Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Why does Sarah Palin Charge for eBooks?

A neighbor of mine, a professor at Rutgers, has several published books to his name. A few years ago, the publication costs for one of his books were partially underwritten by an environmental organization, because they thought it was important work which ought to see the light of day, or at least the light of a few libraries.

Digital publishing makes possible new ways for works like my neighbor's to be seen by as many readers as want to read them. Since the cost of making digital copies is almost zero, it makes sense for them to be given out for free once the first copy costs have been paid for, especially if that cost is being borne by an advocacy group.

Which brings me to Sarah Palin, and her big-time new book, America by Heart : Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, published by HarperCollins (a division of Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp). It costs $12.99 for the Kindle version and the same on iBooks, Nook, and Kobo, thanks to agency pricing. If Palin is running for president, as is widely assumed, you'd think that she'd want as many people as possible read the book. So far, sales have been disappointing, but for argument's sake, let's assume that it's a brilliantly persuasive thrill of a read. Why bother charging for the ebook, since it costs almost nothing to make copies?

Well, there's the small matter of the big advance (she got $1.25 million for Going Rogue). It all boils down to money. Most of the people buying the book are probably already political supporters, so writing (or ghost-writing, as the case may be) a book like America at Heart is as much a mechanism to monetize political support as a genuine contribution to our nation's political discourse. For the publisher, a Sarah Palin book is a win-win-win. Not only can the publisher make money if the book turns out to be a blockbuster like Going Rogue, which sold over 2 million copies, but the prestige of a popular figure rubs off on the publisher's brand. And when access to the corridors of power comes along with the advance, how can the publisher lose?

Bill Clinton, speaking to the AAP in March 2009
I don't mean to be partisan; the argument applies equally to Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope; the Obama administration has so far been very friendly to the book publishing industry on its "special issues". And don't think that Bill Clinton would have been speaking at the Association of American Publishers Annual Meeting, as he did last year, if he wasn't also an author with a big deal.

It's surprising that these arrangements don't get more scrutiny. It would be illegal for a politician to accept money into a personal bank account from a big company with major political issues before him, but it's OK for a publishing company to write 7-figure checks as advances to those same politicians if there's a book being written to serve as a fig leaf.

Publishing books has always been a double-edged sword for politicians and advocacy groups; a good book bolsters a cause both financially and intellectually. The publicity tour surrounding a book is as much about publicizing the cause as it is about selling the book. But looking to the future, what sort of digital business models will be most effective for authors whose primary goal is to advance a cause?

While the current business model offers many advantages such as access to a publisher's marketing and distribution channels, the author receives a rather small percentage of the money paid by book purchasers. In 2008, the year he was elected, Barack Obama's books sold about a million copies; he reported income from these of $2.5 million. Most authors get a significantly smaller percentage of sales.

If you've been reading this blog, you probably won't be surprised at the alternative I suggest:  bounty markets for open-access ebooks will be the ideal way to accomplish the twin aims of advocacy and fundraising. By first raising money from core supporters, and then releasing an ebook for free, a cause-oriented author can use the open access ebook to gain new converts.

Perhaps ebook bounty markets will even need to put in safeguards to avoid being misused as a naked money conduit to launder campaign contributions.

A guy can dream, can't he?


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