Publishers go off deep end, pay consultant to tell them what they want to hear

Diogenes-statue-Sinop-enhancedSo, let me get this straight. Frank Luby, a consultant speaking at Digital Book World, says that e-books are more convenient than printed books, and therefore, they should cost more.

Is this some kind of a joke? Apparently not; it was posted April 2, and people elsewhere seem to be taking it seriously. This is so wrong I hardly even know where to begin.

It’s true that I can see how publishers would want to hear what this guy has to say. Basically, he’s telling them only what they already believe themselves. And it’s a belief they tried to put into practice, which inevitably led to a reaming out by the Department of Justice, state attorneys general, and class-action consumers for anti-trust violations.

But let’s disregard that. Let’s also disregard the way that sales dropped off during the period when publishers raised their prices with agency pricing. Let’s disregard that this guy has been saying the exact same thing for twelve years (and events have proven he was wrong then, too), or that a book on price strategies he co-wrote on Amazon is Kindle-priced at $19.49. (At least he’s putting his money where his mouth is.)

And let’s disregard the narrowness of his definition of “convenient,” too. (Sure, it might be more convenient to snag a Kindle book rather than venture out on a snowy day. But you can’t lend that book to friends, or give it away, or resell it, or read it in ways Amazon doesn’t let you. On the balance, printed books are still more convenient in a number of ways, too.) Let’s even disregard that paying more for something just because it’s “more convenient” would lead to things like email costing more than postal mail, or Amazon charging more for everything in its store because they’ll deliver it right to your house instead of you having to go out and get it.

Leaving all that aside…can you think of a worse strategy for publishers to put into play at a time when self-publishing writers are free to price their own works in the highly-lucrative $4 to $6 range, or even less? Especially given that many readers have demonstrated they don’t particularly care who published a book as long as it’s good? Self-published books are already making up more and more of the marketplace. If they listen to this guy, traditional publishers will hand self-publishers the rest of their business on a silver platter.

Seriously, why are publishers having this person speak at their event? Why is anyone in the publishing industry listening to people who give such nonsensical advice? Wishful thinking?

Over at The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder does note that if you actually watch the video of what the guy’s saying rather than just read the article, it comes off more like he’s recommending publishers try to convince readers that their books are worth more rather than charging more for them. But again—they’ve been trying to do that for years. Rather ham-fistedly, perhaps, but still. If it hasn’t happened by now, it ain’t gonna—especially with all the self-publishers happily selling tons of e-books in the $4 to $6 range.

I know I harangue the traditional publishing industry a lot. I try to keep in mind that I’m not a publishing industry professional, just an interested, amateur onlooker, and there are some things industry professionals know about publishing that I don’t. Given my continual frustration at how those publishers completely failed to nurture the nascent e-book industry in the ten years before Amazon came along with its Kindle, and my aggravation at how they seem to do everything they can to ignore consumers even now, I recognize I have a bit of a bias.

The thing is, I like reading books. And I want there always to be more of them. I actually do want to be able to believe that the industry that was responsible for producing darned near all of them up until just the last few years is going to be able to continue, even if self-publishing is starting to fill in the gaps. So, like Diogenes with his proverbial lantern, I wander through the night of publishing industry news, looking for some sign that these people might be getting some clue about dealing with the new publishing landscape as it is, rather than how they want for it to be.

Instead, I see stories about publishers getting celebrities who write rather than actual writers to hold signings at their convention, or else paying a consultant to tell them this kind of nonsense. Can they possibly stare any more deeply into their own navels?

Come on, publishers. Show me you’re getting it. Give me some kind of a sign that you can see which way the wind is blowing. I want to believe.

11 Comments on Publishers go off deep end, pay consultant to tell them what they want to hear

  1. The X-Files reference at the end makes this one, Chris. Perfect!

  2. I don’t really buy into premise that ebooks should be more expensive, but I likewise don’t think ebooks should be dirt cheap either. I’ve always thought $9.99 to $14.99 is a fair price for most new books. Knock it down by five bucks more or less when the paperback comes out.

    I’ll be concern if publishers do try to raise prices by a lot. I’d probably go back to reading paper books if they got out of control with cost. Of course, this might be want the publishers ultimately want, but self published books aren’t the answer and it’s pure vanity to believe that readers – who aren’t self published themselves or complete cheap stakes – would view this as a silver platter hand off.

  3. Quote: So, let me get this straight. Frank Luby, a consultant speaking at Digital Book World, says that e-books are more convenient than printed books, and therefore, they should cost more.

    What an absolutely amazing concept! Imagine for a moment that I feel thirsty. I could:

    1. Get a glass of water from the tap mere yards away.

    2. Go out for a cup of coffee or tea. That’s at least half-a-mile away.

    Since #1 is clearly more convenient that #2, the town where I live needs to charge something close to $5 a cup for the water I use. Wow wee, the water bill I’d get then! The little bit of water I put on flower beds yesterday would have run into many hundreds of dollars.

    Like you say, these publishers clearly want to have their ears tickled. If they wanted the truth, they’d listen to Smashword’s Mark Coker give them the hard facts about digital And if they really wanted to avoid being bullied by Amazon, they’d be offering more for less, not offering almost nothing extra to their readers and whining about lower prices.

    Times change, and you have to change with them.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer ($2.95 digital, $14.99 print)

  4. The only pricing advice I would offer to a publisher is “charge what the market will bear.”

    I choose to buy ebooks because they are more convenient for me than paper books. I value this convenience, and *I* am willing to pay a premium for it.

    On the other hand, I am convinced that the publisher is saving a pile of money in not having to pay for printing, shipping, warehousing, and ‘returns’ of ebooks.

    So, there is a fine line for me between ‘paying for convenience’ and ‘getting ripped off by the publisher.”

    If the publishers try to charge too much for ebooks, for any reason, I will just go back to buying paperbacks.

  5. “there are some things industry professionals know about publishing that I don’t”

    Ah, this trap we all fall into sometimes, forgetting that professionals in other fields are just like us in our own — just some dudes winging it.

    No, you can tell as well as any of them, because the facts speak for themselves. And they *don’t* agree with the industry’s wishful thinking. No matter who they hire to repeat the reassuring lies to them.

    And it *is* wishful thinking. Just like the copyright cartel understands all too well that “piracy” doesn’t hurt them, but they keep beating on that drum because what they really want is *control*. Likewise, the problem with book publishers is that they want to continue being gatekeepers. Not to make money, not to promote culture, but to remain on their pedestal and be worshiped as before.

    They won’t get a clue. They already have it. What they don’t have is a willingness to accept this new reality. And if you want to know what will happen to them, look at Microsoft these days.

    Yes, it’s sad.

  6. I much prefer ebooks in almost every way. Since buying my first Kindle in 2008, I have purchased very few print books. I am very price conscious and won’t spend over $10 for an ebook.

    My spending on ebooks went down 30% during first year of agency pricing and more than 75% in the second year. Part of that was because agency pricing led me to discover that my county actually has a really good selection of books in their downloadable digital library. That being said, the amount I spent on books in 2013 is back up to what I was speeding pre-agency prices.

    While I prefer reading ebooks and won’t go back to print, I won’t spend more for a product that I don’t really own, and one that I know costs less than print to produce. Should the big 5 get greedy again, I’ll just read all the books already on my Kindle that I haven’t gotten to and of course download from the library.

  7. “…why are publishers having this person speak at their event?”
    Please give more consideration to the facts. The guy spoke at the Copyright Clearance Center’s OnCopyright 2014 conference, not Digital Book World. CCC and DBW are not publishing. They are pseudo-consultancies who put on event filled with consultants. Everybody is hoping to drum up business. If you want to know what a publisher thinks, ask a publisher. Better yet, observe the publisher’s actions.

  8. As Clifford Lynch puts it the contest is not between print and e-books, but between passive and on-demand delivery. Everyone appears to agree that device delivered books are more convenient so I can understand publishers’ interest in pricing the affordance of screen delivery convenience. It is a feature… I could argue that hard cover edition should be the same as paperback…but I wouldn’t get far.

  9. E-books? More convenient? Well yes, maybe easier to hold – lightweight, not heavy. Easier (& therefore more convenient) to be able to take many books with you on a journey. The text can conveniently be increased for those of us who can’t see small print.
    But
    (and this is a BIG But)
    A Book doesn’t need a battery.
    A Book is more convenient because you don’t get to the exciting bit half way through a five hour train journey and find you can’t carry on reading because the bl**dy ‘convenient’ electronic machine has just died on you and your charger is either at home in the drawer or packed away in your suitcase – which is most inconveniently stowed in the luggage rack or the plane’s hold….

    Why on earth would we pay more for something that has no paper, no cover, no use outside of the machine it is viewable on, can’t be accessed without power, can’t be shared, can’t be showed-off on a bookshelf, can’t be….. (voice fades into the distance as I wander off shaking my head and mumbling about where on earth these idiots keep their inconvenient-sized single brain cell….)

  10. Jussi Keinonen // April 4, 2014 at 9:48 am //

    I have a master’s degree in economics (marketing) and I must say that the speech and Gary in the comments are right.

    Pricing has absolutely nothing to do with what the costs are. It’s all about the price the market is willing to pay.

    You write the world’s best book, uncomparable to anything, and you can charge $100 or $1,000 even if it’s carved in stone.

    The pricing discussion is SO lame by now.

  11. Publishers are hoist with their own petard where ebook pricing is concerned. For decades they set cover prices based on how substantial the book was, with hardcovers costing a LOT more because they were so much more substantial. The difference in cost to produce a hardback is significantly more than the cost of a mass market paperback, but the difference in cover price is even more significant. Publishers invented the trade paperback to be able to change more than they do for mass market, even though that difference in production cost is much smaller. Along comes the most insubstantial version of books ever– digital — and they’re stuck with consumer perception of lower value, which THEY nurtured all those decades, biting them in the ass. They should have been upfront about their high prices for ebooks being a way to protect hardcover sales instead of trying to make people believe they cost as much to produce. Also, I have trouble believing a “pricing consultant” is a real thing.

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