Monday, January 14, 2013


A Conversation About Books and Money, Part Two

We weren't quite done with Friday's "who knows?!" dialogue about the best way to link to books on our (or your) website, and we asked Emily Gould to stop by and clarify a few things.

Nicole: Hi Emily, we've been talking about that thing you wrote, in case you wanted to flesh anything out.

Emily: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond! I'm kicking myself now for not explicitly explaining, in that post, why I don't think it's a good thing when sites like The Hairpin participate in the Amazon Affiliates program. It's not at all because I don't approve of making money — wow, do I ever approve of The Hairpin making money. And I don't care about making money in non-transparent ways. I just want media outlets that care about the future of the culture they're covering to look twice at whether it makes sense in the long term for them to have a relationship with Amazon.

I'm glad you guys are thinking twice about whether the amount of money you're making via that program is worth throwing your weight behind a business that has repeatedly showed that it doesn't care about the future of the book industry. Amazon treats books as loss leaders to get people in their store to buy other things, regardless of what that means for other booksellers, for publishers, and for authors. In the past, when publishers have balked at their pricing, they've removed their "buy" buttons. They've opened their own publishing imprints, so they're competing directly with the publishers whose books they're selling. They generally give the impression that they don't care whether other publishers continue to exist.

A lot of us are just starting to think about sustainable culture — i.e., whether the decisions we make, as consumers, are helping to create a future for the kinds of books we want to read, music we want to hear, and movies we want to see. A lot of the infrastructure that used to support all of those culture industries is eroding rapidly. When there's less marketplace diversity, when one retailer is selling the majority of all books and can bully publishers into accepting their prices, that is felt in the industry not, as Edith says, as a helpful culling of the herd (though she's right, there are "too many books!") but as a conservative chill, as publishers become more and more risk-averse.

I'm not saying we should boycott Amazon — I'm saying we should make sure we shop diversely for diverse things, to ensure that the culture we like consuming keeps getting made. I don't think it makes sense for you to point your readers in exclusively one direction, even if you are getting a nice kickback in exchange. I mean, a sort-of-nice kickback—while I agree that $1,000 is a lot of money, if I can just be gross and talk about "your brand" for a second, I don't think you should let them get away with paying you that little to have The Hairpin's implicit seal of approval. You're worth more.

Nicole: While we've got you on the ... line? ... : ebook publishing, and The Future. Go!

Emily: Last things first: well, there are two possible futures! One is the dystopian future, and let me get into that first.

In the bad future, we never wake up and think about how our book sausage is made until it's too late. The major publishers contract and consolidate further and thousands of people who have made careers as book editors, copyeditors, production editors, designers, salespeople, marketers, and publicists lose their jobs and are unable to find new ones. The only publisher that survives is Amazon, and every book is a Tim Ferriss knockoff or a Fifty Shades knockoff. I mean, I'm exaggerating slightly, but only slightly.

In the good future, readers make the connection between the books they enjoy and the publishing infrastructure that enables those books to be created. We buy new hardcovers when we can afford to, ebooks when we want instant gratification and convenience or to audition books we're not sure we want on our shelves forever, and we take out books from the library when we don't feel like paying full price at a bookstore. We buy from Amazon, from Kobo, from the iBookstore, from our local independent bookstores and from B&N as long as they exist. We buy books directly from publishers and authors when we want to make extra sure they're getting the biggest cut they possibly can, and we buy from other places when convenience is more important or the authors are long-dead anyway.

I don't know firsthand how the Indiebound Affiliate program stacks up to Amazon's, but that is worth looking into.

About ebooks — well, I sell them. I like reading them. I especially like reading them on my iPhone and iPad mini. I wish I was getting paid by Apple to say that, but I'm not. I also read print books. I am excited for the books I love to be available in both formats, which means, I don't think books should be published exclusively as ebooks and I want more of the print backlist titles I love to be made available as ebooks, which won't happen without advocacy of people like me and Ruth and customers like Emily Books's readers and subscribers.

Nicole: Thanks so much, Emily. We're offering our readers a choice, going forward, and we want to know how people like it, and what else is out there. We're also curious to see what the future of good writing is, which, as Edith points out, is not the same as the future of the book industry.

Read books, everyone!

84 Comments / Post A Comment


I don't know. As a former publishing professional it seems to me that book publishing was always a lousy business model created by penniless monks and crazy screed writers and then industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries by the spouses and children of the already wealthy. Book publishing always mostly seemed like a variation of the small-fortune joke ("How do you make a small fortune in the publishing industry?" "Start with a large fortune!" har har har).

In all seriousness, I will be curious to see how it all comes together. I'm a pretty substantial reader and I much prefer the ebook format to amassing a bunch of paper when I just wanted the words. My bookshelves manage to stay overfull just the same - print is great for good looking books, it's just that most novels don't need to be.

Honestly, I fear the impact of the demise of the newspaper way more than the supposed dystopia of the demise of the publishing industry as we know it.

Thanks for the conversation though. Interesting stuff.


@vunder When I first learned about the buy-back model of publishers, I was floored.


@vunder Yeah, I wouldn't blame Amazon entirely for publisher's woes either. They kind of brought it on themselves by not being savvy enough to see the potential of the internet early enough.
(And I also agree that they way it works now is NOT a sustainable business model, and we are starting to see a lot of pushback and change because of it).


@Megano! I don't think the problem is that publishers haven't taken advantage of the internet's potential (though that's certainly what's doomed a lot of booksellers). Amazon isn't doing anything particularly revolutionary. They're selling books online whether in an electronic format or a printed format. However, they are selling books at a loss, devaluing the price of a book generally and making in near impossible for publishers to sell their books other places for a profit.

I agree that the pricing model in publishing needs to be changed, but Amazon has refused to sell books (eBooks in particular) at a price that would allow publishers to maintain profitability, and then has the gall to remove "buy" buttons and rage about the "monopoly" publishers have on books (i.e. copyright) that prevent from selling books at a cheap price.


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Thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond! I'm kicking myself now for not explicitly explaining, in that post, why I don't think it's a good thing when sites like The Hairpin participate in the Amazon Affiliates program.

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This article is really denigrative of 'self-published' or 'indie-published' books. 50 Shades of Grey was published by an imprint of Random House. Who is, last time I checked, one of the poor publishers who we need to protect with our consumer dollars. Publishing houses have been publishing bestselling dreck since long before Amazon came along - indeed, after the death of short-story-publishing magazines, which publishers traditionally mined for quality writers, publishers have increasingly turned to super-popular "Tim Ferriss knockoffs or a Fifty Shades knockoff."

I'm not saying that indie publishing is the salvation of book writing. I just question the idea that the traditional publishing model is something unequivocably worth saving. That somehow we'll ruin modern literature if we topple the artistic gatekeepers and let the market dictate what gets published. The market already dictates what gets published - it has since the invention of the book advance.

Emily Gould

@muddgirl I don't see where I denigrated "indie-published" books at all. I very much support the existence of small and large publishers. Most of the best books I've read in the last few years have been published by small publishers. My point I guess is that I think there should continue to be publishers. You guess right that I am in general not a huge fan of self-publishing when it comes to fiction. Editing, designing and publishing books well are skills, and amateurs in general don't undertake them in ways that create books that I enjoy reading. Nonfiction is another story -- some books have such niche audiences and built-in fanbases that self-publishing makes sense for them. This is a much too short version of a much longer conversation that people need to have about this. I'm glad you're interested, anyway.


@muddgirl In theory, the traditional industry model is that the Ferris and 50 Shades were the big sellers at the top of the list intended to support the bottom of the list, which were the prestige books or the big gambles. Self-/indie-publishing is great as a mode for an author to get his or her book directly to the public, but doesn't offer the reader/buyer the imprimatur of an knowledgeable editor and staff. An established author like Stephen King can self-publish and reach his public because they already know him - beyond that, it's a little challenging because not every book that is written is worth reading.

Bennett Madison@facebook

@muddgirl As an author who has always been published-- often not very successfully-- by a few different Big Six publishers (do we still even say that?), I agree that there's a lot wrong with the old model of publishing. Like most writers I know, I was burned over and over by the old system and to some extent wouldn't be so sad to see its era pass.

Like Emily says, there's a way that all this upheaval ends up shaking out to the advantage of writers, readers, and maybe even publishing professionals. There's certainly a scenario in which increased ease in terms of distribution and production leads to more diversity in terms of who is publishing and selling books, as well as how they're selling them. If that happens, everyone wins. But it's not going to happen on its own; authors and readers will have to fight for it, and fight hard.

Because if this all ends with more consolidation, as is already happening with the Penguin/Random merge, it will make it much harder for weird, interesting or difficult books to see the light of day and even harder for those books to make any money at all. It's already difficult enough for authors to make a living. The more they get squeezed, the more likely it is that worthy, important books never get written in the first place. No matter WHO you are, chances are that some of the books that are most important to you would fall into the weird/interesting/difficult category.

As to your point about "indie publishing"-- which I think you're using to mean self-publishing, rather than publishing with small independent presses-- I think self-publishing is a great thing in a lot of ways. I also think it's a mistake for self-pubbed authors and authors who are published by old-model houses (whether big or little) to pit themselves against each other. Really, I hope that division gets more and more fluid, and I can certainly see myself self-publishing some of my own work. But it's a mistake to think that self-publishing will be the thing that saves us all. For one thing, Amazon is just as intent on controlling the self-publishing mechanisms and market as it is on controlling everything else. Furthermore, like Emily points out in her comment above, publishers do serve an important function. Actually they serve a lot of functions. Readers are best served when the writer can do the writing and not trouble themselves too much with the marketing/editing/production side of things, which are tasks that not many artists are well-suited for anyway. We still need publishers, and in my opinion we always will, even if they look a little different than they look now.

I would love to live in a world where writers have tons of choices about how they release their work-- whether it means publishing with a big corporate publisher, choosing a small indie press, self-publishing, or going with some kind of hybrid model that doesn't quite exist yet. This would make it easier to make money as a writer, easier to get your work out there, and, most importantly, would give readers more freedom in terms of what they read and how they read it.

If Amazon is allowed to run the game from top to bottom, the days of having the whole industry controlled by a handful of big players is going to end up looking pretty appealing in comparison, and THAT would be really fuckin sad.


@muddgirl I think that often times books like Fifty Shades of Grey allow publishers to publish more obscure titles that they think are important. Though I don't work for a trade publisher, I work for an education imprint of one of the Big Six. We all depend on revenue from the big (if shallow) hits to do our best work that we really believe in.

Better to Eat You With

@Emily Gould Thank you--a lot--for making a distinction between "indie" and "self" publishing. They are not the same thing, and there's been an awful lot of interchanging of the terms floating around the internet of late.


@muddgirl Self-published authors can hire editors and illustrators on their own, which will improve the quality of the output. My partner did that - he had a friend who's an English professor edit it, and another friend that's an art student do the art, I think for about $600 all together? Plus the cost of printing the books. But it meant he made basically nothing on the first run, so. It's a trade-off, I guess.

Karen Healey@twitter

@cwmilton Yep. Little, Brown sold so many copies of Twilight they could afford to take a chance on a weird urban fantasy/myth YA from New Zealand. And that's how my first book got published.

My third comes out in a month! So I'm pretty grateful to Twilight.

Karen Healey@twitter

@Karen Healey@twitter And at least one of the people from Little, Brown reads The Hairpin and she chided me for not MENTIONING TITLES so. My third book is called When We Wake, and it concerns a young lady who dies violently on the best day of her life and wakes up a hundred years later to a very different Melbourne.

I swear no one is reading this thread, Victoria, but you know I'll do anything to make you happy!


@muddgirl I don't think Emily is denigrating self-publishing or indie publishing (and there's a distinction) at all. She's saying it's best for readers to have a range of options.
Also, 50 Shades was originally self-published. It's pretty representative of lots of self-published fiction out there right now: romance written by women for female readers. Random House acquired rights AFTER the author had managed to move thousands of copies on her own. All of this is to say the publishing model is more complicated than your comment suggests.


@Emily Gould Self-publishing authors can obtain all those services outside of a publishing house. The idea that self-published books are automatically of a lower-quality than published books is what I object to, and what I find to be denigrating. Publishing houses, frankly, put out a lot of crap books, as long as they will sell. I don't see why that's any better than self-publishing a crap book that doesn't sell.


If anyone is looking for a partner program for books, but wary of Amazon (as I was), consider Powell's in Portland, Oregon. They pay more than Amazon, they sell only books, and they are really friendly and helpful. They even custom wrote a bit of code for me, when I wanted an Amazon-style promo widget for my site.

It's also possible that other, large but still local bookstores in many other locations might have similar programs, ask around!


@ixchel I see this was already suggested in the first article, which I should have read, well, first!


This was great to read, Emily and Nicole. I liked the last post about it a lot, because while I often vent my frustrations with Amazon to my friends, I didn't really think about the way it affects the blogs I read. I was glad to see the double links today around the Hairpin.

I do find that people conflate my hatred of Amazon with a hatred of progress, which is sad to me. I don't have an e-read, nor do I buy e-books (someday I probably will), but I know the appeal and understand their purpose. I shop online all the time! I'm aware that publishing and bookselling are growing, changing industries and a lot of people in those industries are trying to shape the book in a way that everyone can use and appreciate. I always think it's worthwhile for people to examine who and what they're supporting when they buy a product from a particular vendor(or, I guess in this case, link to a vendor).

I e-mailed Nicole about it this morning, but Melville House also did a brief write up on last week's exchange, and Dustin Kurtz had all kinds of nice things to say about the Hairpin.


Guys, thank you for being so transparent about all of this. I love seeing you mull it all over openly.

miss olsen

@photoalice Yes, seconded. Thanks for the follow up, and thanks for bringing Emily into the conversation!


Pretty much anything where convenience and low price are the biggest draws (like Amazon, Walmart and the like) are going to have shady business practices or ethics. That's how they bring us the convenience and low price.


@Slutface yes. and as much as i love my amazon prime -- i really, really do -- i also just read this article about how shitty it is to work at a fulfillment center and am seriously rethinking my life choices.

Sea Ermine

Please let me know if this is a little off topic, but I've been thinking about this since the first installment was published and where do people go to buy things when they aren't shopping on amazon? Whenever I read articles about this the alternative is to shop at your local mom and pop store but I prefer to do as much of my shopping as possible online and even if I wanted to go local the closet thing my neighborhood has to that are a bunch of dollar store type places that are dirty, run down, never have what I need, what they do have is broken or dirty or made in China (likely in a sweatshop, judging by the price) and where I don't feel comfortable paying with a credit card. Also, while many of them are family run I can't imagine they pay their workers any better than Walmart and I'd be surprised if their employees have benefits/health insurance. And if I want dvds or cds (DvDs (and maybe video games) make up the bulk of my non useful purchases) the only options are to buy from stores that sell pirated movies, and don't have a large English selection. I've been buying the most of everything I buy from Amazon for at least 10 years now (In the last 5 years I added Target, as I live 2 subway stops from one), I have Amazon prime, I'm planning on buying a Kindle Fire HD this week...so it's hard to break free of that.

I'm guess what I'm saying is when you're so used to going to one place that has everything where do you find alternatives that are online and treat their workers fairly. And how do you know if they treat their workers well/have good business practices? Like, right now I buy a lot from Target (when I want to shop in person) but I feel like I don't really know where that stuff comes from or how they pay their employees.@Sea Ermine For something more on topic. Better World Books is a great place to buy books online. I don't know how their warehouses are but they donate to different charities that promote literacy and donate books to libraries (and you can mail in books you want to donate or sell them for cash or a gift card) and have both used and new books and are pretty awesome. I don't know how their ebook selection is but you can get textbooks there so that's nice.@Sea Ermine For something more on topic. Better World Books is a great place to buy books online. I don't know how their warehouses are but they donate to different charities that promote literacy and donate books to libraries (and you can mail in books you want to donate or sell them for cash or a gift card) and have both used and new books and are pretty awesome. I don't know how their ebook selection is but you can get textbooks there so that's nice.

Sea Ermine

@Sea Ermine For something more on topic. Better World Books is a great place to buy books online. I don't know how their warehouses are but they donate to different charities that promote literacy and donate books to libraries (and you can mail in books you want to donate or sell them for cash or a gift card) and have both used and new books and are pretty awesome. I don't know how their ebook selection is but you can get textbooks there so that's nice.

Bennett Madison@facebook

@Sea Ermine I know you're not talking about books exclusively here, but when it comes to books, Powell's (as mentioned above), is a great alternative. Even better, I think is indiebound.org. You can search for a book and order it from your favorite independent bookstore and they'll ship it to you. Even if you don't have a bookstore that's truly local, you can find one that's local-ish. While it might be a little more expensive, and might take a little longer, it's worth it if you care about this stuff, I think.

Unfortunately, there's not a great alternative for buying e-books right now. Google for awhile was partnering with independent bookstores to sell ebooks but they shut down that program to support the rollout of Google Play. There's also some kind of stopgap program that Indiebound has set up with Kobo, but I don't know much about it except that you have to have a Kobo to use it, which kind of sucks. Right now I'm buying my ebooks through Apple, which is probably not much better but at least it isn't Amazon.

Sea Ermine

@Bennett Madison@facebook I really like Better World Books for buying books online. I will definitely check out indiebound.org and Powells. I hope in the future there will be better resources for both ebooks and online bookstores. For most things I would be motivated to shop locally if there was a not shitty local option, but I don't feel that brick and mortar bookstores are worth saving (but I get why other people like them). I wish there was some way to have a local website...that way when you buy books (or other stuff there) money would go back into the community but you wouldn't be stuck with just the neighborhood options if your neighborhood didn't have much).


@Sea Ermine Other people have given great online bookstore suggestions. I shop at drugstore.com for a lot of the stuff I would otherwise buy on amazon. They have a pretty wide selection of goods.


@Sea Ermine "I don't know much about it except that you have to have a Kobo to use it, which kind of sucks."

Not true. Kobo is now providing ebooks to indie bookstores that can be read on any device except the Kindle--iPhone, iPad, Nook, Kobo (of course), whatever.


@Sea Ermine You can buy DRM-free SFF ebooks from plenty of small to mid-size publishers and booksellers online. I like Wizard’s Tower, but I’ve also bought from Weightless Books, Apex, Angry Robot, Baen, Book View Café and Twelfth Planet Press. Tor is another big one. It’s not the same as buying from Amazon – they only sell their own books or books from a few presses – but you can get some really interesting works that you might not otherwise come across and they are companies I like to support.

I haven’t really bought physical books online other than at Amazon, but some of the above also sell hard copy books, and Uncle Hugo’s and Borderlands are often recommended as indie SFF stores that will ship.

I don’t know about other genres, but hopefully there are similar resources available?

I'm less of a film or music person, but I have bought from CD baby, who do independent music, both as CDs and downloads.

Emily Gould

@Bennett Madison@facebook just a note that there's a free Kobo app you can use to read on iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch (all great reading devices, imho), so you don't actually need a Kobo to buy ebooks via independent bookstores.


@Sea Ermine i think in the future that 'community' will be based on common interest, not location. we'll be buying more directly from producers - like the Louis CK special last year, which he released online, at a reasonable price($5?). He made a ton of money because so many people are willing to pay an affordable amount to enjoy and support his art

Bennett Madison@facebook

@Emily Gould @lucienspringer Yay I am very glad to learn this. Thank you!

Sea Ermine

Also, on the topic of ereaders, what does everyone think about the Kobo Arc? Especially in comparison to the Kindle Fire HD? I was about to buy a Kindle for books, movies, tv, and internet but after these articles I'm wondering if I should get something else (even though I just renewed my Amazon prime).


@Sea Ermine Buy a Nook! I love my Nook HD. You can buy movies and TV shows on it as well. The selection isn't quite as good as the Fire, but you can also put shows you buy from itunes on it with a little know-how. You can also access the internet and use hulu and netflix.


@Sea Ermine The Arc and the Nook seem very comparable, pretty much on par with the Kindle Fire, but without that nasty Amazon aftertaste.

None of those three stacks up with an iPad, of course, which costs a lot more. I'd save up for that, but if that's not possible, get anything but a Kindle.

Sea Ermine

What does everyone think about supporting libraries vs publishers? When I was reading these two articles I realized that I could probably count the number of books I've purchased on one hand. It's not that I'm anti book it's just that I read A LOT as a child and it was more affordable for for my parents to take me to the library often than to buy me multiple books each week, every week, until I graduated high school. I also moved a lot and books are heavy, and expensive to ship from one country to the next I read less now but I'm still very much in the habit of going to libraries (I live next door to one!) especially since I don't like buying a book unless I know I'll reread it often and I don't like the space they take up (I wouldn't be comfortable owning more than 30-50).

So where do we strike a balance between supporting libraries and supporting publishers? Between feeling like we should own books (because of articles like this one) and not wanting them in the house, because clutter.

Also this: " We buy new hardcovers when we can afford to, ebooks when we want instant gratification and convenience". Is there a way to make ebooks like hardcovers? Because I hate reading hardcovers (I think they feel bulky in my hand) and ebooks solve the space issue of owning many books but I don't know if they give enough money to the publisher/author.

crane your neck

@Sea Ermine Support libraries, too! They have to buy books and they'll buy more if they're in demand.

But the best way to get money from your pocket to an author's is to buy a hardcover. Their royalties are probably highest from hardcover sales. Also, hardcovers are published first. The first week they are released is often the author's best chance of getting on a bestseller list, and bestsellers can build buzz or serious sales power. If you don't sell enough hardcovers, the paperback may be canceled. Or only a few copies will make it to booksellers, and then the sales will be very low.

Ebooks may be appealing, but they may also be putting the least money in the author's pocket. People get worked up when ebooks are priced highly. Have you read those comments from Kindle owners around the time of the Amazon lawsuit? The way readers were outraged that books could cost more than $9.99? Consumers don't see themselves investing in an author's career, or fostering a literary community. They see merchandise, and they want the lowest possible price. I get that. I do.

But I also work with debut novelists. I want them to have enough money for their rent, especially after we've spent a year working together. They spend hours in revision, doing interviews, traveling around, telling everyone they can about their books. I want them to have the chance to write the next book they've been thinking about during that time. And I want to be able to support those second books, which I will be able to do if their sales numbers are OK. If they do not earn out their advances the first time around, it's unlikely we'll be able to work together again. And it's unlikely that another publisher will pick them up.

It is so, so hard to publish a successful book and once you have one it's hard to make those numbers a second time, or a third. One of the problems with the current model is that publishers cannot take risks with new work or a rough track record.

There are some kickass authors alive and writing right now and I'd like to see what they do next. I hope other readers do, too.

The system isn't perfect. But that doesn't mean that authors should have to go it alone.

I don't work in bookstores anymore, but one of the best things you can do is buy a hardcover from a reading at an independent bookstore. Those booksellers will do their best to hand-sell that book, especially if they like the author. The author will appreciate your support. And if the bookseller makes a profit from the reading (let's say it costs $100 to keep the lights on and pay the two or three employees working the reading for two hours--more if they need to rent a microphone and speaker system--they probably need to sell 30ish books after that event), they'll continue to host readings in the future. And that means the author may be back for her next book, and you'll get to see her read. You'll still have the independent bookstore in your neighborhood (you are lucky, if you do have one!). And those booksellers will continue to hand-sell that one. She'll get to keep writing.

Many people don't have independent bookstores nearby, and those are the people Emily was addressing in her article. She listed some good and accessible places that you could choose to support, if that is important to you.

So one of the best things you can do to support that community is to buy a book. Or recommend it to a friend. Write a review. Request it from the library. There are plenty of ways to give a book a little boost if you want to. They don't all cost $27, like that hardcover.


Question for anyone who might know:

How do I do the ebook/library thing with Kindles? I know there's the New York Public Library, which lends ebooks, but do you need to be in the US to use that? As an Australian resident, I need something accessible here (Sydney).

Any ideas?


@TARDIStime Yes, you likely would have to have a New York library card in order to check out their e-books. From a fairly quick browse through the Sydney Public Library's site it looks like they might not lend e-books -- but many libraries have reciprocal borrowing agreements with other libraries, which might help you get access either for free or for a small membership fee. I'd go to your local library and ask a librarian what your options might be -- even if they don't have an answer offhand, I'm sure they'd love to help you figure it out.

rianne marie

@TARDIStime Most major libraries have ebook lending these days, you can only borrow ebooks from libraries that you also have permission to borrown physical books from.


@dee Checked out my local library - they have a pretty extensive ebook collection! :-D
They are all epub format which works on everything but the Kindle! D-:
I have heard about ways to "jailbreak" a Kindle. Will report back after extensive Googling...


@TARDIStime just download a programme called Calibre - it can convert epub files into mobi. no need to crack the kindle


@TARDIStime Calibre will not convert ebooks that have DRM, which most library epubs have. You would need to take a few more (illegal) steps to use a library epub on a Kindle. That's basically what made me choose to buy a nook.


@Knowsey you can get a plugin in Calibre to automatically remove the DRM. (It's easier than it looks.)


I guess I'm wondering why an independent bookseller gets to have the last word on Amazon? What did you think she was going to say?

Emily Gould

@sheistolerable well, it's clearly not the last word! But don't you think it was worth consulting someone who has something to do with books and publishing, rather than having people whose expertise lies elsewhere discuss their assumptions, dreams and fantasies of how the book business does, could, or should work? Sheesh.


I definitely see the argument for publisher's, and don't think I've ever argued pro-corporation or anything. My question is (and I admit I am totally clueless here), why should e-books cost more than, say $10, even for independent publishers? Can we just ignore the fact that e-books are totally free to reproduce? There is no paper, ink, physical production, storage, shipping, etc. to pay for, right? Does all that cost so little that an electronic version shouldn't drastically reduce the cost to the consumer? I understand that, like with music, there are systems in place that tend to keep the artist/writer from getting properly compensated, and that needs to change.

I guess my real question is, does anyone know how the cost for a typical book or e-book (or both, for a comparison) breaks down? Like who gets what, what percentage does the publisher get, etc. And that $10 figure might sound really dumb. I understand that many books don't sell very much, and the ones that do allow publishers to take a gamble on the unknown and unusual.

crane your neck

@ohyeahmetoo Sorry to go on at length in this thread!

It might seem free to publish an ebook, but there's a little more to it than that. I don't have as much experience with ebooks as many folks in the industry who focus on digital sales, but I can give you the basics I've explained to friends and relatives.

Sadly, an average book has a shelf life of about two years. After that, they're remaindered. Ebooks are supposed to be available forever. They'll constantly need to be updated and made available to new devices as those devices are invented.

Multiple devices exist, so we need to format our books to be compatible with each of them. Moreover, the digitized texts for each device will require serious maintenance. A character could be corrupted--all of the quotation marks could turn to question marks, for example--and our team has to go in and correct that. The Nook version has an error. The Kindle version isn't available at a certain moment. (Making books compatible with Apple is too expensive for many small publishers, so they're not able to sell in the iBooks store. Amazon has gotten around that, since their model caters to self-published authors.) Keeping up with this stuff is kind of like being the webmaster for millions and millions of websites.*

We pay the author for digital rights, usually incorporated in the initial advance. We also have to pay for digital rights for all of the photos, illustrations, and excerpted texts that might require permission. So all of those things add to the cost of the book.

And readers want to buy backlist titles. The big names in classic literature could offer a profit. But people also want more obscure titles. We've had to hire teams to make all of the books we've published in the past (that's centuries of material!) available in digital form at an extraordinarily fast rate. In many cases, they have to track down digital rights for books with contracts 50+ years old (of course no one secured digital rights in the contract, because no one anticipated digital reading devices would exist). We had to hire a team to go through old contracts and sort that out. Many of these books will only sell a very low number, never compensating for the amount we've invested in digitizing them. (Some will never be digitized, and if their authors around, you can bet they won't be happy about it.)

For a new title, in addition to the design issues I've just mentioned, don't forget that digital titles still need an editor, production editor, jacket designer, marketing director, publicist, plus a sales force, etc. Even ebook-only titles go through the production process--that's a few thousand dollars for copyediting, a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for the rights to the image on the cover, and plus the cost of the design (for each ebook reading program). We also pay an editorial staff to keep all of the metadata updated--to make sure the updated cover is appearing on all retailers' pages, that the quotes from new reviews are appearing correctly, to make sure that the codes and ISBNS and so on are up to date. (For the record, even an ISBN costs something.)

With ebooks, we don't have to take a loss on returns from bookstores (their sell through is 100%!), but we do have to sell at a very low rate to attract readers. Amazon has fought hard to keep that at $9.99, because they are willing to sell merchandise at a loss to gain a higher market share. Publishers have wrestled with ebook pricing, but I won't get into the cost of that lawsuit here. It's common to do steep discounting--a book for moms could be made available for $4.99 to align with Mother's Day, for instance. Some books are marked down as low as $.99. But you have to sell a whole lot of those to make up for the cost of the advance, the production, the rights, making the design compatible with other devices, and the maintenance of the texts once they're available.

*Full disclosure: I am not a webmaster. I cannot tell you for certain that this is true.

That turned into a long answer! Did it make sense? (If you are in the industry, have you had a different experience?) What else would you like to know?


@crane your neck, Thanks for the info (sorry for late reply), it's really interesting. I wasn't thinking they cost $0 to publish/produce, just no money to make copies, but I can see how maintenance costs and longevity could make up for that (turns out I am a webmaster, so good analogy).

Do you know if the publishing costs for e-books are typically more than the costs for print books (like for digital rights, copy-editing, design, ISBNs, etc), or the same, or less? I was assuming they would be about the same, but it sounds like digital rights might be even more costly due to contracting/the fact that they didn't used to exist and possibly just costing more in general?

I can see how that plus maintaining usability for both retailer and consumer indefinitely could make their overall price comparable to (more)physical books if they are only being printed, etc. for a few years. So thanks for cluing me in.

It just seems like digital in general should be so much more...efficient. It's always frustrating to me when that's not the case, because, come on, progress!


@ohyeahmetoo I don't personally work with ebooks (I work on the sales side of print), but from speaking to colleagues, the cost of producing an ebook is about 80% of the cost of producing a pbook. And considering you don't get a second kick at the can (hardcover and paperback), it's tough for a lot of publishers to justify the pricing Amazon wants.


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