Why is Apple, a computer company, the largest music seller in the world? Because the record industry spent its resources defending CDs rather than building a new marketplace where customers could download MP3s legitimately.
Why is Simon & Schuster pricing Stephen King’s next ebook, Mr. Mercedes, at $13.99 when the hardcover is $18.00 for Amazon Prime members? Because they’re defending paper rather than encouraging the ebook marketplace that Amazon built for them. Simon & Schuster should have invented the Kindle, not Amazon, just as the RIAA should have invented iTunes. They didn’t because they were more focused on defending their established distribution network than adapting to what a new generation of customers wanted.
In fairness, Simon & Schuster is quickly lowering prices on King’s ebooks as they age. Doctor Sleep (2013) is now $7.99, and 11/22/63 (2011) is now $2.99. That’s smart. I expect this trend to continue, perhaps to the point where a new ebook is $5.99, and a year out it’s $2.99. The data I’ve seen suggests you sell the most ebooks at the $2.99-$3.99 spot, and that the increase in sales outweighs the higher per-book royalty of a $7.99-13.99 ebook.
I sell my first three books as ebooks today for 99 cents each (Amazon’s minimum price) at a 35% royalty. Those three short books add up to about the same page count at Doctor Sleep (545 pages). Is Stephen King’s latest book better than my little trilogy? Probably. I’m about halfway through Doctor Sleep, and it’s pretty good. Is it twice as good? Maybe. Part of that judgment has to be whether you prefer horror with alcoholic psychics or hard sci-fi with Texans and aliens.
Having read a dozen of King’s novels, will Mr. Mercedes prove to be five times better than my trilogy? I doubt it. And that’s a good thing.
As long as traditional publishers overprice their ebooks, indies like me will have a chance at gaining an audience. However, as they lower ebook prices, that opportunity fades.
The smartest thing traditional publishers could do if they wanted to encourage me to go through their gatekeeping process is lower the price of all their ebooks to $2.99. They’d sell a ton, and new readers wouldn’t give me a chance, even at $0.99. I’d have to go back to the old ways — publish a few short stories, get an agent, get a manuscript bought, go through editing and design, and maybe see it on a shelf/on Amazon two years later, where I’d get a 15% royalty (after earning out my advance — if I did), instead of immediately earning 35% (at the $0.99-2.98 price range) or 70% (at $2.99+) as an indie, and having full control of content, artwork, and pricing.
Going through that process might be good for me. I can admit that. I’m not an anti-traditionalist; I’m simply impatient. Given the landscape today, I’d rather have two years of sales and giveaways than wait for a publisher to put it out — and that’s assuming I get immediate interest (highly unlikely). What’s more likely is that a prospective agent/publisher would pass, and I’d never know if anyone liked my story. A year and a half into this process, I’ve had a couple of thousand people download it, and about 50 post reviews in the US and UK that say they liked it. That’s very cool.
I’m willing to set this knife on the traditional publishers table because I don’t think they’ll pick it up and cut me with it. They still don’t see that paper will be a niche market, soon. Maybe in another decade they’ll get it, but by then I should have an established audience, and I probably won’t see the value in giving an agent 15% and a publisher/distributor 70% to reach customers I already have: 70% of $2.99 ($2) with higher sales is better than 15% of $13.99 ($2) with lower sales.
My advice — for the 99 cents it’s currently worth — is if you’re considering self-publishing, get cracking. Publishers are slow to change, but they won’t sleep forever. By 2025, I expect this gold rush to be panned out. Self-pubbed works will be the new slush pile that beginning agents and editorial assistants browse at lunch. Even today, the likelihood of another Amanda Hocking bursting onto the scene seems very low.
Timing and luck matter. This is the time. Luck… well, I can’t help you with that, but I do know you can only get lucky if you’re trying.