Random House Publishing, why do you suck so hard?

At B&N.com, the first four books of The Song of Ice and Fire (written by George R.R. Martin, published by Random House) are being sold for $29.99. At our local Costco, the first four books are being sold in paperback for $19.99. I called B&N to see if they could price match, and they said they were very sorry, but the e-book pricing was set firm by the publisher and the couldn’t do anything.
Here’s the kicker: There’s also a four-book box set of The Song of Ice and Fire available at B&N for $19.78 new/ $18.87 used. Random House Publishing is pricing the e-book versions (which cost less than $1 apiece to produce) higher than their paperback versions. Here’s a quote from the NYT regarding e-book pricing:

Now let’s look at an e-book . . . (with Apple) the publishers will set the consumer price and the retailer will act as an agent, earning a 30 percent commission on each sale. So on a $12.99 e-book, the publisher takes in $9.09. Out of that gross revenue, the publisher pays about 50 cents to convert the text to a digital file, typeset it in digital form and copy-edit it. Marketing is about 78 cents.
The author’s royalty — a subject of fierce debate between literary agents and publishing executives — is calculated among some of the large trade publishers as 25 percent of the gross revenue, while others are calculating it off the consumer price. So on a $12.99 e-book, the royalty could be anywhere from $2.27 to $3.25
All that leaves the publisher with something ranging from $4.56 to $5.54, before paying overhead costs or writing off unearned advances.
That link goes on to indicate that publishing companies have purposely made ebook pricing comparable to physical copies out of a desire to slow the trend to e-books. I’m angry. On one hand, I want to buy these books because I like George R.R. Martin, and I want to support him. On the other hand, I’m getting really tired of publishing companies shafting consumers, authors, and the industry in general. Unfortunately, I can’t shaft the publishing company without shafting George R.R. Martin.
I wish George R.R. Martin could offer an e-book file through his website, but given some of the stuff I’ve read about publishing agency contracts and how they treat digital content, I’m fairly certain he’s not only unable to sell his work digitally now (on his website, for full author profit), he may never be able to (depending on the how the contract was negotiated and when). I think I’m going to see if I can get the general range of royalties a best-selling author would make on each format, and buy according to whichever format is most likely to get him a higher percentage. 
I’m all conflicted about publishing companies right now. This is how I look at the whole thing:
    • Ebooks are less expensive to produce, take up less space, and should cost less.

 

  • Authors do need advertising, which has traditionally been taken care of by publishing companies pimping their work to bookstores, libraries, and at conferences. This is why the cost of a physical book is so high; it’s both the cost of printing, the potential lost profits if the printed volume doesn’t sell, and the cost of advertising. With ebooks, the first two concerns are essentially moot. The third (author visibility) is often achieved through self-promotion (twitter, FB, blogs, G+, etc.) and good old word of mouth (LendMe, anyone?), although publishing companies can still make themselves useful in this regard.
  • I still like physical books, and I will still buy physical copies of books I truly love (and even own in Nook form already). But now that I own an e-reader, my go-to is an ebook.

 

 

I am not alone in this mindset. In college, one of my professors surveyed our college class on what type of books they preferred reading. I’d like to note that this was a small-town college in a rural area, and the students ranged from age 18-60+. I’d also like to note there were about 30 students in the class. Only 5 students (all older women) indicated they prefer physical books; everyone else fell into two groups: From ages 18-29, they indicated a preference to reading on their computer, phone, or e-reader. From ages 30-59, the prevailing opinion was, “I don’t care. Whatever is easiest and least expensive.” Although this is a small sample, I do believe it is reflected in the current growth of e-readers and ebooks, and rather than attempting to slow/ stop the trend, publishing companies need to change with the times.
Of course, I’m not the only one to say that, and we all know what the real problem is: Corporate stupidity. Some companies are so mired in the past, so weighed down by levels of corporate bureaucracy and legalese, that they are not merely unwilling to change with the times, they are actually unable to. Some authors, literary agents, and critics have opined that publishing companies will survive (in some form) this shift from physical book to e-reader. I am not so certain, and I fear in their flailing death throes, they will take down booksellers with them.
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