That’s When I Reach for My Revolver

by Kassia Krozser, BookSquare.com

You want to see a woman scream and tear out her hair? Watch me as I read or listen to a publishing professional explain why ebook prices are so high. It’s the advances! It’s the pirates! It’s the business model! It’s because we have to protect hardcover sales! It’s about preserving value!

Yes, yes, I say, by all means, do your best to alienate people who want to buy your books. Make it hard for them, make it as hard as possible. Hold back on releases, use DRM, ignore quality control issues, set prices out of line with what the reader gets. Do all of this. It can only help in a time when the reading customer is faced with so many other options.

Go ahead, focus on the wrong problem(s). It’s okay. There is plenty of competition ready to capitalize on your mistakes.

At the recent New York University Center for Publishing event on free versus paid content, Macmillan CEO John Sargent expressed surprise that 90% of the house’s front list was available on pirate sites (I, of course, would have wondered where I’d gone wrong with the 10% that wasn’t deemed interesting enough to pirate) and then, sigh, said that author advances and other costs are the problem when it comes to competing in the modern world.

Dude, it’s 2009. Practically 2010. This Internet thing is not a brand new challenge. You have had over a decade to prepare your business for change. You no longer get a free “well, it’s all new to us” pass. The music industry, sadly, did not have the luxury of time to prepare, and while they screwed up beyond belief, I can cut them a little slack. They started out playing catch-up. It’s been rough ever since.

Sargent’s comments stand out particularly because Macmillan is one of the most egregious when it comes to silly ebook pricing (yet they are so smart about digital in general). For example, if you go to the St. Martin’s Press website and look at the newest release from author Lisa Kleypas, you’ll notice, immediately, that her mass market paperback book has a print price of $7.99. The ebook price is $14.00. Amazon, of course, discounted this to a mere $9.99.

There is no way any executive can, with a straight face, argue that these prices are the result of “author advances” or “other costs”. It cannot be argued that setting out-of-whack prices helps “preserve the value of the book” — my absolute favorite party line. When I hear these words, I immediately substitute “preserve business as usual.” (or, to quote Mission of Burma, that’s when I reach for my revolver.)

Because there is nothing about current ebook pricing strategies that supports the value of the book to the person who matters the most: the reader. For us, the loss of rights that come with choosing an ebook lessens the value. It’s a slap in the face to readers when companies like Macmillan jack up the price of an ebook, talking about preserving “value” while limiting our ability to read books the way we want.

Yet look at us, still buying books. Still handing over money because we love reading. Still hoping the publishing industry will do right by us.

I’ve been talking about the ebook customer a lot recently, and one thing I keep saying is that it’s never good for an industry when the customer changes faster than the business model. In the ebook space, this is the real challenge for publishers. The early adopters have been in the marketplace for over ten years, the Kindle and Sony Reader are bringing in new customers, and ebook sales, though still a blip on the P&L, are rising at a rate that can conservatively be called stratospheric.

These customers are talking to each other. I’m sure it’s not news to anyone at Macmillan that there are threads devoted to their pricing policies on various ebook forums (sample here). And now Amazon helpfully lists prices for all editions on the Kindle product page. Readers pay attention, readers learn, and readers make smart choices. Oh, and readers aren’t digging the ebook pricing strategies of most publishers.

(I feel like I should end that paragraph with “Word,” but, alas, I cannot bring myself to do so.)

So at Digital Book World, I’m going to talk about ebook pricing. I’m going to talk about readers. I’m going to talk about how publishers have not made a good (or even coherent) case for their pricing strategies. I’m going to talk about how smart publishers who price ebooks in smart ways (and that doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does!) will win friends and influence spenders.

Basically, I’m going to talk about the good stuff that happens when publishers offer real value to readers.

Kassia Krozser has seen the future and it is good: more people are reading and writing than ever before. She knows that, unlike the dinosaurs, smart people in the publishing business can adapt to changing economics and reader behavior. Kassia dissects this new world with love and skepticism at booksquare.com.

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