Maybe it’s because I’ve been on the periphery of the industry for a while, the salad days of my publishing career behind me, but being a firm believer that information, especially vetted information, has value, publishers seem to be having a chicken-little moment at this stage of technology evolution. I can’t help but hark back to the 1960’s when publishers and libraries were fearing that Ultrafiche, a microfiche that holds up to 1,000 pages per 4x6" sheet of film, would make the printed book redundant. So fast-forward to the brave new world of the 21st century.
No doubt today’s technology is a form of creative destruction that Ultrafiche was not. But the operative word here is creative and publishers bring something valuable to the table, gathering and authenticating information at the higher end of the information pyramid and editing, designing, promoting and distributing trade books at the lower end. I’ve always thought of publishing as an information pyramid, the top of which is “must have information” – mostly scientific and professional – and at the bottom, the kind of publishing which is mostly the mass market stuff competing with movies, magazines, and other leisure-time activities. In the information pyramid there are various categories in between, such as educational publishing, serious trade publishing, etc. The higher in the pyramid, the less price sensitive and visa versa. To a great extent, this applies to electronic distribution as well.
Monday’s Financial Times presented an interesting analysis of the publishing industry’s present predicament, eye opening because it made clear that Amazon, to build market share and ward off the rapid encroachment of Apple and Google, was selling their $9.99 eBooks at a loss. Macmillan’s move to delay eBook editions of new titles by six months was to “force” Amazon to charge more, which Amazon capitulated on, not because of one publisher’s demands but because the announcement of Apple’s iPad threw down the gauntlet of real competition for the Kindle. I thought competition was supposed to drive down prices. Otherwise, the whole matter suggests a form of price fixing.
While publishers might find a $9.99 electronic book unsustainable (if that is their own list price) as, after all, the vast majority of the costs are those incurred in creating the first copy (paper, printing, and binding being a minor part of the expense in publishing), Amazon’s selling at that price is another matter. How long can Amazon sustain pricing that is less than publishers’ charge Amazon, particularly as Apple and Google enter the competitive fray? Aren’t publishers playing a dangerous collusion game “forcing” resellers to charge a particular price? Publishers need to set their list prices for printed and electronic editions, establish a sensible discount schedule to resellers (both price and discount dependent on where the book/information stands in the information pyramid), and then let the marketplace work. Their control of copyright allows them to have this power. It’s not a matter of “negotiating” prices with resellers, but, instead, ensuring they (publishers) don’t fall into the same trap as the music industry, taking safeguards with distributors to guard against unlicensed replication of eBook editions.
According to Mike Shatzkin (quoted in the FT article), “Legacy publishers still want bookstores to last as long as possible. Their business model is built on their expertise in navigating that industry.” No doubt that is true; even though that legacy system is fraught with its own economic problems such as allowing “returns” of unsold copies for up to a year, an archaic business practice that bookstores and publishers seem to be addicted to. However, be it legacy publishing, electronic, or forms yet to be discovered, it is the publishing industry’s need to adapt, not to retard progress. Otherwise, “their failure to recognize that their industry’s economics is of no concern to the marketplace [will be] another nail in their coffin.”
Perhaps the trade book publishing industry needs to be led out of the woods by more innovative independent publishers, with important, influential authors seeking those venues, deserting the present publishing oligarchy that imagines it can control how the resellers should price their publications. Instead, control the timeliness, presentation, and relevance and accuracy of content, bringing together the author and the reader, in any form the marketplace needs.
Of course it is a more complicated matter, within an even larger picture if you take into account the desirable survival of the independent bookstore, the strategic deployment of on-demand publishing by publishers, and how authors, particularly the best-selling authors, look at the eBook – is it a subsidiary right of which they require a larger piece of the action, such as they receive from the sale of movie rights, or even hold the right to themselves to negotiate their own deals with Amazon, Apple, etc.?
Independent bookstores could be compensated for eBook downloads in their own Wifi hotspots – provided publishers and electronic distributors cooperate and agree to give up a little of the pie, as sellers do to Google for eyeballs that lead to sales. It is in the best interests of the industry to ensure the independents’ survival and they can have a role.
Publishers could more often deploy on-demand printing, especially for the so-called mid-trade edition, or do shorter edition runs and then opt for on demand subsequent editions if warranted. This strategy would reduce part of the publisher’s risk.
Authors have to realize that having a multiplicity of publishers and distributors is in their best long-term interests. Reserving eBook rights for themselves to negotiate with electronic distributors will have an impact on publishers’ ability to produce and promote printed editions. Are we, as a society, better off without legacy publishing in any form?
One of my friends and mentors, the late Len Shatzkin (Mike Shatzkin’s father) said it best in his book In Cold Type; Overcoming the Book Crisis (published in 1982 – the industry has always been in crisis!): “Any misfortune for book publishing is a misfortune for all Americans. Books are too important to our lives; we cannot be indifferent, or even casual, about what happens to the industry that produces them.”