It was just about two years ago that I appeared on a panel at a meeting of agents with, among others, Macmillan CEO John Sargent and Sargent made the point that maintaining ebook pricing and margins was one of the critical challenges facing publishers. Ebook sales were still hovering around one percent of the business. Or maybe two. Nowhere near five. Sargent was prescient.
It was about six months ago that I did a couple of posts on direct marketing techniques. I engaged a publishing friend named Neal Goff, whose background is mostly outside of trade books, to help me with those. I had him walk me through some fundamentals because I didn’t know them and, I feared, neither did the trade houses that were now — because of agency — required to set prices on their own books without the requisite expertise.
It was only last week that Random House announced it was shifting to agency pricing and I said I hoped they would be more ambitious about experimentation with price than their competitors in the arena had been.
All of these thoughts came together for me when I read this post on CNET that has two real wake-up calls in it for the big publishers.
One they are increasingly aware of: very cheap ebooks are selling very well and, with at least two major bestseller lists (The New York Times and USA Today) now counting ebook sales in units for their rankings, there is a real threat that the established business at established price points could be chased from the biggest market-maker there is. (It is important to note that the Times and USA Today methodologies are still a bit opaque and it is not clear how lower-price books are weighted. Some clear successes in the low-price realm haven’t shown up yet.)
The other point is more subtle. Individuals and little publishers are fiddling with price in ways to maximize bestseller positioning and revenues. The rules are complicated. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have programs that reward pricing above $2.99 by paying higher royalties. But it would certainly appear that there are many consumers who are limiting their shopping for ebooks to those that cost 99 cents or below. So some authors have learned that cutting their price increases unit sales to put them on a bestseller list, then raising their price results in more revenue. Apparently one very useful strategy for revenue maximization is to shuttle between prices.
The point that “cutting price boosts sales” isn’t exactly surprising, and it also isn’t exactly news. J.A. Konrath, perhaps the first established author to really start raking in shekels self-publishing through Amazon, has been experimenting with pricing and proving this point for a long time. Konrath’s data was charted for clarity by blogger Dave Slusher a few months ago. Konrath’s work and Slusher’s analysis of it further emphasizes the central point Neal Goff made to us. Experimentation matters. (Neal called it “testing.”)
Another author has demonstrated that cutting price is important, and promoting lower prices is also important.
Although I have heard one major publishing CEO suggest that the house is doing some fiddling with pricing, there was no suggestion there of controlled and monitored experimentation. And I believe it is safe to say, without doing any research, that no major publisher is doing that on a consistent and persistent basis, let alone algorithmically-programmed price management such as the major ebook retailers almost certainly do.
There is another hugely ironic point buried in the CNET story. It is built around the work of an author named Christopher Smith, who has mastered the shuttle-pricing technique. Turns out Smith has a new fan named Stephen King. King, of course, has not only published successfully with major houses for decades, he was one of the first great ebook experimenters around the turn of the century when he tried to do author-direct publishing of ebooks before there was a market. King’s blurb for Smith has been very helpful to the lesser-known, lower-priced author.
Might Smith return the favor for King by teaching him the revenue-maximization techniques he’s developed so King can get back into the self-publishing experimentation game? I think that possibility encapsulates the major publishers’ biggest nightmare. Publishers are going to have a devil of a time defending their 25% royalty rate into the future, which just feels intuitively unfair to authors. They can get away with it for the time being because print sales still matter. But they won’t for long and if publishers don’t use their scale to do a better job managing dynamic pricing to extract the maximum revenue from ebook sales than an author might do on his or her own, the challenge of retaining their top talent will become even more difficult.
There is a reasonable suggestion that publishers should be making in a hurry about bestseller lists in the ebook era. In print, books are separated by format (hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market) by The Times and identified by format by USA Today so that apples-to-apples comparisons are possible for consumers. It is really a stacked deck to rank on unit sales alone any book at 99 cents and Ken Follett’s bestseller “Fall of Giants” at $19.99. Format in print creates a reasonable proxy for price. I think price-tiered bestseller lists would be a stretch, but going to the movie studio “box office” concept would not. Publishers, while they still have clout as advertisers in media that promote bestseller lists, should suggest a “units times price” ranking as one that provides a more useful comparison for many consumers.