The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Lee Harris

Lee Harris is the editor at Angry Robot Books and the publisher of Hub Magazine, and although he has been reading eBooks for nearly ten years, he still manages to find space for physical editions. It doesn’t have to be either/or …

Lee has a very important perspective on the ebook debate. As an early adopter of ebooks himself and now an editor for an established publisher, Lee has the opportunity to guide Angry Robot Books into a market-leading position. Already, Lee and the team have made great strides with their ebooks – they are DRM-free, have no territorial restrictions, and their novel prices hover around the £4.49 mark.

The difference between Angry Robot Books (which began life as part of the Big Six when it was in the HarperCollins stable) and the other majors is that they have a small, dedicated team who have been determined from the onset to do things differently. My tip: with all the uncertainty around ebooks, a niche player like Angry Robot will rise to the top of the field while other, bigger publishers will dwindle away over the next decade.

Here’s Lee view on the worth of ebooks:


“What is an eBook worth?”

As far as the actual production of the book is concerned, the difference in cost between an eBook and a paperback is minimal. There are plenty of online articles that cover this, so I’m not going to retread that old ground here. I’ll retread some other old ground, instead. Not what a book costs, but what it’s worth – to the publisher, to the author, and to the reader.

Let’s get that pesky publisher bit out of the way, first.

There are those that believe that electronic publishing will be the death of the publishing industry, that – because the cost of creating the eBook files is roughly the same for everyone – the publisher is no longer necessary. That’s wrong for so many reasons, and it is the basis for a whole new set of articles in itself, that to dissect the premise here would distract from the focus of this feature. So, let’s assume that you accept that the publisher is here for the long haul. Or skip ahead to the next bit – that’s fine, too.

So, the publisher – what is an eBook worth to them?

Well, an eBook represents a number of things. It’s a sample of the work produced by the company, and therefore, represents the publisher to the reader, the retailer, the distributor, potential agents, and their authors. It tells these groups of people what the publisher is. It’s also the culmination of a long process of collaboration between the author, his or her editor, the copyeditor, the proofreaders, the artist, the designer, the marketing people, and all the unsung heroes in the back office. This means that it is also the product of a series of investments – both artistic and financial – and a product which needs to be sold in order to not only recoup the costs of its production, but also to make a profit in order to further compensate the author, and to compensate the shareholders, whose money was used to produce the book in the first place. Profits are also used to offset the losses made by the eBooks that don’t recoup their costs.

So the publisher wants to price an eBook at a level which makes the most profit – it’s a business, after all. This doesn’t mean the publisher should set the eBook price high – too high, and few people will buy it. Nor should the publisher necessarily price it in the bargain basement – below a variable cut-off point, low price isn’t necessarily an incentive for more readers to buy it. The eBook should be priced somewhere in the middle. It’s further complicated by the cost of associated paperback and hardback editions, and the inevitable comparisons that are drawn.

So, what’s it worth to a publisher? It’s worth investment.

The Author – what’s an eBook worth to them?

This depends on the author, of course – the book is a culmination of several months (or years) of hard work; it’s a piece of their soul; it’s a commodity to be exploited; it’s their next few mortgage payments and a weekend away with the family; it’s everything they ever wanted to achieve; it’s the first rung on a ladder of indeterminable height; it’s their livelihood; it’s their life.

Few professional authors write full time – most have day jobs – but writing is a profession, and the professional author expects to be rewarded financially for their labour. If an author does not get paid, what incentive is there for them to continue to write? The creation of art is rarely enough.

So, what’s an eBook worth to an author? It’s worth an investment of time and craft, and heartache and stress, and labour. It’s worth a salary.

And what about you, dear reader? What’s an eBook worth to you?

Do you enjoy the author’s words less if they’re on a screen? Does the physical object of a paperback or hardback add value to your purchase, or does the convenience of immediacy of purchase and zero weight/shelf space outweigh this benefit? Do you want to download cheap/free books from authors who might never be able to afford the time to write their next book, or do you want to pay a fair price for the fruits of someone else’s toil?

Every time you buy a book – whether it’s paperback, electronic, hardback or audio – you are investing in the next book you buy. Think of your favourite author. Think of their body of work. Would they have written all those books if they didn’t get paid a fair sum for their efforts? Would they have been able to afford to? How much richer did they make your life? Isn’t that worth your own hard-earned dollars? Think of how much you paid for those books and how many hours of enjoyment they gave you. Think of how low that hourly rate of entertainment actually is. Think of what it’s worth to you.

So, what is an eBook worth?

It’s worth the trouble to write. It’s worth the cost to produce. It’s worth a fair sum to buy.

And what’s a fair sum? I don’t know. No-one does, not really. I know what I’m willing to pay, but until the market stabilises, it’s not a question that can be easily answered for the book-buying public in general. EBooks are still turning the publishing world on its head. We’re in a state of flux.

An eBook is worth whatever you’re willing to pay for it – both in cold, hard cash, and in the potential future scribblings of your favourite authors. It’s worth your money. Spend it wisely.


The latest issue of Lee’s Hub Magazine can be downloaded for free here.

Angry Robot’s ebooks are available from the Angry Robot ebook store and Amazon (without DRM or territorial restrictions).


The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at www.jiraiya.com.au until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at shane@jiraiya.com.au.

12 Comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by DaveBrendon, Kaaron Warren. Kaaron Warren said: @LeeAHarris being brilliant about ebooks! http://jiraiya.com.au/?p=1496 […]

  2. Anne Lyle says:

    As a writer, I have to agree that ebooks should be priced at a level that compensates all involved for their hard work. As a reader, the only problem I have in paying the same for an ebook as for a dead-trees version is that I cannot sell an ebook when I’ve done reading it, nor give it away to a charity shop, nor (unless it’s on Kindle and I know other Kindle users) lend it to a friend. To that extent, an ebook is a less valuable commodity, so I would prefer to pay a little less for it. If that means buying it direct from the publisher so that the price isn’t inflated by a middleman, that’s fine by me.

    On the other hand I think that publishers who believe they can charge hardback prices for an ebook because there’s no paperback out yet are on a hiding to nothing. To the majority of consumers, a hardback’s higher price is justified because of its robust binding and overall superior manufacture, not because it is available six months before the paperback!

    Price notwithstanding, I am buying a lot of books in electronic format these days for the space-saving convenience alone. Add in the fact that Big Fat Fantasy novels in mass-market paperback format often have eye-torturingly small text, and there’s really no competition.

    • Shane Jiraiya Cummings says:

      On the other hand I think that publishers who believe they can charge hardback prices for an ebook because there’s no paperback out yet are on a hiding to nothing.

      Hi Anne, I agree with you completely on this point. In fact, I’ve come across an outrageous example that I’ll blog about later today!

      • In talking to a friend who is in the process of transporting his book business to Melbourne, he mentioned that the cost of production between hardback and paperback was about 7%.

        What publishers don’t seem to have researched though is customer perception. We assume that Hardbacks cost a lot more to make for example, where publishers are generally of the view that customers are paying a premium to have the latest book.

        • Shane Jiraiya Cummings says:

          Sean, while I agree that customer perception needs to be taken into account (and often isn’t!), that 7% figure seems a bit low. It depends on the volume of books printed, though. From my experience in the small press, with volumes of printed books between 100 to 1500, with books ranging from 160 to 670 pages, the difference between paperback and hardcover print costs was more than 50% in many cases (which is why Brimstone Press never did hardcovers).

          Of course, this is with an Australian printer, and it’s cheaper to print overseas. But yeah, I’d love to know more about how your mate came up with 7%.

  3. Ant says:

    I think the whole issue with the value of electronic media in general, (and here I’m talking ebooks, digital music, film and software) is the whole perception of electronic media as being less valuable than the tangible counterparts.

    The industry itself is largely to blame for this by introducing the whole idea that anything electronic doesn’t carry the same rights as physical media, if you buy digital music, film or software you are buying the “rights to use” rather than the actual product itself.

    Many ebook portals are also built on this premise, a good example being when a book suddenly disappeared from thousands of people’s Kindles overnight back in 2009. It would be inconceivable to imagine this happening to a physical book purchase (ie thousands of books being taken from people’s homes).

    In addition there is also this crazy yet widely believed notion that anything on the old ‘tinterweb should be free and by using the internet as a distribution means invariably encapsulates this belief. (One of the big reason’s for devices like the kindle connecting directly to amazon is to try and reduce this perception).

    Personally love my Kindle, it’s an incredibly well engineered piece of kit and I now read as many ebooks as I do hard copies.

    But I have also not stopped buying hard copy’s of books and do so in the same volumes I did before having a Kindle.

    Part of this is reason is to build up my modest library but also due to the reason’s mentioned above. The music, film and software industries have done such a good job convincing me that anything electronic is never truly yours that I must admit that I perceive electronic versions to be of lesser value.

    There is also so much more to the physical book, the tactile sensation and even the aroma (especially as books age) that is always going to be lacking in digital copies.

    I still buy DVD’s even though I can download films through my Xbox. I still by physical Xbox games for the same reason.

    I agree with Lee’s view that regardless of format a book hold’s the same value, but until the perception of digital ownership is changed I personally will hold more value over the physical.

  4. […] There are a number of debates going on around the internet at the moment about the ebook market and how people’s perceptions differ regarding the actual value of an ebook. In essence the actual media that a book resides on shouldn’t effect it’s true value, it’s the actual content that matters, the slice of life that the author has invested in their creation. This is explained very well by Lee of Angry Robot Books. […]

  5. I think the problem here is that by taking it as gospel that writers NEED a publisher you have limited the discussion. The overhead that goes with being a publisher requires that an eBook be priced close to (or equal to) the cost of a print book, but the author makes LESS money from an eBook from a big publisher than he can make by uploading his book directly to the Kindle himself and charging a discount price of $2.99.

    I participated in a thread recently where some authors were telling me that their publisher advance is LESS money than I will make from a single novella I uploaded to the Kindle on my own.

    The price of an eBook needs to represent value to the writer and to the consumer. If publishers can’t find a way to insert themselves into that formula and still offer the product for a fair price to the consumer then there are going to be a lot of publishers hurting over the next few years as eBooks move from the current 8% of the market up to the the future 30% or more.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Philip,

      I wrote the article from the standpoint that the vast majority of authors need a publisher in order to make a success of their eBook. Had I taken the time to debate that point at the start, I wouldn’t have time to write the piece about what an eBook is worth.

      There are plenty of articles available that will outline the costs involved, but you’re absolutely right, of course – if an author chooses not to work with a publisher they can get a much higher cut of the overall price.

      However, that means that they must pay the hundreds upon hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for freelance editors and copyeditors and proofreaders themselves (I’ve *never* come across a manuscript that was ready to publish without the need of these good folk). Cover art – does the author have a go at it themselves, or get a professional job done? Marketing the eBook – how does the author get it noticed above the screaming hordes of other self-publishers?

      It’s true that self-publishing works for *some* authors, but to be successful at it, the authors need to take valuable time out of their writing day, to design, market, convert, as well as pay for all the professional services that are needed. This just isn’t feasible for most authors, who just want to write. And yes, there are some success stories, but these are the exceptions, rather than the rule. So, it’s great that you’re having success with your self-published novella, and I hope you continue to do so. It’s a brave new world we’re making, and there’s room for more than one methodology…

  6. I guess i’ll be the black sheep in this family by saying that until I actually own the digital file I purchase and can lend it as I will, sell it on the secondary market, and donate it to the public library ( this is what happens to just about all my unwanted books ), I will never pay what publishers are asking for Ebooks.

    I literally have over 1000 free ebooks I have download in my favorite genres and those will take me a long time to read. I just added about 75 to that collection tonight and those were published in the past 2 months.

    Some of the free ebooks I have read, I have those authors on a google alert list so I know when they publish something else, and its quite possible I will purchase some of their future work if its in the series I enjoyed reading.

    These authors are charging about $2.99 for a decent book. I see no reason to pay anymore when I have more than i can read for free for the foreseeable future, plus get ebooks and regular books from my local library.

    I hate to sound like I would be holding regular publishers hostage, but the fact of it is they can get over their McMansion habit and start thinking like the average working man if they want to appeal to the majority these days.

    Sure I love books, I love my favorite authors. I’d LOVE to see them get the majority of the money for their work and not the publishers. And if you look carefully you can find local college kids who are taking advanced courses in literature in your country who will be willing to typeset and proof your ebook and I bet he has a friend who is good with a camera and photoshop.

    500 bucks between the two of them and about $10 for your ISBN and you are set except for the time to upload and list your books on all the ebook seller sites.

  7. Rontar says:

    Publisher’s are not evil entities that exist only to drain your wallet. As Lee has said a lot of work goes into producing a book, and not just the author’s work. All of those people deserve to get paid for their usually excellent work. Publishing is also a business, so yes a publisher is *gasp* also trying to make a profit. Here are some things I’ve noticed since I got my ereader last year.

    First, the prices. Ebook versions of almost all hardcovers are about half the cover price. The cover price, not the discounted price that an online retailer is offering for the book. They are not legally allowed to offer those dicounts on ebooks. A certain egregious DRM abusing corporation has a deal in place to set the price of ebooks, not allow discounts, and keep a piece of the profit themselves, all for the honor of allowing people to buy these books on their overpriced paperweights. By the way I don’t think that company is evil for wanting to make money either, but sometimes enough is enough. As for paperbacks, I don’t mind paying a similar price, because it means I don’t add to my already enormous collection.

    Second, as for free ebooks. To me going through hundreds of free ebooks to find a few good ones, is like searching a pile of manure for a few hidden gems. If you enjoy that, more power to you. But you might want to look for a job going through a publisher’s or an agent’s slushpile.

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