t get a chance to re-shoot before heading to Seattle for the holidays, so it is still in the idea stage. I am hoping to capture the cover I have pictured in my head when I return. In the meantime, it is back to the less glamorous stuff to get the book ready.

A false front

I was close to seeing my book in print. It was finished, but still really rough. It wasn’t important to have the cover be perfect at this point. In fact, it didn’t need a cover at all, but I was interested to see what a finished book from CreateSpace would look like. And just like the formatting adventure, it was something new to learn.

As I mentioned before, CreateSpace offers professional help to produce a good looking novel. But in the spirit of the self-publisher who wants to go it on his own, there is also a cover creator program on the website. There were several themes to choose from, each with a different color scheme and with varying picture sizes. The program is pretty straight forward, and you could probably whip out a cover in a half hour or less.

But I knew I would eventually want something different, so I decided to experiment. But I didn’t have any photo editing experience outside of the very basic cropping. More things to learn.

Still not wanting to spend any money, I went searching the web for a free program. From what I found, it appeared that the program gimp (GNU image manipulation program) was one of the best. I downloaded the program, as well as a very helpful manual produced by one of the discussion board regulars, and set about trying to learn to make a cover.

Like the movie making software I have used in the past, the gimp program could do far more things than I would ever need. As is true of many non-entry level programs, it was not incredibly intuitive to use, but the manual helped tremendously. But just like the formatting of the Word doc, there were still hair-pulling moments where I didn’t understand why things weren’t working.

I was still in the messing around stage of things, but I wanted the cover to look as nice as possible. There were several old photos that I thought I could use, but they were taken with an old camera and the resolution was not good enough to fit without blowing them up. I saw a cover of a book at my girlfriend’s house that reminded me of a photo I had taken at the Grand Canyon. It had nothing to do with what the book was about, but it was a nice shot and I thought the color scheme worked.

This is what the test run of the book ended up looking like:

I sent everything off to CreateSpace and I had a novel proof in my hand in less than a week. I knew it wasn’t really a novel, but is sure looked like one. It was a great feeling.

I noticed a couple of formatting errors (my mistakes), made some quick changes and ordered a couple more copies. Now it was time to pass them out to the first people who would read them. Yikes.

Getting it in print

After a couple of rounds of editing, it still wasn’t near ready for prime time, but it felt like there was enough there worth working on. But of course how I felt about it would change day to day, paragraph to paragraph. I needed to get the book out of my hands and get someone else’s opinion. I could have just printed it out, but I had the opportunity for something a little nicer.

NaNoWriMo is a non-profit organization, and they depend on the support of both users and corporate sponsors. Some of the sponsors provide discount codes to participants, and others offer prizes for those who make it to the 50,000 word goal.

One of those prizes was a free paperback proof from CreateSpace, a print on demand company owned by Amazon.com. The coupon for a free proof expired sometime in June, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. But of course I couldn’t just send them a Word file and expect it to turn out looking like a book.

Fortunately, they provide lots of help for the first time novelist. They offer professional services that you can buy piece-meal, as well as some help for the do-it-your-selfer. Not only are there guidelines and FAQs on the site, but there is also an active discussion board where people that have been through it all can pass on their wisdom.

The first step was to get the Word doc formatted to work as a paperback. CreateSpace has Word files on the site that you can use as a template, and they come in various sizes for your desired book size. This made things much easier than starting from scratch, but even so, there were many hair pulling moments trying to get the page numbers and blank pages to work. I was using features I hadn’t used before, and trying to learn how they worked by trial and error.

After much cutting and pasting, references to the help files, and heavy use of the undo key, it was starting to look like a book without a binding. Now I just needed a cover.