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Aug162014

E-Books, Print, and Prices

E-books, Print and Prices

Editor

 

Readers, writers, even publishers, especially Indie publishers (which in today’s world is often a cover word for self-publishers who have formed their own publishing imprints), are mystified by the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette—either mystified or consumed by strong opinion. There seem to be two real issues: first, the question of who can determine the price of e-books, the publisher or the retailer, second, the type of tactics that it is permissible for a retailer to use to bring a publisher into line.

Hachette wants to charge more for e-books from its most prominent authors. Amazon wants to limit e-book prices, making the range of prices smaller and lower. The two companies have to negotiate an agreement and when Hachette has refused to give in to Amazon’s demands, the latter company made Hachette’s titles harder to order on Amazon’s website, either delaying shipment, prohibiting pre-publication orders, or occasionally removing “buy” buttons from titles.

Amazon is able to sell e-books at a loss in order to build up its customer base and compete with other sellers. Doing so cuts into profits for the publishers. Amazon’s argument is that by lowering prices it will sell more books and publishers will still make plenty of money.

Most Indie publishers and self-published writers are on Amazon’s side. For most self-published authors, the goal is to get their books in the hands of as many people as possible. Low prices, even free giveaways, are prime strategies for doing so. Large publishing companies rely on established names, whose books will sell because they have a waiting fan base, which is willing to pay higher prices for its favorite authors.

Without getting into other issues, such as the discounts publishers pay Amazon for advertising their books, or the long-term implications of having one retailer have a monopoly within the book industry, why is this controversy important to anyone other than the big publishers and their best-selling authors? They will make less money, but the bulk of writers and Indie publishers will be unaffected, won’t they?

Amazon owns the lion’s share of the book-selling market, both for print and e-books, somewhere around 65% in each case. Print books still outsell e-books but the numbers are deceiving and perhaps inaccurate (since most surveys don’t include Indie and self-published books), and e-books have surpassed print in the fiction category, especially genre fiction, where Indie and self-published authors now sell more books than authors published by the “Big Five” publishing companies. In fact, Indie and self-published authors actually make more money, not just because there are more of them, all making small amounts, but in nearly all income categories, even the $100,000-$250,000/year range, there are more Indie authors than Big Five authors.

There are lots of platforms available for self-publishing or even real Indie publishing using print-on-demand format and even more for e-book publishing. Amazon’s Kindle and its website have revolutionized sales and its Createspace platform has allowed countless authors to enter the market. Authors who have gone through the agonizing and painful process of being rejected by literally hundreds of agents and publishing houses are rightfully thankful to Amazon for allowing them to finally emerge into print. That is overwhelmingly why such authors are on Amazon’s side in this controversy.

But will lowering the price of best-selling authors help Indie and self-published authors? Probably not. To some extent the success of such authors has been because they have underpriced their works compared to those published by the Big Five. Lowering the price of the latter authors’ works will make them more competitive with Indie and self-published authors’ books.

As  readers, we can all hope that book prices are lowered. Lowering e-book prices further than they now are will perhaps hasten the end of print publishing, at least for fiction titles, the print prices for which are now out of reach for many readers. From most current readers’ and authors’ points of view, this would not be good, but who knows what a younger generation of readers, raised on digital media only, will want or care about? Bookstore owners may soon be in the antique business.

Authors don’t lose when readers choose e-format over print. E-book royalties can be, and usually are higher than print royalties, and sales numbers can be larger.

So for all but a few, the lowering of e-book prices is a good thing.  Those of us who love print books and roaming through book stores and libraries filled with real books, can bemoan the ascendance of the e-book, but like luxury cars, fine wines, craft beers, and movie theaters (and now even drive-in theaters), something that is neither cheap nor functional can survive if there is a market for it in our society.  And as in each of these examples, prices that began high, gradually lowered, as the audience base for them grew.

Even if lower e-book prices are a good thing, there is no reason to force the Big Five to lower the prices for their best-selling authors. Market trends are going to force them to do that anyway. And draconian tactics to force the Big Five to kowtow to Amazon’s demands, especially when such tactics penalize both authors and readers, are shameful and help no one.

 

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