Tuesday, February 16, 2010

eBook War of Words

A follow up to Publishers in the Crosshairs, hopefully a more carefully considered one. The eBook wars are far more complicated than imagined. I quoted Mike Shatzkin from the Financial Times piece, but since then I’ve had enough sense to venture into his blog, specifically his expert report, The wild weekend of Amazon and Macmillan, which in turn led me to Tobias Buckell’s Why my books are no longer for sale via Amazon and Charlie Stross’ Amazon, Macmillan: an outsider's guide to the fight. These lengthy pieces, with their fascinating threads of responses, are must reading, something I might have done in the first place.

I should have known that publishers would find ways to make things hopelessly complex. Any industry that can base its selling strategy on first publishing a high-priced edition, overprinting the same in the hope a lower unit cost will justify a lower list price, and then take back the majority of what has been printed as returns, trying then to resell them on the bargain books table for pennies on the dollar, while, at the same time, issuing a lower-priced paper back edition, has to be suspect to begin with. The eBook wars have become enmeshed in legacy marketing practices such as “agency plans” and inconsistent methods of compensating authors on the sale of such editions (percentage based on “list price” or the net selling price, and/or whether the “agency” discount figure into the same). Then, digital rights management further complicates the issue.

When things become hopelessly complex, simplify. One option is to go to a “net pricing” scheme for eBook editions sold to the retail marketplace through intermediaries and then let the marketplace work; perhaps that price being similar to the eventual paperback list price. Of course, marketing structures and royalty arrangements would have to be engineered with that approach in mind, so there is no short-term silver bullet, and it does not "prevent" Amazon from pricing at less than it is paying the publisher. One has to wonder whether such a publishing practice is even legal or Amazon’s pricing is sustainable. But, I defer to the blogs mentioned above on this subject, following them with great interest, as the eBook wars no doubt escalate. As a society, we can only hope that a negotiated peace does not come at a price too steep for the publishing industry.

The Ancient Library of Celsus