Agency pricing lawsuit could lead to shift in consumer book buying habits
November 1, 2013 | 10:37 pm
The obvious effects of the agency pricing anti-trust lawsuit are, well, obvious, with the publishers suddenly having to operate under new rules and intense scrutiny. They can’t impose agency pricing and higher e-book prices, at least immediately, so they’re having to sell somewhat lower than they would like. But on her blog, “The Business Rusch,” Kristine Kathryn Rusch points out that there is a set of less obvious consequences that might very well have a greater effect on the publishing industry in the longer term.
Rusch, long-term industry insider that she is, notes that the agency-pricing kerfuffle hardly marked the first time the Big Six publishers had colluded. Indeed, they had been working under a sort of de-facto “gentlemen’s agreement” since forever, communicating with each other to stagger the release of major titles that might otherwise compete with each other, so that each might have its own best chance to shine on the bestseller lists and bookstore shelves.
Movie studios do much the same thing with their “tent-pole” releases, but because the movie industry is so much larger and schedules so much further in advance, the release dates of major blockbusters are a matter of public record a year or more ahead of time, so the studios don’t have to collude privately. They have plenty of time to make any necessary schedule shifts in advance. Publishers, however, tend to work on a much shorter schedule, so this kind of advance coordination is not possible without some communication. And thanks to the closer scrutiny the publishers are getting in the wake of their little agency pricing no-no, suddenly any form of communication across company lines is suspect.
This coordination has been necessary because brick and mortar bookstores can only push so many new releases at one time, and readers are only likely to buy so many at once. Indeed, Rusch points out, many book buyers are still unconsciously operating in the old mode where they buy a book as soon as it comes out because it may not be on bookstore shelves when they get around to wanting it—even though, in this era of Amazon, people can have practically any book they want at any time regardless of whether it’s still at their local Barnes & Noble.
And another factor is that the important thing for a best-seller list is not necessarily how many copies a book sells, but how fast it sells them. A book that sells 5,000 copies in its first week and then a thousand copies a month after that has a better chance of getting on lists than one that sells 6,000 per month for those same six months. That first week, in which a book has the cachet of its newness to sell it, is crucial.
If the market is diluted by having several attractive books going head-to-head, to say nothing of all the independent books that have their own fanbase who probably won’t be buying something else if they’re buying their favorite…well, suddenly things are going to look very different. Making the best-seller lists is very important to a book’s continued longer-term success in the weeks that follow. If there’s a big shift in the kind of books that make the list, formerly-bestselling authors could be hit right in their pocketbooks.
But perhaps the bigger change than that is breaking readers of that unconscious habit of buying now. If readers can’t handle all the material from their favorite writers coming all at once, they might well not buy all of it right then. So another one of those forces driving the traditional bestseller list will go away.
This is only the beginning. Traditional publishing needs discoverability so that books can sell fast enough to hit a bestseller list. Traditional publishers aren’t used to growing a book over time. Yet a lot of indie writers (with patience) understand that’s how books actually sell. There will be a lot of hand-wringing. There will also be a lot of articles on how to “find” readers. But readers will continue to buy books—at greater volume than before—but not the same books at the same time.
We’re living in interesting times. You never know. The publishing world could look very different in a year or two.