When I did my two recent posts on ebook pricing — first one proposing “debut pricing” and then one taking it back as not viable — I got a note from a major company CEO saying that, of course, no publisher could discuss pricing with me because of anti-trust concerns. At the same time, I have been trying to staff a panel for Digital Book World on ebook pricing and was told by one of my Board of Advisors, who is from another of the big companies, that I shouldn’t expect any publisher to be able to discuss that issue.
So it was mildly refreshing to see that Arnaud Nourry, the global CEO for Hachette Books, expressed some pretty strong opinions about ebook pricing to the Financial Times in an interview. Nourry said publicly what I have only heard expressed privately before: that the aggressive pricing by ebook retailers (led by Amazon) where they actually sold ebooks at a loss could come to no good end.
On Amazon’s current policy of selling many high-profile new releases at $9.99, FT quoted Nourry as saying: “That cannot last . . . Amazon is not in the business of losing money. So, one day, they are going to come to the publishers and say: ‘by the way, we are cutting the price we pay’. If that happens, after paying the authors, there will be nothing left for the publishers.”
Nourry also expresses concern about the reported one million public domain titles that Google is releasing as free ebooks. Although the article is wrong in its reporting that Amazon charges $9.99 “for all its e-books in the US” (Michael Cader has reported several times that many are higher than that and, of course, many are also lower), we can understand Nourry’s expressed concern that “all the rest will have to be sold at between zero and $9.99.”
I agree with Nourry’s characterization of the present condition as unhealthy and threatening, but I think things look a little better for him and his fellow large publishers than his comments would suggest. And as powerful as Amazon’s position in, there is reason to believe it is at a high-water mark in the ebook marketplace and that, at the very moment Barnes & Noble is stepping up, the conditions are perfect for a competitor.
The downward pressure on ebook prices has been apparent for some time. I reported that John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, said at a panel discussion for agents (I was one of the panelists) several months ago that maintaining ebook margins was the key strategic concern for publishers over the next few years. Since Sargent made that statement, very shortly after the announcement of Kindle 2 and Kindle DX, we’ve had a reported surge in ebook sales, a host of new reader and retailer announcements, and the further entrenchment of the epub standard. These, combined with B&N’s entry into the market, are good news for publishers.
Epub is probably the publishers’ best defense against Amazon and the Kindle. With all other device manufacturers able to coalesce around a non-Amazon standard, we have a situation analogous to the VHS-Beta conflict of the 1980s and the Mac-Windows duke-out of the late 80s and early 90s. On one side, we have a standard that remains closed to enable “control” (Beta, Mac, Kindle.) On the other side, we have a wide-open standard to enable multi-player use (VHS, Windows, Epub.) In the two cases we know about because they are historical, the consensus was that the “loser” of the numbers race (Beta and Mac) provided a superior technological performance. Kindle does not seem to have even that element in its favor. Whether you use something larger that does e-ink (Kindle, Sony Reader) or something you’re carrying anyway that is backlit (the iPhone or any other smartphone) is a matter of personal preference. But does anybody doubt that a world full of hardware creators will soon make a device that is similar but demonstrably better than the Kindle?
Right now, Amazon has a huge head start on the narrative-reading consumer ebook market. By putting Kindles into the hands of (estimates are) 1 to 1.5 million of the heaviest book consumers, they jump-started ebook uptake and grabbed a huge lead in sales. Anecdotal information gathered from publishers and agents suggests to me that, right now, 70% of the ebook sales for most titles offered in Kindle and epub are Kindle. And a lot are still sold as pdf.
But Google just put a huge thumb on the scale by making one million public domain titles available in epub for free! Those can’t be read on a Kindle without a little bit of technological bridge-building. On the one hand, if Amazon makes that bridge-building transparent and shows that it is easy for people to load epub titles on the Kindle, they compromise the whole Kindle business model. But the perception of choice — and the relative number of titles that will show up under any consumer’s search — is attacking what has been one of Kindle’s greatest advantages: a bigger title selection.
Amazon made what looked from here like a major concession last winter when they released an iPhone app for Kindle. I am hesitant to read too much into my own behavior, but that was the catalyst for me to give my Kindle to my wife and do all my reading on my iPhone. So it was easy for me to switch over to B&N when they came back into the marketplace a month or two ago. And, you know what? The shopping experience is just as good as Kindle. My wife may buy Kindle books again, but I won’t. (The Kindle on iPhone mimics the worst fault of Kindle’s presentation on the device itself: it only presents justified lines, no ragged right!)
Of course, all this means that the blades and razors strategy is going too. When Sony launched the reader, it looked for all the world like they figured they’d make their money selling the books. That was Palm’s idea too nearly a decade ago. Amazon blew them away because they were real booksellers, which they parlayed into both more title availability (they had the contacts) and a better presentation.
It will be a big surprise to me if B&N and Indigo’s Shortcovers don’t rapidly become the dominant horizontal purveyors of epub-formatted titles. And every web site and blogger will sell ebooks in their niche (why not?) which will include offerings that might not make the full-line distribution system. The next question is how long it will take Amazon to start selling epub titles as aggressively as they sell Kindle and print books. Or make Kindle transparently epub-compliant, which amounts to the same thing. They’ll need to do one of the other to protect their overall franchise, but it might mean the end of a meteoric Kindle era (remember the Commodore 64?) when they do.
Oh, and one note on all that to Mr. Nourry. If I’m right about the overall situation, don’t worry about Amazon telling you they need more margin. Because they’re going to need your titles fully as much as you need their sales. Expect to start seeing movement on this first from the smaller publishers, some of which report that they have been pushed into relatively low-margin deals by Amazon. There will be competition among epub vendors; they’ll all want to have the biggest number of titles (and accept the challenge of curating and presenting that.) If you can get higher revenues by 25% or more in one channel, might you be tempted to try to “force” consumers to buy it there by withholding from the lower margin channel? You’d surely be tempted.