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April 26, 2010

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Age and See

So the publishers are moving the e-book industry to the so-called agency model. I resent having to care about this, but since I own a Kindle and the new model will boost the price of digital "hardcovers" by at least a couple of bucks, I feel like I've been dragged into it.

The argument for agency pricing (in which the publishers, and not the retailers, set the prices for their books) primarily concerns preserving the premium for new releases. This premium, and not production costs, is why hardcovers are traditionally priced so much higher than paperbacks (they don't actually cost much more to produce). It's a kind of early adopter tax on avid readers, and the extra profits on bestselling hardbacks go to subsidize all the other books, most of which lose money. The irony is that under agency pricing, publishers are actually making less money in the short term, because they're not getting as much as they were when Amazon was selling titles at a loss.

Customers have been promised that this will all work out better for them in the end, because agency pricing also means that publishers can drop the price of older e-books, similar to the way paperbacks work, instead of keeping them all at a uniform $10. Amazon was also supposed to work this way, and I believe it sometimes did, but I'm not really sure when the change was supposed to happen, and often e-books didn't drop in price when the paperback version hit shelves. That said, I think a lot of people are distrustful that the older book discount is actually going to happen, and with good reason: publishers have historically looked at e-book markets as an opportunity to gouge readers, and it's not at all clear that they won't continue to do so.

Take, for example, Karin Lowachee's Warchild. I started looking at Lowachee's books after her newest, The Gaslight Dogs, got a favorable review on last week. Warchild is the first of a three-part series, and was originally written in April of 2002, making it more than eight years old now. Hachette, the publisher, wants readers to pay $11--more than many "brand-new" e-books!--to download it. No doubt they considers this fair: Hachette offers Lowachee's books in a $22(!) mass market paperback format, making the e-book a 50% discount. From their perspective, maybe that seems like a good deal. But to the average reader, that's insane. There's no way I'm going to pay $11 for a pulp sci-fi book that's almost a decade old, any more than I'd pay more than $20 for it on cheap paper. Those are the kinds of prices that send me running to the used bookstore or the library--and then Hachette (and more importantly, Lowachee) gets nothing.

Which pains me, because I like giving money to authors. That's one of my favorite parts of the e-book market: I can give my money to authors without feeling guilty about destroying countless trees for books that I'll read once and never touch again. I buy a lot of books--many more, in fact, now that eco-guilt is out of the equation. And given time to adjust, as I've said, I don't see a real problem with paying a bit more for a just-published e-book. To give one example: although Ian Tregillis's Bitter Seeds will set me back $13, it sounds like a neat book and I don't want to wait for a paperback, so going over the $10 Amazon price point isn't the worst thing in the world. On the other hand, if it costs that much 8 years from now, I'll be considerably less sanguine about it.

I don't know that much about publishing models, so I'm not going to lecture about the costs of production and all that--I'm told those are minimal anyway--but nothing's going to kill consumer interest in e-books faster than a pricing scheme that regularly makes them more expensive than their paper equivalents. And if publishers wonder why people tend to eye them with distrust when they insist that they'll price older titles fairly, they should probably take another glance through their own back catalogs.

At some level this is a conversation about what kind of book market we want to have, and what it's possible to preserve. The existing publishing system is not at all set up for profitability. It leverages blockbuster titles to pay for the writing and editing of a diverse range of smaller, less popular books. I may find Dan Brown and JK Rowling personally repugnant, but their omnipresence makes possible the publication of obscure personal favorites like, say, Joseph Schloss's Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York.

Assume that we agree, as a society, that diversity of publication is a good thing. Does the agency model preserve it, or does it simply allow an inefficient system to perpetuate itself digitally? More to the point, does the move to cheaper digital pricing necessarily mean margins too thin for niche books to exist? Or is it possible for independent writers and publishers to leverage the new platform? Is the desired model that of the music industry, the movie studios, or something else entirely (Netflix and subscription services, maybe)?

I don't have pat answers for those questions, but I hope they figure it out soon. I'm getting exhausted by the rollercoaster up-and-down of the debate, and I can't be the only one. It'd be nice if they got this sorted out before they alienate the Americans who still read, but given the print industry's general track record, we probably shouldn't get our hopes up.

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