Harper-Collins-NYC-9-1500x1125Digital Book World is carrying a press release reporting that the HarperCollins direct-to-consumer site, which kicked off in 2013 with its own HarperCollins Reader app (not to be confused with the older HarperCollins Reader app that the publisher tried out in 2006), is switching partners.

Of course, the press release doesn’t quite put it that way, crowing about how e-tailer BookShout (who already works with several other Big Five publishers) has “built a simple and intuitive ebook solution that will enable HarperCollins…” yadda yadda yadda. Customers can still access their entire e-book libraries by downloading the BookShout app, so nothing’s really changed, right? Well, perhaps.

Whenever I read this sort of press release, it always puts me in mind of the “A flat tire, ha ha!” exchange from the Jackie Chan movie Wheels on Meals. It’s a pretty transparent attempt to spin bad or at least neutral news as good news. At The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder sees this as a disaster for HarperCollins—HC is ostensibly finding that it doesn’t have the knowhow to run its own D2C site, so it’s spinning it off to another partner. But I’m not so sure.

As we reported in 2013, HarperCollins was never actually running its own D2C site from the very beginning—back then, it partnered with Accenture, another e-book retailer, and let them run it. So this isn’t necessarily HarperCollins throwing up its hands; it’s HarperCollins switching horses mid-stream. Or perhaps rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The failure, if failure it is, wasn’t necessarily HarperCollins’s; it was Accenture’s. Or at least, that’s what HC apparently seems to think, judging by the way it’s switching to a new partner now. BookShout isn’t inexperienced in this area, even if it does have a highly questionable procedure for transferring Amazon or Barnes & Noble purchases into its own reader apps.

That’s not to say that the HarperCollins D2C project hasn’t been a failure so far. It’s just that this new partnership doesn’t represent HC giving up—it represents it continuing to throw potentially good money after bad.

I remain skeptical that this is a good move for the company, in any event. Nate is right when he points out that big publishers don’t seem to know how to do B2C, but the problem may simply be endemic to the nature of the e-book market. No less an experienced mass-market publisher than Baen, who’s been doing D2C e-book sales for nearly 20 years now, including a goodly number of New York Times bestsellers, eventually found it couldn’t go it alone either.

Baen has been doing e-book sales the right way—DRM-free, multi-format, and inexpensive from the very beginning. It did bump prices a couple of times over the years, but nowhere near what agency publishers did. But it still found that even it was leaving money on the table because people with Kindles just didn’t want to buy from anyone but Amazon—even though Baen’s DRM-free multiformat books would have worked just fine with their Kindles if they could just be bothered to sideload them. So Baen revamped the way its e-book store had worked for over a decade in order to be able to get its titles into the major e-book vendors.

Compared to that, what chance did HarperCollins, who uses DRM and requires a HarperCollins-specific application be downloaded, have? These DRM-locked books won’t work with people’s Kindles, so what’s even the point? Who wants to download an entirely new app for the sake of reading e-books from just one publisher—especially since, thanks to agency pricing, they’re not even getting a better deal than they would if they just bought from Amazon?

Of course, Baen isn’t stopping its own direct-to-consumer sales, even if it did have to change the way its bundles work for the sake of the deal with Amazon. Presumably it’s still doing very well from those hard-core fans who prefer the convenience of having multiple formats right away, or don’t want to support Amazon. And it can presumably pay its authors a larger percentage of the retail price from those direct sales. And it’s not as if running that sort of operation has ever really cost Baen all that much.

But when a big corporate bureaucracy like HarperCollins does things, a lot more money tends to get thrown around. Maybe it is time for HarperCollins to give up the ghost and stop wasting money. But as long as it can keep finding new partners, that’s probably not going to happen.


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