More Thoughts on Online Books and Downloading: A Sampling

When we look back on this year/decade, I think it’s going to be clear that right around now is when the tide turned on digital comics. Every company now has a strategy to provide their publications online, although they all vary in effectiveness, selection, cost, and customer friendliness. So here are some other thoughts on the subject.

Warner Bros. is “closely tracking pirates in hopes of converting them into consumers” because “even the most diehard pirates spend some money, though less than more casual infringers.” One growing area of concern: international. Companies that offer localized (dubbed, subtitled) versions quickly don’t drive interested viewers to alternative sources.

Writer Paul Cornell makes his own statement on ebooks and downloading. Some of his points are quite insightful:

So obviously publishers think an e-book, out on the day of publication, should cost the same as a hardback. And obviously the reading public think it should cost less than a paperback. From this difference in perception stem all subsequent horrors.

But some I disagree with, as when he equates downloading to stealing, or in more depth, “If everybody did illegally download, it couldn’t continue as a practice, because no further music or movies could be made.” Some content industries have existed for decades by giving things away for free, like radio and TV stations. He goes on to point out some significant issues with pricing and, again, region-based sales.

In the bigger picture, I’d be more concerned if I agreed or disagreed with everything he said. There isn’t a way to make a thoughtful, nuanced statement on the subject without splitting some hairs or winding up on different “sides” of the issue.

In contrast, Techdirt points out some examples of people being happy to pay for material they could otherwise get for free.

And what’s doing really really well online? Romance. Especially the sexy ones, now that people can read them in private — no tawdry cover to give them away — and more easily access the complete backlist by a favorite author, when previously books became unavailable very quickly. (Much like periodical comics have a shelf life of about a week.) There’s a big lesson here for comics, another area where fans sometimes are embarrassed to be seen reading them because of public misconceptions.


17 Responses to “More Thoughts on Online Books and Downloading: A Sampling”

  1. Jaylat Says:

    I’m not sure I want to wade back into this, but the idea that radio and TV stations have been “giving things away for free” for decades is simply wrong. They control the content, decide when to broadcast it, and charge for advertising space.

    Piracy is not a good thing. It’s invasive, rude and hurts the creators. We need to establish a simple social norm: If you ask people not to pirate your work they should not do it.

    Digital comics could be a boon to creators, for those who can convince their audience that their work is worth paying for. But giving pirates a free pass by thinking “stuff has always been free” just makes that work a lot harder.

  2. Johanna Says:

    No, media stations charge nothing to their viewers. They found other ways to make money. What you talk about is more detail in that business model. I’m arguing against the idea that the customer HAS to pay the creator, and that’s the only thing that will make content creation possible. That’s simply not true.

    I’m willing to consider your social norm if it works both ways: if a consumer asks for a product, they are offered it at a price both think are fair. Right now, customers want certain kinds of products — to see TV shows in a timely fashion internationally, to be able to download (not just stream) legal copies of current titles — that are not available to them any way but through piracy.

  3. Jaylat Says:

    Johanna, the “other ways” TV and radio found were viable because they controlled the content. Pirates take away that control, and along with it the ability to charge to access a captive customer base. If you like you can call it free to viewers, but the point is that these outlets had a captive audience that had value, and thus the model worked because of those viewers. This is not “detail” it’s how the business model works.

    I’m glad you’re “willing to consider” my norm but your provisos are big enough to drive a truck through. What is your definition of a “fair price” – are you saying that if I price things too high (in your opinion), you feel justified in pirating it (even if I ask you not to)?

    Why not just not buy it? Or complain about the price? That’s how it works for other non-digital goods.

  4. Jaylat Says:

    “I’m arguing against the idea that the customer HAS to pay the creator”

    I’ll agree with that, but let’s flip it around. Nobody HAS to buy my digital comics, but they don’t have the right to get them for free either. If you feel the price is too high, then don’t buy it. But that’s not an excuse to pirate them – especially if I’ve specifically requested that you not do that.

  5. Johanna Says:

    The “free to viewers” bit is important because that’s a key part of why people pirate. So many of these arguments focus only on the economics “due” the publisher — but to stop it, you have to consider what the consumer is getting out of it and address those needs.

    “Fair price” differs from product to product. Charging the same price for an online copy six months after release as you did for a hardcover on day of release, or charging more for an online copy than you do for a paperback, is not fair pricing, for example. You’re right, of course, that people aren’t due a copy no matter what, but someone who doesn’t want to pay will find a way not to, whether it’s borrowing from the library or a friend or waiting for a free cable weekend or whatever.

    Other non-digital goods also have variable pricing — if I think the cost is too high, I can buy it used for less. That’s not applicable to online, though, since publishers have denied the right of first sale.

  6. Jaylat Says:

    Really? If I don’t drop the price of a comic six months after release that’s “unfair pricing?” And you would then feel fully justified in pirating my work, even if I asked you not to?

    I get what you’re saying, that there’s an expectation on consumers’ part that they get things for free. That has to be addressed, I agree. But part of the equation is to establish that creator’s and owners of content have rights too – both legal and normative.

  7. Johanna Says:

    I was giving book examples, as you probably figured out, but sure, let’s translate it to comics. Most periodical superhero comics (which is most of what gets shared online) are worthless well within a year — fodder for what used to be quarter boxes. If someone wants to read the story, they get the collection. Or if it wasn’t collected, the assumption is that it isn’t worth reading. So charging $2 for a standard six-month-old issue when you charge $2 for this week’s new comic — yeah, that doesn’t seem equitable to me.

    Note that there are exceptions, of course — material from classic storylines retains its value longer, or acknowledged jumping on points. I’m talking here about run-of-the-mill Potato Man stories, the kind of thing most readers don’t even remember six months down the road.

  8. Jer Says:

    Most periodical superhero comics (which is most of what gets shared online) are worthless well within a year — fodder for what used to be quarter boxes. If someone wants to read the story, they get the collection. Or if it wasn’t collected, the assumption is that it isn’t worth reading.

    And creators who aren’t exploiting the demand curve here are leaving money on the table. If you charge, say, $3 for a day-of release of your book (making the digital copy the same price as the physical copy) and then drop the price as weeks go by – say after a month you drop it to $2, and the following month to a buck – then you’re able to use monopolistic pricing to snap up more money. And since there’s no physical artifact that you’re producing or inventorying, you don’t have to worry about the marginal costs having to cover your initial outlay of materials (the way you need to with a physical artifact).

    If you are producing digital work and you aren’t somewhat steadily reducing your price as time goes on you are doing it wrong. Especially for a serial format work like comics – where someone coming into the story at part 3 and seeing that they need to spend $9 to get caught up might give it a pass, but at $5 to get caught up might find that much more reasonable and be ready to jump on board. The digital publishing area is one that is almost built for creators to be able to exploit monopolistic pricing models to their advantage, and yet too many of them remain stuck in the mold of print publishing with all of its limitations and want to make digital publishing work exactly the same way.

  9. Thad Says:

    Bit of a tangent, but the latest Humble Indie Bundle ( humblebundle.com )is selling for an average of $7.61. The people getting those games could choose to pay a penny if they wanted to, or easily pirate them.

    It also bears noting that Linux users are the highest-paying group, paying more than twice what Windows users do on average, which is my favorite statistic to cite any time I see someone produce the old saw about how Linux users just want something for nothing.

  10. Jaylat Says:

    Jer, I don’t get how dropping pricing exploits the demand curve – in your example many buyers would wait a month and save the extra $. If my buyers knew they would save $1 or so by waiting 30 days I guarantee you they would wait. But maybe that’s just me?

    I agree there are ways to approach pricing, but I don’t agree that not automatically dropping prices is “doing it wrong.”

    My overall point is that there are many different approaches to selling digitally, and each owner should choose his own strategy. But just because you disagree with that strategy doesn’t give you a license to pirate my work.

  11. Johanna Says:

    I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone say it this clearly: “If you are producing digital work and you aren’t somewhat steadily reducing your price as time goes on you are doing it wrong.” I agree, Jer, but I don’t know of anyone actually doing that.

    Thad: Love that Linux stat!

    Jaylat: You’re right about waiting. That’s what Warner and other studios are trying to do with Netflix and Redbox. I’ve seen plenty of ads about how you have to wait 30 days to rent, but you can buy the DVD now! That’s not compelling if all you want to do is rent, and the difference between $30 and $1 is awfully convincing.

  12. Notes on digital piracy | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    [...] Via Comics Worth Reading. [...]

  13. Jaylat Says:

    Johanna, that’s not my point at all. I sell digital only, and if my readers know they can get a cheaper price by waiting they will wait. So the strategy of “steadily reducing your price” insures that (1) they will not buy right away and (2) the ultimate sales prices will be lower.

    It’s simply not a viable strategy for me. It may work for comics with time-sensitive content, but not for owner / creators of self-contained comics.

  14. Johanna Says:

    I’m agreeing with you, that customers are easily trained to wait for a better price. And as another point, something digital may seem new to a new reader for years, depending on when they discover it. So maybe prices shouldn’t change … although digital does make it much easier to experiment to find a sweet spot.

  15. Jen Hachigian Says:

    “Some content industries have existed for decades by giving things away for free, like radio and TV stations.”

    Jaylat already touched on the advertising that funds the “free” content on radio and TV.

    I guess advertisers could cope with piracy by stepping up product placement efforts in the actual content. A musician could earn cash for including lyrics about Coca-Cola and Samsung.

    Companies could also follow Nissin’s example and fund entire productions like Freedom.

  16. Grant Says:

    I’m wondering if more older issues being offered on digital will bring the price of older back issues down or perhaps make them go up higher. I’m inclined to think they’d bring prices on older back issues down, but perhaps dealers would raise them higher to make up for lost sales due to more people downloading newer comics online instead of buying hard copies.

  17. James Schee Says:

    I liked Cornell’s article, he seems to be saying more than the typical “Its, evil Evil EVIL” when it typically comes to this.

    I know I myself don’t pirate, likely because I’ve been around comics long enough that I’m aware of creators and the lives they live. On the other hand when I won a trip to CrossGen Comics once, on the flight there a couple I was sitting next to asked me the reason for my visit to FL.

    When I told them about winning the trip and how I was going to get to meet and see the creative process behind the comics they were amazed. They said that yes they were aware of comics, but it never even occurred to them to think of the people behind the comics.

    I think that is part of the problem even to this day when it comes to most comics. Fans focus on the stories, and to them the characters and they being able to read them are much more important to them than the creators. I have to wonder when some fan downloads a comic for free, does it even occur to them to think “gosh the creator isn’t being paid” or is it more “Cool I got this comic I wanted.”

    Heck the two biggest direct market comic publishers sort of push fans to be that way. Especially DC lately, where with rotating creative teams (some not even on more than 2 issues) and the focus on event stories. The whole, not the individual pieces, be they individual series or creators behind them, are what’s deemed as important.




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