Three weeks ago, the community had a big discussion about the timing of ebook releases which was triggered by Dominique Raccah’s announcement that Sourcebooks would hold back the ebook of Bran Hambric for some period after the hardcover release. The expressed concern was to insulate the $28.95 hardcover from the price competition currently taking place in the ebook space, where Amazon has started working to establish a $9.99 retail price for new commercial titles, forcing BN.com to match them.
This post doesn’t quarrel with the suggestion that there’s a problem; it is a quest for a better solution.
Although Amazon has pushed some smaller publishers to a different discount structure, the established commercial houses usually sell ebooks to retailers at about 50% off the publisher’s retail price, about the same terms they have established for print books. But ebooks, title for title, add more margin (i.e. profit) to the publisher at the same net revenue because the books don’t have to be manufactured and shipped and there is also no cost of returns. (They would also generate more margin for the stores than print books if they the stores sold them at the same price as the print book, but, as I pointed out in an earlier post, under current practices, they never will.)
Both my “current commercial” and “futurist” instincts say that cutting off the ebook market from purchase at the time the book comes out, is being assertively marketed, and when interest is probably highest, is the wrong strategy.
There are non-pecuniary reasons for publishers to protect the print book sale. Except for the USA Today list, which records Kindle sales but no other ebooks, only print book sales are reported to determine “bestsellers.” And enlightened publishers, including Dominique Raccah, want to protect print book sales to protect brick-and-mortar stores, who are still the most important merchandising and marketing tools publishers have (even if many of them don’t know it.)
To the most avant garde digerati, who advocate eliminating DRM and pushing prices to the consumer down as the antidote to piracy (which the most conservative defenders of the old model would liken to putting a bullet in your brain as an antidote to having taken poison), keeping the book off the market to maintain higher content prices is multi-faceted anathema. Among the inevitable consequences of this, they would tell you, is that there will be more pirated editions available and otherwise-inclined-to-be-honest consumers will be “forced” to the pirate editions because a legitimate ebook edition is not available.
I am not a 100%-no-DRM guy. (Actually, I’m a nearly-100%-social-DRM guy.) And while I believe that the price of content is in an inexorably downward spiral, to the point that the day will come some years from now that it won’t be much of a business to control and sell it, I also believe publishers (and authors) need to preserve content margins as effectively as they can for as long as they can to finance the transition to the new publishing economy where eyeballs and human bandwidth, not IP, are the currency of the realm.
I was surprised recently when a Very Smart Friend defended the Sourcebooks strategy by saying, in effect, “what’s so special about the ebook consumer? The paperback reader waits for the book to get it cheaper; why not have the ebook reader wait for the book to get it cheaper?” My argument that the ebook readers and print book readers are two separate markets carried no weight. First of all, there’s also a split between paperback readers and hardcover readers. But also, my debate opponent simply didn’t buy my paradigm, and frankly, it is currently unprovable.
But I still find the Sourcebooks solution very unsatisfying. I think it hurts the overall sale of the book and the profits of both publisher and author in the long run. Although I think the impact is marginal, I have to agree that ebook readers will more frequently obtain a pirated edition if no legitimate edition is available. And it is “unnatural”. The publisher’s job is to get the author’s work in front of as many paying eyeballs as possible and to generate as much revenue as possible in the process. This strategy works against those objectives.
So here’s another solution, one that:
1. Allows the publisher to sell the ebook at the same time as the print book;
2. Makes it much harder for retailers to discount the ebook way below the print book price; and,
3. Increases the profit to the publisher and author on every ebook sold.
For the first six months of a hot new book’s life, publishers should establish “debut pricing”: reducing the discount at which they are sold to the trade to 20%. And, at the same time, the publishers should sell these ebooks as digital downloads from their own site at full retail price. After the early “debut pricing” period, the discounts are restored to normal, but the publisher’s own site should still continue to sell at full retail (except as part of bundle or subscription offers, of course.)
In the Bran Hambric example, where the book is $28.95, let’s say the ebook were priced at $26.95. Then a retailer (Amazon) buying at 50% off would pay Sourcebooks $13.475 per copy and have to take a hit of $3.485 per copy to sell the book at $9.99. But under my suggestion above, the retailer would be paying $21.56 per copy for the book and the cost of subsidy would jump to $11.57 a copy. That’s more than 3.3 times the amount per copy in the cost to the retailer to support the $9.99 price.
The math for impact on the publisher and author is a bit more complicated. How much additional profit over print books this would represent depends on what the print books cost to manufacture and what the split of revenue is between publisher and author. But it is likely that a change to this policy would mean that each ebook sold would generate more than twice as much profit to the publisher as a printed book for the period of “debut pricing” discounting.
“Debut pricing ” is not a tactic that will work forever. We’re going to see accelerating change in the way ebook publishing works, including enhanced editions subsequent to the first one that will differentiate the ebook from the print book as we proceed into the digital age. But for the next couple of years, as we start to see ebooks take more and more share from print, this is a way for publishers to keep the pricing of ebooks closer to print books and earn more profits, for themselves and for their authors, at the same time.