I hope it is a mistaken impression — it certainly isn’t scientifically arrived at — but I have the feeling that there is widespread sentiment among self-published writers opposing publishers’ attempts through the agency model to keep ebook prices up. I have said before that I think agency pricing has, in many ways, saved the ebook business from monopoly control by its strongest retailer. Today I want to posit another virtue of the model: that it boosts the revenue of all writers, whether they are published by an agency publisher or working entirely on their own.
When some workers are in a union and others who can do a similar job are not, bad feelings can arise. The union workers fight to keep wages and benefits up and they use the power of the union to express a workers’ point of view about conditions on the job. And they see workers who are willing to do the same job for less as “scabs”. Inherent in that view is the belief that agreeing to work for less undermines the objectives of the union (which the union workers pay for through dues, of course) and the opinions people hold readily take on the coloration of moral positions, not just commercially-motivated ones.
From the point of view of the non-union worker, of course, a job is a job and a wage is a wage. Union membership might not be open to them anyway, for any number of reasons, and, even if it were, the cost-benefit relationship between the union dues and the wages and working conditions might not look like an attractive bargain. For example, union benefits that deliver advantages through seniority might not be much of an attraction to somebody who doesn’t expect to stay in the job or the area for a long time.
Another aspect of this is that the unions’ ability to bargain for workers raises the costs of production for management which raises prices for everybody. The unionized workers, benefiting directly from the higher costs, may either not notice that point or not care. The workers outside the union, unemployed or less gainfully employed, might well care.
Unionized workers and union officials would argue, and I would generally agree, that the benefits the union achieves for its workers actually pull up the wages and working conditions for all workers. It might literally be more “democratic” for employers to be free to hire non-union labor and for workers to be free to take non-union jobs, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t in the vested interest of all the workers for the unions to be pushing to improve wages and working conditions in those situations they can influence.
An analogous situation is now developing among writers of books, thanks to the democratization of access for authors created by the ebook revolution.
I think of the agented authors, published by the Big Six and other major publishers, as the unionized workers. Their union management is the agent community. The structure is different that it is for auto workers in a factory or miners in a pit, but the effect is very similar. Agents control the access that major publishers have to the labor they want: the writers who can deliver the books they can most readily sell. With that control comes the ability to drive up prices and improve working conditions.
The prices — which we call advances against royalties — that publishers have to pay for agented writers is part of the industrial cost structure of publishing. And the prices that publishers are charging consumers for ebooks through the agency model are necessary to maintain revenue levels that will support the industry as it has developed over the past century.
Agented writers pay “union dues”: 15% commission to the agents. And, like a union, the opportunity to get the privilege of paying those dues is limited, not democratically distributed. But those writers get the benefits of an environment negotiated between powerful industrial capability (the publishers) and controllers of a critical labor source.
This explains a longstanding anomaly in publishing, by which the big publishers have not only been the ones paying the big advances but have also generally paid higher royalties as a percentage of the sale price than smaller ones. Smaller publishers seldom pay 15% of retail royalties, as big publishers routinely do. They’ll often ask for (and get) 50% of foreign rights revenue, which big publishers very seldom do. So the players with the leverage and the checkbooks pay more than the players without it. That shows the power of controlling the labor supply, which agents do, coupled with professional negotiating skills, which agents have.
Of course, book consumers aren’t buying a “union label”; they’re buying an author’s name, perhaps sometimes undergirded by a known publisher’s branding, or the subject or the pass-along affects of branding (reviews and notices in credible places), or the recommendation of a friend (who bought the author’s name or subject or the endorsement.)
Thanks to agency, the most obvious way to for a consumer to distinguish between the “union” books and the “non-union” books is by price. The major publishers are (generally) maintaining prices of $9.99 to $14.99 for ebooks available in print as hardcovers for two or three times that amount and then, usually, at $7.99 and up when the printed book is in paperback. The non-union books — the self-published books by authors who (again, generally) couldn’t get into the “union” — are most often available for $2.99 or less, often for as little as $0.99.
This price differential, along with it being obvious to the purchaser that the unit cost of what the consumer receives when an ebook is purchased must have been trivial, has led to pretty widespread excoriation of the pricing levels of agency books.* This should not be confused with any apparent reluctance on the consumers’ part to buy them; the biggest books in print appear to also be the biggest ebook sellers, despite the fact that the print versions have far fewer direct competitors overall and none at the great price differentials that exist for ebooks.
That those consumers who are price-consciopus see it as a matter worth protesting that their favorite author’s book is $12.99 or $14.99 when there are many books available that are superficially comparable (same genre, same length) at a fifth or a tenth of that price, is not surprising. When you meet the consumer that says “I want to pay more”, you’ll have met a breed considerably rarer than the rich person who comes out for higher taxes. (Thank you, Warren Buffett.)
But I want to argue here that all authors, including those who self-publish for $0.99 or $2.99, should be applauding the big publishers’ efforts to keep the perception of value for branded books high by keeping prices high and stopping retailer discounting. Authors should be vocally supporting price maintenance and the agency model, even if they are not “in the union”. There are several reasons for this.
1. Although the standard big publisher split of ebook revenues (75-25 in favor of the publisher) allows a self-published author to gain comparable or even greater revenue at a lower price, those are just today’s transient conditions. It will be easier for authors (through agents) in the future to improve the split than it would be for the publishers to raise prices in the future to get authors more money. If the consumer is putting more money in the pot, then there’s more to divide. The division is something to fight over; keeping prices and value perception high benefits both sides.
2. If big publishers were to sharply reduce their ebook prices, print would die much faster. That would further reduce revenues in the pool for publishers and authors as well as accelerating the disappearance of bookstores, eliminating free visibility and marketing responsible for millions of book sales.
3. If big publishers reduced their prices sharply, the key marketing distinction that fostered the discovery of such writers as Amanda Hocking and John Locke would be eliminated. On the comment stream of a blogpost I read on this subject (can’t find it so can’t link it), one person posted a string of suggestions for major publisher survival strategies that included “cut all your prices to $2.99.” Why? Because it would eliminate all the competition from the self-published riff-raff that is using price as a marketing tool. So not only would the publishers and branded authors make less money, the aspirants would find their path to success cut off as well.
(This suggestion actually makes the point that self-publishers who scream “big publishers are stupid and they should cut their prices like us” should be very careful what they wish for.)
A cost-driven print book commercial model has created a legacy business which has made consumers willing to pay $25-30 for what is for many an 8-10 hour immersive reading experience. Millions of readers conditioned this way find paying around half that price to be a great bargain. The entire mechanism by which those printed books have been selected and delivered — the aggregation and curation of the major publishers’ offerings — is depended upon by the consumers who spend all that money.
No doubt, over time this will change. The print book infrastructure, which has inventory and supply chain costs that are responsible for the pricing conventions that have developed, will not last forever. Almost certainly, books will get cheaper and cheaper. But writers will also make less money when there is less to divide, not more. All writers, whether they’re among the fortunate ones that have a publisher pushing them or whether they’re trying to do it themselves, should be grateful that publishers are doing their damnedest to maintain prices and the perception of value for writers’ work. If that segment of consumers that complains about prices finds fault with agency pricing and the publishers’ insistence that the digital discount from the highest print price be limited to about 50% at the moment, that’s understandable.
But if writers join in that bashing, I think that’s a failure of understanding and, in effect, opposition to their own self-interest.
* It would be misleading not to mention that much of the “consumer” opposition to agency-priced books has been egged on by the self-interested. That’s one way it is in the (short-term) interest of the self-published author to be vocal in opposition to agency. If you sell that as a point of “principle” to a reader, you’ve steered them away from your competition.