This subject has become my hobby horse lately. While we’ve got it out, I might as well ride it until I get splinters in my butt.
One of the rationalizations from the Big 5 publishers who are doing agency pricing with the ebook editions of their books was that “they would be able to better respond to the marketplace and adjust prices accordingly.” Macmillan’s John Sargent, he of the opposing side of the infamous Amazon delisting crisis of 2010, made a post to his blog that included this paragraph:
For physical books, the majority of new release hardcovers are published in cheaper paperback versions over time. We will mirror this price reduction in the digital world. It is too early to estimate the timing of the price reductions for those cases in which we do not issue a paperback edition. If we do issue a paperback, we will drop the digital price to $9.99 or lower at publication date (if not before). The price differential between the book and the e-book will become smaller at the lower price points.
That sounds great, if it were actually to be happen. My faith in that was close to zero. One of my takeaways of the whole struggle as someone totally on the outside is that the publishers wanted more control of the retail experience in the case of ebooks, and that this probably was going to end poorly for them. My take was and is that publishers think they understand their customers, but in fact have spent the 20th century isolating themselves from them through the layers of distribution. (For writers, add one step further away from the endpoint of the customer.) Their self-image of an industry is that they understand the customer and have a relationship with them, but in practice they don’t. Here’s an example – suppose Macmillan wanted to get in touch with people who have purchased a Macmillan book in the last year and offer them special deals. Could they do that? No? OK then. Could Amazon or Barnes and Noble? To some extent they could, the latter if you were a B&N club member I’m guessing and the former for books bought through them. The publishers, not so much.
Here’s another concrete example of price policy gone awry, since I’m enjoying presenting these. I’ve been a fan of Max Allan Collins since I was 12 years old and he was writing the Dick Tracy comic strip. His mystery novels are some of my comfort reading – not high art but they don’t have to be. I just enjoy them. I happened to notice that his novel A Killing in Comics is available on Kindle at the price of $11.99. This is a book that was published in 2007. Worse than that, I bought a paper copy in remainders for $2.99 right at two years ago. Whatever it’s reasonable print life might be, that is over enough that the publisher sold it to a book discounter for less than a quarter on the dollar yet at time of this posting the ebook is still priced at $11.99. Now, this book is Penguin so I’m not blaming Sargent or his organization directly as responsible for this particular instance. I am pointing out that agency pricing was sold by the big publishers as A Thing That Will Happen and It Might Smell Like Medicine But Is Good For You, You Fussy Children AKA “our customers.” It doesn’t take too many of these examples where I begin to build a brand contempt for the companies who claim they are ultimately helping me while clearly price gouging me.
I never believed Sargent’s statement because I doubt anyone at these publishing houses 1) cares much about lowering prices 2) is getting paid to lower prices of books or even make sure they are appropriate with the lifecycle of the print version or 3) even have that much control over their catalog. If I hazarded a guess as an uniformed outsider, they splat it out there and then generally leave it for all but the most high profile writers. The midlist writers like Collins probably don’t get a lot of attention in that process.
One of the big debates is “if books are self-published how do I know they aren’t crap?” Well, big publisher books can also be crap and the Kindle version can cost four times what a lot of the self-published books are. Maybe you come out to the good by getting four rolls of the dice for your money. That’s why the sample was invented.