Why Do People Steal My Ideas Before I Have a Chance to Profit From Them, or HarperTeen Impulse and Some Wise Words from Cory Doctorow

On Sunday HarperTeen announced the launch of a digital imprint called HarperTeen Impulse. The title of the NY Times article says it all…HarperCollins Imprint Aims at Lucrative Young Adult Market. The imprint will release up to four new books each month (every first Tuesday) with prices ranging from $.99 to $2.99. The work will be in a variety of genres, but it does look like the works will all be novella length or shorter, hence the low price point.

Harper has a similar model with Avon Impulse which focuses on romance titles. The Romance world, of course, has a long history of churning out new, short, titles on a monthly basis…even back in the dark ages (read: print only days). The appetite for new content of the average Romance reader being akin to the gaping dark maw of a black hole, the Romance imprints learned long ago that they could produce a constant stream of work and still never quell that collective hunger.

Now think about the past 15 years or so, as regards the publishing world. Unquestionably, three of the largest draws for readers have been what; Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. Now I can comfort myself with the knowledge that all three are fantasy and/or science fiction in “genre.” Ultimately, though, what made those works all hugely popular was the fact that they were targeted to teens, and did extraordinarily well in that demographic, but all three also, and here is the important point, crossed over into popularity with adult readers.

Two of the three series did so because of solid writing, a good understanding of story and character arcs, and creative approaches to the genres…one of them did so because many females secretly wish they could have an asexual vampire boyfriend forever and ever and ever…but I digress.

In between fits of sleep (very few…this third child has made a mockery of her parents’ attempts to “lay her down”) I’ve found it difficult of late to actually sit and write, or even sit and edit. But a sleep deprived mind is an interesting thing, and I’ve found myself wondering off into intellectual territory that is often confused and frightening.

One area that has been a safe haven of recurring normalcy is in considering the idea of payment for digital works. My own book is under a Creative Commons license such that anyone is free to pass it around but not to claim it as their own. Let’s be honest, I anticipate I will never make money from my writing. I have accepted my lot in life. Happily, I have gainful employment which I enjoy and affords my family state sponsored health care…things could be decidedly worse. So I went with a Creative Commons license because I want anyone who reads my work and enjoys it to feel free, even empowered, to pass along a digital copy of my work to anyone who might have an interest. I want readers, not dollars.

That said, I still believe that people respond unconsciously to signals. I could have very easily listed my book at $.99 (or even for free, had I gone Amazon only…but that’s an issue to tackle another time). I feel, though, on some level that taking a novella, even a digital one that has no ostensible overhead, and pricing it at $.99 devalues it in a way. Yes, there are no costs associated with having to print and ship physical copies of the book. But does that automatically value the content to such a small degree? I don’t think so, if I believe the content to be worthwhile. By pricing it at $.99, I believe I am essentially relegating my book to the quality of a “direct to video” movie, and I believe that my work is better than that.

So, yes, I am happy to give it away for free…

Seriously, you want a copy, email me (kilian.heap at gmail)

But I also want random people on the internet to understand that I value my work.

I recently listened to a podcast where Cory Doctorow touched on some of these same issues, and I felt compelled to email him…I do that sort of thing from time to time, it’s a sickness. Aside from being the most efficient emailer ever, he had an interesting take the subject. The following is a direct quote from his response to me:

 I think the important thing about pricing when it comes to digital goods isn’t the per-unit price (since the cost of at the margin is zero, any nonzero price represents profit), but rather the price that brings in the largest total sum

And the amateur economist in me understands that. As a market force, the pricing of the content should be such that it maximizes the penetration of said content. That is, I’d be better served by pricing my book at $.99 if that compelled 10 people to buy it, rather than selling it to just two people at $2.99. Particularly if, from those 10 purchasers, I received more reviews/ratings than from the 2…thus furthering the possibility that others would buy it. He has much more to say on the topic which you can read here if you are so inclined.

It’s intriguing to me, though, that HarperTeen Impulse will, at least for now, top out their content at $2.99. The assumption being that the smaller the word count (per work) the smaller the price point. And since novellas seem to be the largest content slice the imprint is offering, then my decision to go to $2.99 for Election is, at least in part, validated. I mean, validated by a bloated, slow to respond to technology and changing markets, international conglomerate, sure…but validated nonetheless.

But more importantly, at least to my mind, is that this move by HarperTeen signals something even more important than price point; that consumers (and younger consumers, i.e., future main consumers) are open to digesting fiction in ways not often done in the pre-digital publishing world. Back in the print only time, it was few and far between when one saw a novella published on its own. More often, you’d see them in anthologies. In the analog world, it didn’t make sense to print and ship thousands of copies of something that might not sell because the price point was too close to that of a full novel. But, for good and ill, digital publishing has freed both writers and readers from the constraints of the book spine. Just yesterday I was listening to an old episode of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy in which George RR Martin claimed one could only write a book so long because after so many pages the spine starts to break. Well, not so much anymore. You could easily write a book that is “2000 pages” and release it digitally with no ereader or tablet worse for the wear.

And let us not forget the lessons learned from iTunes making songs $.99. People are willing to pay a low price point for just a slice of a larger content pie if they know they only want a slice, or aren’t sure they’ll like it all that much in the first place. Hence part of the reason I’ve decided to focus on writing and releasing shorter works as part of a series (or serieses) as opposed to traditional, full length novels.

Harper has already admitted that it makes sense to go this route with teen content because the age group is so intimately connected with digital content and delivery. And, as such, I’m guessing they are more receptive to scalability in the size and scope of the content they acquire. The hope, I’m guessing, is that if a title really takes off in the HarperTeen arena, it will be not unlike the Harry Potters and Hunger Gameses of the world; i.e., crossover hits.

Bleed for You

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