The majority of my fiction recommendations come from my father, a retired literature professor. He recently suggested that The Time in Between by the Spanish author Maria Dueñas was a worthwhile read, and so I scurried online to check it out. It’s available as an ebook at $12.99. That’s an agency price; the book is published in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster. I didn’t purchase it; digital books beyond $10.00 are generally unacceptable to me. (My partner bought a copy of the title in Spanish, El Tiempo entre costuras, for $9.99 for the Kindle; this edition is not distributed by Simon & Schuster).
There’s a backdrop to this story, as I did wind up getting the book another way. Both my father and I (as his digital tech support) are moving from Sony Reader to another platform for various reasons; my father was happy with his Sony device but it is breaking down. That’s a hard decision for me, because I am supportive of open standards; have labored for an open competitive marketplace in ebooks; and have served as a board member of the IDPF, which is responsible for EPUB and EPUB3, the dominant open standard for ebooks.
But as a consumer, I have to think about where my books are coming from and under what terms. No corporation works for me – they work for investors and shareholders – but sometimes interests more or less align. Amazon wants to sell things; the more things the better. Part of their strategy includes providing great customer service; putting downward pressure on prices; and generally providing an increasing number of services through the Amazon Prime subscription offering. That works for me; Amazon has my back as a consumer, at least for now. I would dearly love them to have a meaningful competitor, but that’s largely a longer term worry.
But Amazon can’t set pricing for titles from agency publishers, and I didn’t buy a copy of Time in Between for the Kindle – the book was muy caro. And, although my father is going to be moving with me to Kindle, he had already bought a copy on Sony. Since I am backing up all of his purchases on his behalf, I decided to read his Sony copy before retiring his device for good. What does that mean for Simon & Schuster? Lost sale. What it means for Maria Dueñas is less revenue.
When I heard that Amazon had decided to pull buy access away from Independent Publishers Group (IPG) Kindle titles in an attempt to get better terms, I assume that those better terms, if achieved, would ultimately be reflected in lower prices. Indeed, IPG has publicly lamented that they find it difficult to sell digital titles for less than $10.00 given their current cost structures. Yet as Jane Litte has observed, IPG is not offering anything in exchange to Kindle customers to convince us that the IPG strategy is better for me, as a consumer. In this case, my response is, “Go, Amazon!,” because as a consumer, I want a market that doesn’t treat digital books as the most holy manifestation of creative art ever conceived.
Some commentators have suggested that agency publishers seeking to keep ebook prices high are acting in their self-interest because the “price per read” is inevitably going downward. Higher ebook prices may retard the growth of ebook acceptance, preserving a larger relative share of print revenue, and thus granting larger publishers time to maneuver themselves into a stronger digital position.
But interests are not aligning well right now, and it is not just between publishers and libraries. Because we are living through a moment of a deep technologically-driven social transition, there’s much more conflict between all the sectors in the book economy. Previously stable organizational dynamics have been disrupted and outcomes are hard to predict. As Frédéric Filloux states in his Monday Note on ebooks, “The Giant Disruption“: “In less than a year, the ground has shifted in ways the players didn’t foresee. This caused the unraveling of the book publishing industry, disrupting key components of the food chain such as deal structures and distribution arrangements.”
For readers, high price points for ebooks might drive them to a library, except that publishers have withheld titles from libraries. Therefore, some readers might turn to pirated digital editions; others might turn to other forms of entertainment; others find cheaper books on Amazon. It has a dark beauty: through the combination of usurious pricing strategies and their undeclared war on libraries, the largest publishers have unerringly drawn their customers – readers with whom they’ve never cared to have a direct relationship – closer into the arms of the retailer whose market power and influence they most fear – Amazon. So much for a strategy of self-interest.
Many publishers and distributors must see themselves in a light quite different than the one Jeff Bezos casts on Amazon. Amazon is not merely seeking lucre for its balance sheet; it boosts its profits by delivering a positive consumer experience, because that is its uniquely competitive edge. As a consumer, that makes me a friend of Amazon. And, because publishers are not working in alignment with my interests, their marketplace goals have moved into conflict with mine. Maybe publishers have decided that pitting digital readers against their revenue goals is an acceptable trade-off. It doesn’t work for me; I didn’t buy a book today.