In a post last week we reviewed what Sourcebook CEO Dominque Raccah did — announcing she was holding back the ebook publication of a new hardcover YA novel coming this September — and why she said she did it. Over the weekend, we posted about what we see as the four stages of ebook adoption. Today we will examine how one ebook stakeholder — the publisher — is affected by the change from a no-ebook world 10 years ago to what will be a largely- (if not mostly-) ebook world 10 years from now.
The first stage of ebook adoption, which we called “vision”, ended with the appearance of the Kindle. In that period of roughly 10 years, ebooks found early adopters who read them on PCs and handheld PDAs. The dedicated ebook devices introduced early in the vision period (Rocketbook and Softbook) went nowhere. The Sony Reader came along at the end of the vision period. It is an e-ink device quite similar in size to the Kindle 1 and 2, but without two critical components that gave Kindle an edge: a much larger body of titles to choose from and direct connectivity from the device to the source of the titles. There were other advantages Kindle had (the massive Amazon online book-buying audience) and that they presented (the built-in dictionary), but the title selection and connectivity were key.
Amazon quickly added a third advantage: the price of the books in the Kindle store went way lower than anybody expected because Amazon was willing to sell the individual titles at a loss to grow the market for the devices. The net effect was to propel ebook adoption from the vision stage to the establishment stage, which is where we are now.
Ebooks were not a priority concern to publishers at the time the Kindle came out. There had been too many false alarms. In 2000, both Arthur Andersen and Forrester Research offered projections for a multi-billion dollar ebook market which was to appear by 2005. Nothing close to that happened. In the vision stage, only the visionaries cared, inside the publishing houses and among the readers. Sales grew in fits and starts but when the Kindle came out were still well under 1% of units or dollars for every major trade publisher.
Because the dollars weren’t big, business decisions were not hard-fought and probably not well thought out. Publishers used the retail price of the prevailing print edition as their benchmark, with most setting the ebook price at nearly that level. After some turn-of-the-century feelgood talk about 50-50 splits with authors, royalties settled at about 25% of net or 15% of publisher suggested retail. Agents accepted it, at least partly because, whatever the percentage, there wasn’t enough ebook revenue at stake to be worth fighting a publisher offering an attractive print book deal.
It should be noted that the big accomplishment of the vision stage was the creation of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) and the creation of the epub standard, which drives most ebooks today with the exception of Kindle, which Amazon keeps in their own special flavor of mobipocket format, and ScrollMotion, where the content comes embedded in the company’s proprietary app.
There was very little thinking necessary about the ebook’s impact on the sales of the printed book because ebook uptake was so limited. In fact, there became a growing body of evidence that giving away the ebook would stimulate sales of the printed book. Lost in the thrill of that discovery was the likely underlying reason: people didn’t want to read ebooks so when they were given something digitally that they started reading and liked, they’d buy the printed version to finish it. Now that we’ve moved from the “vision” stage where most people don’t read on screens to the “establishment” stage when many do, we’re likely to find the stimulative effect of ebook giveaways will be diluted, if not eliminated.
Another fact that made little difference in the vision stage but matters more and more now is that ebook sales are not reported to the bestseller list. So even if ebook availability (at Amazon’s much lower price) only cannibalizes a fraction of printed book sales, it could affect a book’s bestseller chances or placement.
Since the actual profits from ebook units are higher than they are for print books if the publisher price is the same (unless the publisher has cut an unusually generous deal with the author for royalties), this decision by Sourcebooks — which is being watched and contemplated by other publishers — must be motivated by something more complex than the publisher’s profit per unit sold.
In PublishersLunch, Michael Cader reviewed this decision and seemed to suggest that it was largely about taming the Amazon beast. I seldom disagree with Cader, but I don’t buy that argument in this particular case. It would take a very foolish publisher to publicly stick their thumb in Amazon’s eye (and Dominique Raccah is not foolish). And a one-off experiment of this kind does not seem like an approach that would affect Amazon much one way or the other.
What Dominique said in her post was that she didn’t want aggressive ebook pricing to devalue the high-priced hardcover. She believes that higher-priced editions are critical for the publisher and the author to maximize revenues so she prefers to slot ebooks into a “staged release” strategy resembling what publishing has done (hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback) and what Hollywood has done (theatrical release then DVD.)
Before we evaluate that idea, let’s look ahead to the further stages of ebook adoption. In the current establishment stage, we can expect the number of ebook channels and vendors to proliferate. In that environment, the resellers will do everything they can to keep prices down. They will subsidize individual product sales from device margins or anticipated longtime customer value. If Amazon is willing to swallow a hit of two or three bucks a unit with virtually no competion, what will they do now that B&N and soon Indigo also have devices? B&N has announced that they will match Amazon’s $9.99 flagship price and they are clearly charting a course of appealing to all devices (insofar as they can) with their ebook store. And B&N content will power another device competitor, Plastic Logic, in early 2010.
This period of loss-creating discounting by retailers won’t last forever, but it will last until the market stablizes, which will take several years. While that happens, the number of ebook points of purchase for the consumer will mushroom, which is good news for publishers. At the same time, propositions like Scribd and Smashwords will disrupt the in-supply-chain pricing; Scribd offers publishers 80% of retail and Smashwords pays 85%. As the devices proliferate, so will the tools to make it easy to put ebooks from those sources on the devices. If Amazon has disrupted the publishers’ hopes of controlling ebook pricing, might not Scribd and Smashwords disrupt the retailers who took away that control?
Evan Schnittman makes the point that holding back the ebook has consequences. It dilutes the impact of the publisher’s marketing efforts. It could encourage piracy. Evan’s solution is an introductory promotional price that is raised when initial demand has ebbed and he has a notion (which I don’t quite understand) of how publishers can get retailers to collaborate on that. I don’t think that’s the answer. First of all: it strikes me as backwards. The ebook price should be a dollar more than the print book for the 3 weeks or so before the print book comes out when an ebook could be available. Then it should be the same as the print book for the first couple of months so that it doesn’t disturb the bestseller list possibilities. Then it should drop sharply to reflect the lower cost (to publisher and retailer) of providing ebooks.
Now that’s a great theory I just posited; unfortunately there is no way to implement it. All retailers will try to beat each other on price and ebooks constitute a much less expensive place for them to subidize a low-price perception than print.
Sourcebooks — any publisher — wants to maximize revenue for themselves and for their author. To the extent that Sourcebooks can preserve hardcover bestseller status by holding back the ebook, it makes sense to do it. But beyond that, it doesn’t. Retailers selling at a loss are good for the revenue of publishers; it is their margin they are giving away to increase sales for everybody. Would Sourcebooks, or any publisher, refuse to make a book available to a price club or mass merchant because they’d sell at a deep discount? I’m not aware of one that ever did.
If I were Amazon, I’d enlist 10 publishers to try selling their ebook 10 days before the printed book was on sale and use the data to prove (most likely) that the digital head start propels early print sales. Seems at least as likely to me than that early or simultaneous release of the digital version reduces them.
Aside from the new ebook device and retailing entrants we can expect in the next few months, another flashpoint will arrive when publishers start to sell digital downloads themselves, which all of them will by a year or two from now. The discounts publishers offer and the price war among retailers will put publishers in an extremely difficult position. When publishers sell their books at a discount (which they will absolutely have to do), retailers will be knocking at their virtual door saying “I thought my discount was off your price. I want my discount off the price you really sell at, not the price you made up that nobody sells at!” And that’s when the publishers who hadn’t seen it earlier will know that the discount structure has to change.
In the next post on this subject, we’ll look at what other stakeholders have to look forward to as ebook adoption continues. And we’ll see another reason why the publisher-to-retailer discounts will come under pressure: authors will be demanding, and getting, a bigger piece of the ebook pie.