Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Thoughts on the quiet battle between Publishers and eBook Distributors

(photo attribution unknown)

It's become clear in recent months that there's a quiet war going on. Unless you're a reader who owns an electronic bookreader, or someone who reads electronic books on a computer eReader app, you probably haven't heard the battle cries. The opposing parties are The Publishers (who include Simon and Schuster, Macmillan, Ace Penguin and a variety of others) and The Distributors of eBooks (who include most notably Amazon's Kindle division but also Sony's eReader, Barnes and Noble's Nook and the new kid on the block, Apple's iPad iBook app). The collaterally damaged parties include the reading public and especially the authors, who are caught in the middle between their readers and their publishers.

The initial shots were fired back in December 2009 by Simon and Schuster, as mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. The tactic of delaying the release of eBooks appears to be geared toward getting more actual hardcover sales versus virtual e-hardcover sales. Basically in this scheme the pricing strategy places eBooks in between hardcovers and paperbacks. Hardcovers can net as much as $25-30 for NY Times Bestselling authors at straight retail. If you have a mass-seller discount of perhaps 20% (think buying a new release on sale in your local Barnes and Noble) that hardcover price is still well above the electronic book price of a product like a Kindle bestseller priced at $9.99 - 12.99, but even that eBook costs more than a paperback version of a bestseller, marketed in the $7.99 - 9.99 price range. So you can look at a publishing industry strategy take shape. Get the hardcover revenue first, then get the eBook revenue shortly thereafter, then at the one year mark, get the low-end mass paperback revenues.

Sounds like a reasonable plan, right? A sound marketing strategy. And Apple has entered the market with the bold strategy of saying that it will allow publishers to set the prices for the eBooks sold through iBook. 

Well, as a reader, I have several thoughts on the subject. I'll own up to the fact that I have a Kindle DX, my child has a Nook, and I've thought about getting the iPad and would buy books in iBook, Kindle or eReader formats for that device. What are my problems with the The Publishers and The Distributors?

First, let me say that I correspond with a couple of authors on an occasional basis because of my book discussion board. The author that I have the most congenial relationship with had a new release delayed back in February and she actually told me that one reader sent her a complaint email that was mean enough to make her cry. Authors that I'm generally aware of who are enduring publication delays for eBooks of their new releases include Jodi Picoult, Kim Harrison, Seanan McGuire, Charlaine Harris and Ilona Andrews. (All popular authors, one of whom was just nominated for a Hugo Award for new authors.) Some of these authors are really faced with anger from their readers for something an author has absolutely ZERO control over. And I feel for these authors because as a person running a book discussion board, you see that interest comes in waves. It swells and then wanes on the author threads on my modest site. People read a book, discuss it with a burst of interest and enthusiasm then that author's thread may lie dormant for weeks or even months. What gets more readers for an author is people discussing your books. But if you can't get the book being discussed, you may not get back to it once it's available to you. So it's a Carpe Diem kind of deal when you have a new release. If readers tied to a particular platform or format don't have the option of purchasing, especially with the issue of popular fiction authors, you may not get that reader back very soon as they move on to the next available popular fiction book. And there are always other books in that crowded market. I actually asked people on my book discussion board to lobby Amazon for release of the eBook for the author who had that reader who wrote her the mean complaint. I felt so terrible for her that some of her fans had been mean enough in their complaints to upset her enough to make her cry. It took about three to four weeks but eventually Amazon released the Kindle edition of her novel, which comes from a smaller publishing house, not tied to one of the megapublishers who has the hold-off stance. Was it Amazon's ePublisher that delayed or was it the author's contracted publishing house? Hard to say but it wasn't the author's fault, no matter how you slice it.

So my thoughts about The Publishers' eBook marketing strategy, and the Distributor's price structuring contribution to how this strategy evolved, beyond the fact that they may jointly lose part of their fickle readership market, which has a short attention span when it comes to waiting and a limited budget in this economy:

1) Continuing to drive sales of books printed on paper is environmentally irresponsible.

This is my chief reason for shifting to reading books electronically. Other than my nuclear-powered electrical usage, appropriate battery disposal and initial production of the silicon components, eBooks are mostly clean, green books for the reader. And probably for the publisher, too. They don't kill trees and aren't even using recycled paper (which as a chemist, I can assure you is nowhere near as environmentally friendly as you'd like to believe). They take up less space, and aren't a fire hazard, a point you'd surely give thought to if you ever visited my house and looked at the libraries of its three resident and diehard readers. 

Trying to make your money back on paper products is anti-green. No two ways about it.

2) As the parent of a visually impaired child, and the daughter of a visually impaired parent, eBooks allow the visually impaired to read more easily with an adjustable font size. 

I will never forget the image of my child trying to wade through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in large print. When Order of the Phoenix came out, he told me he'd read the regular print edition slowly and with a magnifier if he had to, rather than strain his 10 year old arms with a heavy large print edition of the book. And then there was the whole issue of the publication delays for production of large print books. Do they ever get released on their promise date? I'm looking as I write this post at NY Times Bestselling author Charlaine Harris's new book, which is currently #1 in Sales ranks at Amazon. No promised Kindle release date and a large print edition promised for release today but still not released. Did I mention that it is also three times the cost of the current Amazon price for the regular print edition? So if you're visually impaired you should not just wait but pay much more? This is an issue that I just don't see anyone mentioning about eBooks. They're a life-saver for the visually-challenged. Many publishers are also refusing to let books be published in text to speech mode. Again, a slap to the visually or learning disabled who WANT to read. Not everyone can afford the audio book with its slick production values, and the print version of the book that will allow a struggling reader to read along with spoken text. I know a number of adults who are non-native speakers as well who love the text to speech option. They want to read in, and improve, their English. No such luck with some of the current publisher marketing strategies. Allowing text to speech clearly cuts into the audiobook revenue in their mind. 

3) International readers and Piracy are an issue when you delay eBooks.

Let's face it, for every reader out there who has access to buying (if they can afford it) a hardcover, there's a reader who doesn't have that access. There are slews of international readers of English language print books who bought international versions of the Kindle and Sony eReader because they wanted to read books in English. Hey, my own brother in law is one of them. And what are these international readers going to do when Ace or Macmillan or Simon and Schuster say you can't have the soft copy of a new release until one, two, three, four months later? They're going to get a PDF copy via a torrent or some internet sharing site. And what's the risk of that? If they get ticked or feel generous, they're going to share with their friends. Maybe even their US or UK based friends. The loss of potential international purchases of a new release is a substantial loss. Fully half the members of my book discussion board are non-US based. How do they get their books? Well, I've sent quite a few books off to places like Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland and such. But a lot of them? They'll get a book they covet any way they can. Sure they may buy a used copy of that same book if they enjoyed it when they come across it later. But the publishers have to hope they enjoyed it enough to want to own it when they're done reading it. Can I blame these readers? Really, in a lot of ways I can't. They bought into the idea that international versions of eBook readers would allow them to own and read their favorite authors legally and along with all their friends who are better placed for timely access. When you have steep discounts for hardcovers on sites like Barnes and Noble and Amazon, and international buyers who don't want to bear the cost of expensive shipping (that in some cases rivals the purchase price of the book!), buying the eBook format makes sense. The overhead costs of production of an eBook are much lower than for a print book. For an international market, you can at least garner a wider readership. All of which brings me to my final point.

There's been much talk of distributor greed (was Amazon gunning for a monopoly? Most definitely. But they surely won't get one with Apple entering the competition, as their Kindle Reader for the iPad and iPod Touch apps clearly demonstrate a bow to the almighty Steve Jobs) and reader greed (wanting cheap books- hey who doesn't? Understandably, authors and publishers, that's who). Yes, it's true that distributors and readers can be greedy. Authors need to make enough money to keep themselves writing and that publishers need to recover their production costs. But an eBook is just a file, people. A file  with very low production costs compared to printing and binding even a paperback. And a dirty little secret is the fact that many authors will tell you that they get a larger royalty from an eBook than a hardcover or paperback. Do I mind giving an author whose books I like a higher price for the digital version than $9.99? You know what? Really, I don't, Amazon. I just don't. If I like iBooks better, I'll probably buy the iBook version over the Kindle version, in fact. How's that? Maybe they have fewer typos and format errors? For $3-5 more per book, you can bet I'd go with iBook. In fact, I even feel happier knowing that an author I like may get a larger share. There's also the interesting fact that other than the Nook, digital rights management makes an eBook very, very hard to loan. And even the Nook only allows the purchaser to loan the book file for 14 days. So if I like a Kindle eBook, I can recommend it to a friend but not loan it and lose the publisher their revenues by loaning. And quite a few of my friends and I share book recommendations and subsequently purchase eBooks for the Kindle or the iPad or the Nook.

So who's really losing out here? Seems to me that there's quite a bit of losing to go around for everyone. But in a world of dwindling readers, the biggest losers seem to be authors and publishers. I can always find something else to read. Why, I have a book on reserve request at my library even now. No Kindle edition for four months? Hey, if I decide I like it, I might even buy a hardcover copy later on, just as I've done with a number of books that I read first. On my Kindle. That's right, if I really loved the book, and think it's paperworthy, I buy it again, preferably in hardcover. So distributors who want buyers had better think about what they're doing with their price structure and publishers had better think about what they are as well. Punishing authors and readers is not going to make any of us happy. I'm sure it's going to make authors, especially, unhappy.

There has to be a way to make this work better for everyone involved. Alienating readers is a bad place to be. For publishers, distributors, and most of all, for the people who give us the written words we enjoy. And that's what is most unfair about this whole situation. They're the people that can say the least about it. But readers... now we can speak out loud and clear.

Edited to add a few more links on the topic... And make no mistake, it's a complicated topic, since many publishers are targeting more than just Amazon's Kindle, ultimately because of Kindle pricing tactics.

From Ilona Andrews:

From Lili Saintcrow:

From Kim Harrison:

From the New Yorker:

From the UK's Guardian an article on the wrongheaded tactics of some readers in revolt and punishing authors with bad reviews rather than complaining directly to Amazon:

Readers can follow the evolving pro-eBook manifesto at iReaderReview.


  1. Here's a well considered Australian article to add to yru internatinal colletion:

  2. That's a pretty damning article Sally. And it really sounds like a bait and switch kind of scenario that they promised that book prices would be structured like the US prices and that then they turned around and hiked the prices. I really don't understand Amazon's logic here, since they knew that iPad was in the pipeline. It just seems so short-sighted to be trying to snooker publishers, especially of magazines and newspapers, which is what sets Kindle apart from Nook and Sony eReader, into taking such unfavorable terms.