Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Science fiction ebooks: a league of their own?

Humble Bundle came across my desk in a forwarded email with the subject line: “You Like Books? Humble Bundle for Books now up!” Despite being annoyed by all the extra capital letters, I decided, well, I do like books. So I clicked through. I’m glad I did.

Humble Bundle is a sort of ebook-price-experiment-slash-charity-drive. And it’s a hit. Over 64,000 readers had purchased bundles as of 2:30 p.m. today. The basics: Humble Bundle is a set of six ebooks that readers essentially name their price for. (If you pay more than the average−calculated in real time−you can get two additional titles, bringing your total up to eight new ebooks.)

Not only do you choose how much to pay, you also choose where it goes. It looks like this:

Humble Bundle screenshot

Screenshot taken from

You can select exactly how much you want to go to the authors of the book, to a couple of writerly foundations, or to Humble Bundle to help support the work of this organization. (Which, in fact, runs Humble Bundles to raise money for a variety of organizations−check out their Tumblr.)

The Humble Bundle model−letting customers set the price−is not unprecedented in the ebook world. In 2000, Stephen King’s The Plant, an epistolary novel written in installments, was an early test of how readers would react to the “honor system” of paying for content.  And John Scalzi, president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has a history of distributing some of his work as “shareware.”

All of these experiments are really interesting to observe, especially amid publishing’s recent hand-wringing that customers don’t want to pay for e-content. The big question: how do these experiments translate to the greater market? In fact, can they?   Or is this a phenomenon that is genre-specific, and while it might have some serious implications for science fiction or other genres with relatively similar fan bases, does it apply as easily to audiences of other genres?

I think it could be a mix of both. While I do think that there are some unique aspects of science fiction aficionados (not insignificantly, for one, their inherent and enthusiastic embrace of technology) that set them above your average reader in other genres, I also think they are valuable. The patterns and price points that they’re showing us now may not be very relevant for a general audience that still places primary value on print, but I suspect that in one or two generations the implications of these grand experiments will see themselves played out in an ebook-first market.

What do you think?

Author’s note: Parts of this article are based on discussions with our own Jenna Gilligan. Credit where credit is due. Thanks, Jenna!

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

One comment on “Science fiction ebooks: a league of their own?

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This entry was posted on October 17, 2012 by in Business, Culture and tagged , , , , .

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