Einstein-formal_portrait-35Insanity means doing the same thing over and over again while dreaming of better results. That’s the witticism that Einstein probably did not say. Regardless, I wonder what he’d think about the Big 5 publishers’ war against e-books through repeated price gouges. Would he begin, for real, to mull over this kind of insanity?

Declining E-book Sales Hit Home is the headline of an item in Publishers Weekly. “Lower e-book sales were a big factor in the weak financial performance at HarperCollins and limiting gains at Simon & Schuster in the quarter ended Sept. 30, 2015,” PW says, and goes on to mention calamities elsewhere. Also see Nate’s comments.

I suspect that the e-book price gouges are far from the only reason for these declines, but it certainly does not help when publishers settle on paper as the blessed format and punish fans of digital books despite the promise of the technology. Check out an earlier TeleRead post: Book readership slips—and Big Five mistakes could worsen matters.

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal reports that publishers are gearing up for large printings of big titles while hoping this will make up for earlier losses. Who knows? Maybe the publishers will succeed short term. But long term? A different issue.

A modest proposal for the B5

For now, here’s a modest proposal for the B5 for the holidays. When all the returns come back, would  B5 publishers kindly arrange to send the books to places where the libraries can’t afford to buy as many of their wares as patrons would like? How about rural Mississippi and the like? The publishers could focus on appropriate titles for low-income and rural folks. Along the way, they could help pay for literacy programs and other means to get people reading. Yes, the accelerated disposal of the returned copies might require negotiations with individual writers. But the results—an expansion of the universe of readers—would be worth it. So would publishers’ support of a national digital library endowment.

I know. I’m fantasizing. We’re talking about long-term market development as opposed to glamorous, short-term activities that appeal to publishers’ egos. And so I predict that insanity will prevail, at least for the moment, over sanity. That’s big publishing for you.


  1. I don’t think I’d consult Einstein, were he still around, on financial affairs. He was open about his disinterest in that sort of thing. In that one area, he and I are alike. I wear socks too.

    I’d also suggest being careful about criticizing Big 5 executives. They know the book business and have insights more pundits lack.

    One is that they have an enormous economy of scale. The per-copy cost of printing 100,000 books is far less than that for 2,000 much less print-on-demand. For them, the difference between print and digital is far less than it is for everyone else. Smaller differences in cost mean smaller differences in prices.

    They also have a well-established system for storing and distributing books. They’re not a lone author driving 15-miles round trip to UPS a dozen or so copies to refill Amazon’s shelves. They ship books by the truckload to bookstores that are eager to display them. Everything that an independent author finds hard about selling through bookstores they find easy. It is what they do well.

    Most important of all, I suspect these executives finally have a strategy for dealing with Amazon. That’s those high ebook prices. They’ve decided that even if higher ebook prices mean less profits this year, doing so is to their advantage in the years ahead. Discounting ebook substantially over print primarily benefits Amazon, which owns about 70% of that market. Keeping the prices comparable helps regular bookstores and thus makes them less susceptible to Amazon’s bullying.

    Also, keep in mind that the bullying technique Amazon used with Hachette have as much a downside to Amazon as to a publisher. Create long shipping delays, as Amazon did, and customers shop elsewhere, local or online.

    There’s another factor that I often harp on since one of my careers is book layout. Tools like InDesign allow skilled people to create print books that look excellent. Companies that care about their product, like that. There’s nothing comparable for digital. While InDesign can export a fixed-layout epub that looks almost identical to the print version, it does so only for a limited range of screen sizes. What works on a tablet won’t work on a smartphone.

    And in my humble opinion, Amazon’s proprietary formats are the worst in the industry and creating ebooks for them is a major headache since Amazon doesn’t support Kindle export in industry-standard InDesign. The specialized apps that Amazon offers (i.e. for graphic novels) don’t appeal to anyone who wants a larger market than just Amazon. which is obviously the Big Five.

    Finally, I think it’s absurd to blame major publishers, who aren’t the entire ebook market by far, and fail to blame Amazon, which is responsible for 70% of the sales of those ebooks. We need to hear more about what Amazon should be doing to improve the ebook market, criticisms that would drive home that many of the market’s problems flow from what Amazon is been trying to do for years, which is to crush ebook retail competition, weaken publishers, and dominate sales. That’s never good.

    Even Amazon’s ebook price-cutting of a few years back wasn’t for consumers. It was to crush competition. It tried to do something similar with POD publishing, setting up shipping delays for POD publishers who didn’t print with CreateSpace. It took a federal court case in Maine to stop that. We may need similar legal action to create a healthy ebook market.

  2. You need look no further than the publishers of encyclopedias to see where the big 5 are headed.

    It is not the fancy hard bound books as objects that are of value. It is the content. Because you own a press doesn’t mean that is the thing valued by the customer. Insistence on the product of the press rather than the content will lead to a similar disaster that the encyclopedia publishers met.

    Give us readers what we want at a reasonable price or the independent authors will continue to eat your lunch. There is a surfeit of material to read. A lot of the independents now produce interesting stuff to read that is well edited and in quantities far in excess of what I have the time to read.

    I lack space for many more books, so let me have them as ebooks. Do what you have to do to make your workflow more efficient and get the prices down on ebooks and I’ll buy more from you.

    I will pay $9.95 for a really great book from an author I really like. But $14.99? I’ll read something else. You aren’t special snow flakes. Competition and a surplus of books to read causes prices to drop. If you don’t want to compete, well goodbye. Join the dinosaurs who didn’t evolve.

  3. @Michael and @Ross: Thanks, both of you. I’d of course side with Ross on this one.

    The ultimate issue is not what the big publishers are good at, or what they are set up to do. Rather, it’s what the public wants. With higher prices, the large publishers will be at a disadvantage not only compared to independents but also compared to non-book forms of entertainment.

    Frankly, Michael, the status quo just is not that great. Typical household spending in the U.S. is only $100 or $120 per year on recreational reading of all kinds, not just books. I want that amount to increase. The easier we make it to buy and enjoy books, the more people will spend on them – especially if we can expand literacy programs and otherwise nudge people toward reading.

    Also, please note that in terms of physical space, Ross is almost all “booked up.” I’m the same way. Were it not for e-books, I would not be buying nearly as many new titles as I do now. Significantly, if memory serves, heavy readers are providing an amazingly large share of the industry’s revenue. I suspect that e-book price gouging especially harms buyers in this group. I’m not surprised that some of them say they’re forsaking stores for the library. After all, if they lack space to shelve new purchases and don’t want to part with existing ones, it only makes sense to borrow rather than to buy.

    Oh well, perhaps I can buy used paper books and feed them into the scanner said to let you process 300-page books in five minutes. Even if the time is a lot more than that, it just might make more economic sense than buying an overpriced e-book, even one with some discounting after it’s been out a while. Along the way, I would also be avoiding DRM hassles. Too bad. I would much much rather buy a fairly priced e-book and benefit the author and publisher.

    I doubt that most people will mess with scanning, but this is just one example of the countermeasures consumers will take when confronted with gouges.


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