Michael Cader did a brilliant analysis of Thursday’s New York Times piece on ebook pricing, published exclusively for paid subscribers to Publishers Lunch. The Times piece’s shortcoming was that it tended to sensationalize the news that the prices the public will pay for current brand-name ebooks will be going up. If you observe the book business for fun, you can perhaps afford not to have access to content like Michael’s analysis. But if you’re in it for a living and you want to seriously keep up with what’s going on, I suggest you save $20 somehow on other publications each month and reinvest it in a Publishers Marketplace membership. I am not the only blogger moved to make this suggestion by this piece.
I am working under the rash assumption that Cader will not sue me for quoting his remarks without regard to fair use limitations (particularly after the commercial in that first paragraph.) Of course, I do my best to add some Shatzkin Files value to my quotes and paraphrases as well.
Michael’s overall point, as I read it (and these are my words, not his): “we in the business know what’s going on with ebook pricing; apparently reporters outside the business do not. And therefore a great deal of misunderstanding is circulated among the book-buying public and it behooves the trade publishing community to get the word out to make sure that the public understands what’s really behind what they pay for ebooks.”
His device to illustrate this point is to describe some common misunderstandings fostered by the Times piece — all of which are real misunderstandings and none of which are just convenient straw horses — and knock them down.
Frankly, it is only the overall point on which I’m not sure I agree. I am not convinced it makes much difference whether we push the “truth” out or not. Amazon’s recent “concession” statement over the Macmillan dust-up tried to channel potential consumer anger at Macmillan and away from them. That’s an effort that is bound to fail. Everybody who buys from Amazon knows that they’re buying from Amazon. On the other hand, “Macmillan” is not an active book imprint at the moment in the United States. The books the corporation called Macmillan puts out are under the imprints St. Martin’s, Farrar Straus, and Holt, and their subsidiary imprints. My wife found the Macmillan Dictionary for Children online and that book is published by Simon & Schuster! So good luck to Amazon trying to get the consumer to punish a corporate entity whose name isn’t on the cover of its books.
But the myths Cader describes are ubiquitous misunderstandings and they were clearly promoted in the Times piece. As Michael describes them (in italics):
* $9.99 never was the top e-book price; people pay more than that every day.
The Times piece makes a big deal out of consumer expectations of the $9.99 price. Cader points out that recent data from the ebook retailer Kobo described at Digital Book World — which shows that at Kobo they sell as many books for more than $9.99 as they do for exactly $9.99 — and Amazon’s own data undercut that notion. Cader says surveys of Amazon data have shown that 30% of the SKUs are priced higher than $9.99.
I have been told directly by a responsible person at Amazon that 4% of the titles they sell are deep-discounted to $9.99 and those represent 25% of the total sales. Of the other 75% of the sales, many (most) are less than $9.99 without necessarily deep-discounting, according to Cader, 30% are more. I have personally bought many Kindle books for more than $9.99 and some for more than $14.99.
But what I’d see as the biggest fallacy in this whole “customer expectations” meme was not mentioned by Cader. So far we have a relatively small percentage of book readers who have ever purchased an ebook at all! General consumer expectations can not be set by a sliver of the group who are early adapters. In fact, publishers are being smart precisely because they are tackling this consumer pricing problem before the market really does become general and a large population of book readers do have experience with the current price structure.
* The implicit, false promise of cheap e-books was made by the people who profit, at very nice margins, from selling the devices, not from publishers.
This is true for the $9.99 books offered by Amazon and Sony and, now, Barnes & Noble. Other etailers, like Kobo or B&N before the Nook, were offering that same price to keep up with (keep down with?) Amazon. But the central point is right. Amazon created the expectation of $9.99 pricing to sell readers; publishers didn’t create it to sell books!
The two companies most likely to save publishers from an Amazon stranglehold on their future general readership, Apple and Google, would also place “margin from ebook sales” very low on their list of objectives for participation in the ebook supply chain.
If the market really could stabilize with three or more reliable paths to the general ebook consumer, with price competition among the content, but not price-competition driven by external forces, it would be one of the most important strategic accomplishments of the current generation of publishing management, to whatever degree their policies enabled it to happen.
* Brand-new ebooks sold at $9.99 are generally sold at a loss by the retailer.
And, as Cader goes on to point out, this is led by a retailer with a $50 billion market cap with an implicit expectation that it will drive smaller retailers out of the game. Publishers are taking the steps they are explicitly to encourage a more diverse marketplace. So, Mr. and Ms. Consumer, whose side are you on?
* People who can afford an ereading device can afford all proposed ebook prices.
Cader is making the point that conscientious reporters should make put price complaints into context. I’d personally dwell more on the “dog bites man” aspect of reporting that people favor lower prices. Has anybody ever found a consumer who favored higher prices? Has anybody ever found anybody who would prefer to pay more for anything they buy? From here it would seem that all reports of what people say they want to pay or say they would pay in some hypothetical circumstances are pretty much meaningless. Michael says “put them in context.” I really wonder whether this kind of senselessly speculative commentary ought to be reported at all!
* Publishers are lowering [my emphasis] their ebook prices.
Cader captures the massive irony of what is going on here with this one. From reading this piece or from reading Amazon’s note to Macmillan, you’d get the impression that “greedy” publishers are “raising” ebook prices. That’s not actually the case. The publishers going to the Agency model are actually reducing their price per unit sold; they’re just insisting that booksellers not sell those books as loss leaders. As Cader put it, “we in the trade know that publishers are preparing to lower their ebook prices by 50 percent or more, and reduce their own profit margins. But customers don’t; they hear that publishers are raising prices.”
* The new “top price” is going to be $12.99 more often than not.
The public reporting is that the Agency-priced books from Apple will be $12.99 and $14.99, with no additional detail. Cader seems to know that most, or at least a large number, of those books will be at the lower of those two prices. Undoubtedly, some people will refuse a book they want to read on a device they paid over $200 for because of a $5 difference in price ($14.99) from their prior expectation ($9.99). But somewhat fewer will be reluctant at $12.99, which is where the price will apparently be a great deal of the time. Certainly, nobody writing for a newspaper knows the future balance between those two price points.
* Surveys show many people will pay more than $9.99 for ebooks.
Cader points out (and my personal repeated experience confirms) that people often do pay more than $9.99 now, even according to the stats we’ve seen. But what he doesn’t point out, so I will, is that those stats are stacked! Amazon prices all the hottest and most desireable books at $9.99, and therefore so does Kobo and other Amazon competitors. So the clustering of consumer purchasing around that price is largely driven by the appeal of the product at that price point.
That is: people bought the book, not the price!
* Goldman Sachs says ebook prices are not the biggest factor in purchasing a device–but expensive devices are an obstacle.
This is from a survey that Cader has seen and I have not. But the point is that portability is the main benefit consumers see in ebook devices, with price running second and ease of purchase nearly even with price as a perceived benefit. Ebook purchase decisions are not made on price alone.
What this data also would tell us is that ebook reading is going to spread because the price of devices is coming down and the circulation of ebook-able devices, smartphones and iPads, is increasing regardless of dedicated reader prices.
* Publishers have rewarded and honored early ereader adopters with a lot of free book giveaways, and some very inexpensive price promotions.
Much has been made in other places (not in the Times piece and not in Cader’s report) of the fact that the Kindle “bestseller list” contains a lot of free or almost-free books. Some of those are public domain titles, but many are not. Those that aren’t are provided by publishers as promotions, usually an offer of an older book by a multi-title author who has a new one just out. Does any retailer billboard the publishers who “have made books available for you for free?” Not that I’ve ever seen.
I do believe that the price of content will be driven down over time because of the laws of supply and demand. The amount of content being made available every day is staggering. However, the established publishing companies still have pretty much a monopoly position on curating and branding it. Curating and branding save consumers an enormous amount of time and effort; that’s why they are willing to pay for them. Publishers and the authors whose brands they are enhancing and maxmizing are operating in an increasingly competitive world, but they are both totally sensible and totally unremarkable in trying to maximize the rewards for their efforts.