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February 9, 2010

Filed under: fiction»industry

Off the Shelves

If the ongoing Amazon-Macmillan pricing struggle has achieved anything, it's making it very difficult for me to love the book industry right now. After all, in a fight between a retailer and a publisher, there's little evidence that either of these is actually good for readers--particularly readers of e-books. And as someone who lives in a tiny little apartment, I'd really like e-books to do well.

The quick summary, as best I can tell, is that Macmillan wants to move to something called the "agency" model, which will give it the ability to dictate retail pricing. Amazon would prefer to stay with the model it has now, where it buys books for a wholesale price and then decides for itself how much to actually charge for them. Consumers could be excused for a general feeling of "who cares?" except that Amazon decided to throw a fit during negotiations and delisted all Macmillan titles from its store. They remained "unavailable" for a week, even though Amazon had accepted the publisher's terms (or "capitulated" to the "monopoly" that Macmillan had on its own authors, as the site bizarrely put it) only a few days later.

Macmillan's argument, roughly, seems to be that it would like to have variable pricing on its catalog, with higher prices on new releases (akin to hardcover pricing) ranging up to $15 or so. The reasoning for this is largely to ensure profitability, since new releases currently subsidize the rest of the book catalog. They'd also, in theory, be offering older and backlist titles for much cheaper, possibly under paperback prices, which would be good for readers.

Amazon, on the other hand, swooped in early during the Kindle launch and loudly marketed bestsellers at the $10 price point, which probably had a lot to do with the device's success (it certainly helped me buy a couple of the things). They're obviously trying to set this as the price for digital text, and to a fair extent they've succeeded, which is welcome since e-books have historically been priced extremely poorly. The fact that the $10 tag helps Amazon maintain a firm grasp on the market has no doubt played a role in their decision.

In the meantime, a lot of authors have taken to their blogs to argue one way or the other (for every John Scalzi or Charlie Stross, there's also a CJ Cherryh or an Lynn Abbey who are skeptical of Macmillan's good will), or at least to ask for support from their readers. And I'm sympathetic to that, because I like authors and because they're no doubt financially-impacted by this action. Everyone else in this equation, on the other hand, is apparently working really hard to make themselves unlikeable. Obviously Amazon has acted poorly, adding yet another layer of failure to the now-towering failcake they've been baking for the past year or so. Meanwhile I'm trying to follow along with the publisher's side at Making Light and Tor.com, and it's not exactly easy to follow in either tone or content. Note: it's probably not helpful for the lay audience to deny that this is anything like the music industry while quoting approvingly from a comparison to the music industry elsewhere. I'd recommend starting starting with this comment, since it's the first one I saw that didn't make me want to tear my hair out. Chris Meadows also has a good, even-handed summary at Teleread.

Ultimately, I'm not completely averse to paying a little more for e-books if publishers need the money for a healthy ecosystem. I like books, and I want lots of authors to succeed in a diverse marketplace. What I fear, however, is that this marks a return to the publisher's neglect--or outright loathing--of the digital marketplace. Variable pricing would be be great if the publisher can be trusted to actually enforce it, but there's plenty of evidence that the prices never get adjusted, and then we're stuck paying $20 (or more!) for texts that can't be lent out to friends, copied, or annotated as easily as paper. That's the kind of pricing that'll send me, and a lot of other people, back to dead trees. And maybe that's what they want.

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