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The argument against e-books

The fun’s over… for authors, anyway.

E-books are bad.

What? You want a better explanation? FINE…

E-books revolutionized the reading experience when the first Kindle e-reader was released in 2007. Since then, their popularity has exploded, pushing paper editions of books to the margins. This was a great thing for authors getting into the biz early on, but now? Well…

Times have changed. E-books are still a great deal for readers, but almost certainly not for writers, specifically indie writers like me. Here’s a few reasons why:

The elephant in the room: PIRACY

Anybody who’s been on the internet for more than, oh, five minutes knows that if it is digitized, it can and will be pirated. Whether it’s movies, music, or yes, books, you can find an illegally-copied version of it. If you put something on the internet that’s popular enough, it will get pirated.

Now, larger entities such as major publishers and such have the time and the resources to root out pirates and force them to take down pirated files. Indie writers like me? Not so much. It’s also an increasingly common problem for us.

Case in point: my collection of short stories, The Interludes. I used to have this book available as an e-book. Amazon assured me that it was protected by their software to help prevent the book from being illegally copied.

Yeah, apparently that doesn’t work. I found pirated copies of it on a Spanish website when searching the title on Google one fine morning. Now, there’s a couple of things you have to understand about The Interludes.

The book is a collection of short stories from this website. All but one are free to read on this website. Sales of the book support this website. So someone pirated an e-book that was…

  • reasonably cheap ($2.99)
  • full of stories already available online for free
  • a means to support a non-ad-supported website

To compound all that, again, I’m an indie writer. That means I deal in sales that at best can be measured in the hundreds. Every illegally downloaded copy means one less dollar in my pocket. Speaking of which…

Indie writers STARVE on e-book royalties

In the beginning, e-books were reasonably priced. You could get the paperback edition of a book for, say, $15. The e-book version might be $7.50. You don’t get a physical copy, but it costs half as much to read!

That was before the race to the bottom for indie writers. Now, I’ve heard stories of it being triggered by Indian book-mills strip-mining Amazon for clicks, but I don’t know. What I do know is that, by and large, this is a self-inflicted wound on behalf of the indie writers.

Getting attention, especially on a website like Amazon, takes a superhuman amount of effort. In the indie world, everyone can publish anything, even if maybe, you know, it shouldn’t be. That leads to a disgusting amount of bloat.

It also leads to a disgusting amount of competition for readers’ dollars. And it really is dollars we’re talking about. As a part of the race to get people to buy their e-books, indie writers have been consistently shoving prices south.

The one thing stopping things from the gouging from getting too crazy was Amazon’s royalty system. E-books priced at $2.99 and above get a 70% royalty rate. In other words, a $3 e-book sale would net the author $2.10. That’s pretty damn good. Below that, you only get 35%. That means a $0.99 book only nets the author $0.35. Ouch.

That $0.99 price-point has become the norm, and the expectation, for readers looking for indie e-books. Think about this for a moment: Readers now expect indie authors to sell their books, some of which are 300+ page novels, for less than the cost of a bottle of soda-pop.

You need a lot of luck, a lot of friends, or a lot of money

Kindle Direct Publishing was a god-send for people like me. I have the talent (I think?) and the material, but perhaps not the social savvy and connections to get signed by a major publisher. With KDP, you didn’t need any of that.

Note that I said any of that, including the talent or the material.

I know I sound like an asshole, but honestly, there’s a lot of total shit that gets published on Amazon nowadays. A lot of these people would and do get rejected by the big companies simply because of the sheer number of books that get sent their way. A lot of these people simply suck at writing.

Readers might not know that, though. The less, um, warranted additions to Amazon may be boosted by supportive (or purchased) friends, reviews included. Readers buy the books, dry-heave, and become more wary. How do you entice those people to take a risk? Drop the price.

If you don’t have a lot of friends, or a lot of luck, then all you have left is spending a lot of money on ads. Amazon’s ad system for KDP used to be highly effective in the right hands. Advertising on Amazon has become catastrophically expensive for indie writers, however.

I remember when I first released After, I worked the hell out of the KDP ad system, and it was cheap! I could rely on getting my book seen for as little as ten cents per click. Amazon got greedy recently and dramatically upped those prices(though they lay blame on the users.) Today, that same click can cost a dollar or more.

One dollar per click. One dollar per e-book. See the problem?

Paperbacks aren’t much better

The above reasons all played into my decision to no longer offer my books in the e-book format. That could (and honestly, probably will) eat into the number of copies I can expect to sell. Still, I’ll make more money with actual physical copies, right?

You know we’re still talking about Amazon, don’t you?

The royalties Amazon offers for paperback books through KDP is a LOT worse than e-books. It’s something like 40% of the sale, but that’s after accounting for the cost of printing the physical book. In other words…

NO ROAD HOME Book One: Echoes is priced at $4.99 on Amazon. After the printing cost is considered, and I get my 40%, I’m left with only $0.75. So to recap, Amazon gets $4.24, and I get $0.75. Yeah.

But it gets worse.

For a larger book like Something Deeper, I get screwed even harder. That book is about three times longer than Echoes, but I only get around $1 for each $10.95 copy I sell. That’s an effective royalty rate of less than 10%.

BUT… Again, readers have been trained to expect low prices. A lot of indie writers will price their books at +/- $15 because they want to make something. They also sell fewer books than they would, otherwise.

The bottom line

I’ll always dream of making a living out of writing. In a life of poverty and hardship, forging the stories behind Alex, Max, Simon, and others have helped me hope, and smile, and dream. In them, I found not only joy, but a chance to pull myself out of poverty.

Like with so many other things, I simply came to this party too late. Still, my love of writing continues unabated. I may never make bank, may never really sell any books, but they will be affordable, damn it.

Each book I have available right now nets me about a dollar per sale. The upshot is that I have them priced competitively with the big boys. You might be able to get the latest big-name author’s book for $8.95 at your local supermarket. That also happens to be how much my novel After costs.

I could undoubtedly sell more e-book copies than physical copies. The net profits would probably be higher, too. But after a couple of years, I could see sales tank completely as all my books popped up for free on pirating websites.

Far fewer people will probably read my books. I’ll most likely never make a living off of my books. BUT I will be selling them on my terms. It’s not much to lord over in this world, but when you have as little as I do, it’s worth a whole hell of a lot.

Take a look at what I have to offer you before you go. I promise you that they’re worth every penny. Thanks for reading.

-John