Thursday, June 16, 2011

99¢ ebooks Good or Bad For Us???

Ok, where to start? First some facts: Monkey & Croc was indie published on B&N 6 months ago. It's now selling between 100 and 150 copies/day and it's offered for only 99¢. It's now sold over 10k copies and oh yea - This is AMAZING TO ME!!!

But I think this brings up a question that I haven't tackled yet: Is selling 99¢ ebooks hurting the ebook and traditional book markets? If the average picturebook sells from $12 - $15 and the average children's ebook is somewhere between $3-$7 how can 99¢ ebooks be good for anyone?

I think the best answer is that I don't really know. I'm sure I have some haters out there who are disgusted that I was able to bypass the "right way" to take a book to market via a traditional publisher....and I'm sure those same people are probably thinking that the 99¢ price tag is going to further erode our industry. In many ways I have to agree with them. First I would never claim that Monkey & Croc is better for having skipped the editorial process. In fact I'm sure it could have been refined more and given a more interesting sub plot or something to make it more memorable to children - I'm a novice writer at best. And Mathematically selling books for a fraction of the price would have to influence over all book prices to drop over time.

So why do it? Why hurt the very industry I've been a part of for 15 years? I guess my best answer is that I believe that prices are going to fall anyway. That if I don't offer my books for a low price others will cut me out of potential sales. That selling a higher volume will allow me to take advantage of B&N's search algorithms. That if I sell high volume I might be able to see more opportunities in the future due to my books popularity. In the end I believe that like songs and movies - ebooks will eventually end up at the 99¢ price point. An argument can be made that it costs Hollywood millions of dollars and man hours to produce a 2 hour movie that can entertain you for only 99¢ so why do we think that an ebook should be worth more?...and how long can a children's ebook entertain your kids and how much did it cost to produce?

I learned a valuable lesson early in my career as an illustrator. Without getting into too many details illustrators began participating in re-selling their work in stock illustration houses (think stock photography) in the early 90's. About 3 years in illustrators realized that the stock houses were undercutting their prices - so they were effectively cutting themselves out of commission work with their own paintings in the stock houses. A grass roots effort was made to pull their work out of those stock houses in an attempt to keep prices higher for commission work. I was one of the ones who pulled my work and refused to do future business with the stock houses. The ideal was sound and the leaders of the movement were well intentioned and extremely hard working but in the end we lost to the overwhelming support the stock houses received from the masses of illustrators willing to accept their terms.

I had a close friend who was receiving well over $100,000/year just from his stock house checks. His argument at the time was: "While I realize that in the end my participation is causing an erosion in overall illustration prices it doesn't make a lot of sense for me to turn off this amazing stream of income." I enjoyed my moral high ground as I said goodbye to my $25k/year stock house money and both of us remained and still are great friends today.

It took me years but in the end I realized that I probably walked away from hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next 10 years while the stock companies grew and the commissioned editorial and advertising markets virtually disappeared.

I think one of the most interesting phenomenons we see all the time in our country is Walmart. Say the word Walmart at a party and see how many frowns you produce but the truth is they are the biggest brick and mortar retailer period. And some of those same scowling Walmart haters usually find themselves sneaking in for this or that - excuse ready if they run into someone they know.

Price matters - to almost everyone - and in this economy ebooks are becoming more and more attractive to people as they worry about their jobs and inflation. You can hope that people will do what you want them to do but in the end they'll do what's good for them.

I would love to hear you guys weigh in - If you totally disagree with me please comment - I certainly don't have all the answers.


  1. Congrats on reaching the 10,000 copies mark with Monkey & Croc. You might not realize it, but you are blazing a trail for many of us who are getting our feet wet with self-publishing. I can assure you that if one of my stories made 100-150 sales a day I'd be VERY happy! Thanks so much for sharing your numbers (and talent) with us.

  2. I wish I knew. This keeps me up at night. As an illustrator who has only published in the traditional book market, ePictureBooks terrify me. I wish I could see what children's book publishing looks like ten years into the future.

    I think a lot of picture books are bought as gifts. And e-transactions make for lousy gifts. (remember when you could give someone an album as a gift--now you are stuck with giving an iTunes gift card. Not very interesting or personal.) I think there will always be a market for hardcover picture books.

    I just wish I knew where it was all heading. I still haven't made the jump to eBooks. I'm holding on to the ink and paper, traditional publishing route for now.

  3. Will, as an illustrator (and creative person in general) I am inclined to support your position. All of the points you make are valid and I'd like to add the following.

    It seems to me that we have a choice between a closed system where the traditional gate keepers can select talent and set prices - or - an open system where individual creators can take their work to market and set their own prices. I think it is impossible to have an open system and expect every level of creator to adhere to established price points.

    Ultimately I have to support the idea that an open system is better for everyone. An open system allows all creators an opportunity to market their work and history has proven that the cream does rise to the top.

    Creative professionals who are dedicated to their craft, building their brand and responsive to their supporters will always carve out a nice living for themselves.

    I think it's wonderful that every creator now has a shot at this. Of course this means that the individual creator is now much more responsible for their own hustle and earning potential.

    Prices may be a casualty but I believe we all benefit from a free and open marketplace.

  4. Congratulations Will! Fantastic!

  5. 99 cents worth of something is better than 100% of nothing. I love Nathanael's comment about letting the masses/end user choose. They are, after all, who we are trying to capture. I am so new at all of this I am less than qualified to comment other than asking as illustrators are we doing it as art for art's sake and expecting nothing in return or seeking to find ways to earn a living in a tanking economy. When the masses have to choose between feeding their kids or a $15 picture book, well the food will in all likelihood win out. But IF you offer than a 'cake and eat it too' option than all the better for everyone.

  6. I think you're making the right move. History is a great teacher to learn from. Early narrative illustration declined with the advent of photography. This gave rise to conceptual illustration. Then came the internet and the era of mass distribution, proliferation, and user-generated content. Along comes stock illustration which has all but wiped out the conceptual marketplace. Napster and iTunes reinvents the music industry. Blogs and newsfeeds have annihilated the newspaper and magazine industry. Which brings us to ebooks and their affect on publishing.

    And most of this in the last decade alone.

    There is no possible way we can even attempt to foresee what can happen 10, 5 or even 1 year from now. What I can say is that those who stubbornly stick to some outdated belief of "how things should be" or "how things have always been done before" are in for a very rude awakening. It's a brave new world. Those who do not openly EMBRACE change in all its forms are in danger of becoming professionally extinct.

    Like Will, I took the "moral highroad" against stock illustration. Guess what? It happened anyway. The marketplace, not individuals, will determine and set the price naturally. Remember, water seeks its own level.

    I truly believe that to succeed as an artist today, outside of working in-house, creative entrepreneurship is the only viable path. Create your own works, your own projects. Create your own following, fans, patrons, buyers. OWN your rights and keep the lion's share of the revenue.

    Good luck everyone. Now get creating!

  7. Hey Will, this should help the discussion a lot:

    I don't know either. ;)

    I would love to sit here and pretend that the traditional market is as strong and vibrant and unchanging as it's ever been, but the sad truth is that it isn't. It's changing. But, the problem is: How is it changing? I don't know. I don't believe that print is going to die, or that physical books will ever go away. No matter how cool these Kindle, iPad, and Nook things get, they just can't replace the physical book in your hands. But, you just never know. Why don't we still listen to cassette tapes? Because technology has rendered them irrelevant. Is this what eBooks are going to do? I don't know. I don't think that anybody knows. And, if they say that they do, they're full of it. The automobile changed the horse as a mode of transportation. But, did it kill the horse? No. But, it did CHANGE what we use horses for. Sure, that's a wacky analogy, but I'm sure this debate fits inside of it somewhere. So, are eBooks the automobile and print books are the horse? Will print books be used for something else?

    One of the reasons for traditional books being so pricey is to cover printing costs. Of course, eBooks don't have any printing costs, so logically, the price should NOT be the same. But, what should the price be then? Should we just take out the printing cost and make THAT the cost of an eBook? I don't know.

    The beautiful thing about 99¢ eBooks is that they can be great impulse buys. I'm confident that a huge majority of people don't walk into a book store and buy a $15 book just because it kinda looked neat. But, when someone is browsing digital books, they WILL click it and buy it on a whim. If it's bad, they're only out 99¢. I'll buy a candy that I've never had before just because the price was right. And books are a million times cooler than candy, right?

    But, like you said, does a 99¢ book de-value our industry? I don't know. This digital book stuff is still in it's infant stages and there's really no way of telling what it's going to look like when it grows up.

    Let's just do what we gotta do right now and see what happens. Anyways, that's my 99¢.

  8. So many good points made by all of you and I think the consensus is definitely that we don't really know where this whole ebook thing is going and how it will look in 5 - 10 years. I think Jennifer brings up a really good point:

    "are we doing it as art for art's sake and expecting nothing in return or seeking to find ways to earn a living in a tanking economy?"

    I think everyone has to answer this question for themselves. I know some people will want to make ebooks primarily for their kids or grand kids and making money is a distant thought. Others like me do it for the love of it but in the end have to turn a profit in order to be able to keep doing it. Publishing success is a crazy thing...there isn't much middle ground - books tend to sell like crazy or not at all. If buyers can find your book they're able to buy it - they can't like something they don't know about and the best way for them to know about it is if it's selling well. Duh right? This is the biggest reason I lowered my price to 99¢.

  9. Most e-books I have downloaded are no more than $2.99 per book.

    I think it should be left up to the creator(s).
    Do you want to sell this for 99¢ or $15?

    That's the beauty of it all, it's in OUR hands now.

  10. Congratulations!! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and doubts about all of this. It's really generous that you've allowed all of us to learn about the whole experience through your posts. It is so enlightening, thought provoking, and honest. The digital world is very intimidating and very exciting. No matter what each of our personal opinions on pricing might be, I think that you are very respectable to be able to look at it from all sides. Your posts make it more understandable for all of us. Thanks!

  11. First of all a great big congratulations! wow, wow, wow! That is so wonderful. Now as far as the ebooks go I think that it is inevitable. You can either jump in and make money on the growing market or you can decide it is not for you and be left behind but it is going to happen with or without you. With ipads, iphones and all the other new internet pads and reading pads people are wanting quality books at prices that are reasonable. Being a grandmother with an ipad and a grandson who has a voracious love of books I can tell you that books like Monkey and Crock are hard to find and the ebooks that are 12.99 I just can't see paying for for the ipad. I still buy physical books and will pay for them, but there are times when the ipad is much more convenient (trips, the doctor's office, etc.) and having quality, inexpensive books available for it is priceless.
    Being an artist and writer, I don't really know what the answer is to the moral dilemma of whether or not it's "right" skip the traditional market and go straight to epublishing. That being said, I'm working on an ebook right now. I'm just looking at it as another area of publishing, not a replacement. I realize that it may be hurting traditional books in the short term, but it is not going away and I think there is room for both.

  12. You said it well!! Congratulations Will! AWESOME!

  13. Great job, Will. I don't know if I've told you lately: you're my hero.

  14. Will,
    I do agree with you but I'm still crazy jealous.

  15. Hi Will,

    It's obvious to see that books are going to go the same way as music, videos, photography, newspapers, computer apps / games etc.

    Authors and publishers need to think of things from the consumer's point of view - if they can get something that is high-quality, delivered instantly, and only costing $1 - what's not to like?

    Is the consumer really going to be concerned that some publishers are going to lose their jobs? No, in the same way that nobody really cares about the CD retailers that iTunes has put out of business or the games publishers that are no longer needed because of downloadable game content. To most consumers, these middle-men simply get in the way, add a tiny bit of value, and rachet the price up 500 - 1000% from where it should be. I'm sure the industry would argue that lots of value is added, but that's moot - it's the perception of value that's important.

    Is the industry concerned about the above? Of course. But the important thing is that the consumers are driving this change - they want the choice. If people want to start reading ebooks instead of physical - which they do, there is absolutely nothing the industry can do to stop this. So why fight it? Why not, instead, strive to deliver fantastic content in whatever medium people want it in?

  16. That's awesome Will! Congrats. Lots to ponder, for sure. i think you're right - everyone has to decide for themselves which is their 'right' path. Thanks for sharing all this with us!

  17. Hey Will, I agree with Karen. Ebooks are just another branch of the publishing industry. The 99 cent price tag is an open door for parents who are struggling in this downturned economy and wish to broaden their kids horizons. Which brings me to my next point.
    Self publishing (bypassing the big boys) will allow a greater variety and more interesting “library” for everyone. Look at You Tube. (and that’s free) Some amazing talent has been discovered and brought to the front of the line through it. I can see the same thing happening through ebooks. Only time will tell, but I think that you Will have let the monkey (and croc) out of the bag :o) Congrats on 10,000 sales! And thanks for the information, perspiration and inspiration.

  18. I'm getting the feeling that most people are diggin the freedom of cheap digital publishing. Keep in mind however that the longer this goes theoretically the harder it will be to draw attention to future ebooks. It's going to get pretty noisy and I think as it has been mentioned a few times already on this thread quality, originality, and unfortunately disturbing subject matter will be need to rise to the top.

    Lee - I'm just too stupid to quit :)

    Thanks everyone for your participation in making this an interesting topic! I love hearing about your successes and BTW - Jack has his first ebook up on B&N "Delivering Uncle Joe's Pizza" and he dedicated it to ME! It's a really cute story that teaches kids a lesson in thinking - really cute characters! Thanks Jack!

  19. Congratulations, Will, on reaching 10,000 books with Monkey & Croc! As with everyone who posts comments here, I too enjoy reading your info on ebooks and seeing your new art. I found your site and blog only a few months ago, and I constantly want to check back to see what's new in your creative world. Your posts are very informative and interesting and I like seeing things from both the author/illustrator perspective as well as learning about your business approach to the ebook market. Your art and your experiences are very inspiring to me and I see they are to others as well. I've been an artist for many years, have written several stories, and have researched the children's book market endlessly. Now the only thing stopping me from creating my first ebook is me... it's time for the procrastinating "me" to step aside so the excited ebook artist in me can get busy!! Can't wait for you to reach another 10,000 in sales, Will! Thanks for inspiring me to be the best artist I can be!


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