I’m a genealogist in my so-called spare time, and recently I realized that while I hadn’t been paying attention, the Registries of Deeds in Massachusetts counties have been busy scanning their deeds (which means that in Plymouth they really do go back to 1620) and uploading them so they can be accessed online. If you’ve ever done research using the originals, you know how challenging interpreting both the handwriting and the terminology can be, and print-outs used to be very expensive, so you’d spend a lot of time laboriously copying the relevant information and hoping you got it right.
Now you can go to each county and call up the electronic version through an online database. For the earlier years you need to know the book and page number for the deed(s) you are looking for, but you probably already have that. So they’re still working on the system—it’s not perfect yet, but for researchers like me it’s a huge step forward.
But (of course there’s a but), all counties do not approach this process in the same way. I was lucky to strike gold in Hampshire County (where my Orchard Mysteries are set), which will let you read and print out images of the originals for free. Since I’ve got a lot of ancestors out that way, this was wonderful for me.
But I live in Plymouth County, and I’m curious about the ancestors who lived here, as well as about the history of my house, so I next checked out my county’s system. Uh-oh, they want money. I guess they’re assuming that most users are involved in real estate, one way or another, so for them paying $30 a month to access deeds is simply a business expense that gets passed on during a land transaction. Then I decided to check out Norfolk County, where I had still other relatives (they’re everywhere in this state, believe me). Gulp: they want an upfront subscription fee of $100 per year, plus a $1 per page printing fee, also prepaid. All those lovely images of 18th and 19th century deeds, many of which I’ve never seen personally—how much are they worth to me? That’s what I have to decide.
And, to get to the point (yes, I do have one), I realized that this is similar to the ebook business these days. While the numbers of ebooks published, and the range and quantity of ereaders, have both grown exponentially over the past couple of years, the pricing model is still all over the place. Speaking from my admittedly limited experience, at the high end we have Major Publisher ebooks, which cost the same as the paperback version, or maybe a dollar less. Not a bargain, unless you (the reader) place an implicit value on instant gratification.
Then you have a lot of people who are uploading books themselves. These include well-established authors who happen to have a backlist that is long out of print. Why not sell them on Amazon and make a little more from them? In addition, there are established authors who have unpublished manuscripts that are not in the genre that is their bread and butter; now they can upload them themselves and promote them, with or without using a pen name, and make some money there (and we writers hate to waste a book!). And finally you have the legions of writers who are tired of slogging through the agent-publisher morass and just want to get their book out there so they can tell all their friends and relatives.
How do you put a price on these books? That’s a business decision, or a marketing one—and many writers are ill-equipped to deal with pesky realities like that. If you sell it for 99 cents, are you devaluing your work before it even goes live? Is it arrogant to price it at the same level as a physical book? Are you using the book as a teaser, hoping to hook readers and planning to raise the price on later offerings? Where is the happy medium that allows you to look worthy but not greedy?
Barry Eisler announced to the world a couple of months ago that he was going to eliminate the middlemen and publish himself, although this week he’s cut a deal directly with Amazon’s new mystery imprint (is it an imprint if it’s not, well, printed?). See how fast things are changing? But Eisler already has a solid group of followers. At the same time there are plenty of eager authors who are loosing poorly edited and formatted works on the reading world, and doing themselves no favors. If you paid $7 for a bad book, would you feel cheated? Would you buy anything else written by that author, or has s/he blown their one and only chance? Would you feel differently about a bad work if you had paid only 99 cents?
What is a book really worth?