In the words of Emily Litella, the Saturday Night Live character of the 1970s invented by Gilda Radner, “never mind.”
I’m referring to my post about “debut pricing” from earlier this week. It can’t be done; at least not easily and at least not immediately.
The challenges we face require a continuing conversation and crowds really help. The collective wisdom and knowledge of the growing crowd reading this blog helped me find and face this hole in my own thinking. (It was also a bit of a comfort to be told in the course of previewing this post that other smart and informed people didn’t know what I missed either!)
What I should have known and factored in, but didn’t, is that ebooks aren’t sold like regular books, with a published discount schedule and no contract. Rather, ebook sales between publishers and their customers, whether intermediaries like Content Reserve and Ingram Digital or retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble and the Shortcovers business run by the Canadian chain, Indigo, are transacted under contractually defined and mandated terms. What those contracts say is both confidential and variable from publisher to publisher and customer to customer.
So the suggestion I made — that publishers adjust their ebook pricing by changing the discount schedule for newer books — can’t be achieved by unilateral decision of the publisher under most of the contracts that exist today. Any publisher that wants to implement my suggestion would have to wait for their contracts to expire and then negotiate new ones that would allow them to manage their terms of trade in ways that they can’t do now.
I am also told by publishers in the wake of my piece that Amazon has terms in place that very much anticipate the move that I suggested. At least some publishers have terms that tie the pricing of the ebook to the pricing of the print book (the ebook can’t have a higher suggested retail) and that tie the discounting of the ebook to the discounting of the print book. So the publisher couldn’t reduce the discount for the ebook without reducing the discount for the print book at the same time (and one suspects even that flexibility wouldn’t extend to all publishers and all contracts.)
Apparently some contracts go further than locking in the publisher to print book prices and discounts but also require the publisher to subsidize Amazon’s discounting. In one case I was told about, there is a maximum discount Amazon can require to be subsidized based on the publisher set retail price.
On top of their problems with Amazon, a publisher told me that they had contractually given Fictionwise the right to discount their ebooks and commensurately reduce the payment to publishers. For years, the Fictionwise policy was to do very little discounting and usually the discounts were about 10%. According to one publisher, new owner Barnes & Noble saw the opportunity in those terms to cut prices to the consumer dramatically.
So when Dominque Raccah said her choices with Bran Hambric were limited to when and whether to issue an ebook and not much else, she was absolutely right.
What this means is that publishers have largely dealt away control of their businesses, at least for the time being. All they can do right now to defend themselves is to set the retail prices high and let the marketplace do what it will. With competition fierce among the retailers to cut prices to the consumers, the prices at retail will not be as high as the publisher sets them.
A similar contractual situation exists between publishers and the wholesalers Ingram and Content Reserve, where discounts have been negotiated and are in place until multi-year contracts expire. The same situation exists with Sony which would be the next largest account for ebook sales for most commercial publishers.
So at what is really the dawn of the ebook era, publishers have very little leverage to manage the ebook pricing and distribution in the marketplace.
The way that ebooks transactions differ from print books could also argue that ebooks aren’t “sold”, they are “licensed.” That could present another problem for publishers because licensing revenue is often split 50-50; ebook revenues seldom are. Agents are sure to become increasingly aware of the distinction, just as they will be aware that almost all the sales right now can be achieved by making half-a-dozen deals. That’s not very tempting when ebook sales are 5% or 10% of a book’s total. But what about when they reach 25% or more?
There is one big new entrant coming to the ebook game and that’s Google. With the industry (including Google) other than Amazon coalescing around the epub standard, one can see another change in the wind coming. Google has already created a huge challenge to Amazon by making a million titles available in the epub format which Amazon would have to convert to their proprietary code in order to offer on Kindle. (These titles are public domain and the free epub code offered by Google should minimize that conversion cost, but a million times anything amounts to a lot and, whatever it costs, it won’t happen instantaneously.)
Setting up new arrangements with Google presents the next opportunity for publishers to “get it right” and to take back some semblance of control over the products they publish and sell. But Google won’t want to be buying at lower discounts than everybody else and they won’t want to be selling at higher prices than everybody else either.
There are some hard negotiations ahead on the ebook front.