Sunday, April 25, 2010

Follow-up to New Yorker article on price wars - The Live Chat

This is a follow-up to the earlier blog entry about The New Yorker piece by Ken Auletta on the grand e-book pricing battles involving the Big 5 publishers,Apple, and Amazon and their strategies.
 In his The New Yorker Q&A, Auletta let us know he did not realize, when writing the article, that Apple is also bypassing publishers to work with some authors directly.

Ken Auletta had the scheduled “Ask the Author” live chat with The New Yorker readers on April 19, and the Q&A transcript gives some context indicating a bit of his own perspective on all this as well.

One thing I’d forgotten to include earlier was one interesting piece of sleuthing from the March 18 New York Times article by Motoko Rich (lead) and Brad Stone, which I've quoted from quite a bit, noting the article's word choices when reporting information straight from publisher reps who were in the middle of negotations and conveying to The New York Times their unhappiness with what they called Amazon’s “threats” to them.

  It was brought back to mind when I read Auletta’s interesting live-chat responses, one indicating he may not have seen that NYT article when he replied that
' I don’t believe that Apple is offering self-publishing services aside from people submitting apps. '

That's actually fairly important, as the thrust of the last part of The New Yorker article is how Amazon is offering authors a high royalty which "one irate publisher said,"
' was meant “to pit authors against publishers.” '

I went back to Rich’s article, remembering what she wrote about a job position that Apple had posted, noting that
' Apple is not likely to give up on smaller publishers.  A new job posting on its Web site is for an “independent publisher account manager, iBookstore.”
  The posting says the person would be “responsible for building and growing relationships with small- and medium-size book publishers, self-published authors and other content providers for the iBookstore.” '
The mention of “self-published authors” in the job posting was of course interesting, I'd thought at the time.  They were entering that arena too.  Neither Bezos nor Jobs is shy about expansion, to say the least.  Also, Barnes and Noble publishes its own hard-copy books.

  Notice that the publishers are not complaining, in this article, about Steve Jobs' interest in going straight to authors.  The quotes from publishers and "Apple insiders" about Amazon sound almost frenetic.

  For one thing I'd been surprised to see Auletta (whose historical detail is very thorough) focus on the anger toward only Amazon -- "a close associate of Bezos" was reported to have "put it more starkly," Auletta tells us.
' "What Amazon really wanted to do was make the price of e-books so low that people would no longer buy hardcover books.  Then the next shoe to drop would be to cut publishers out and go right to authors.” '
  Publisher Tim O'Reilly characterized Amazon alone of the battling groups as "ruthless" saying that
'publishers have good reason to be anxious. “Amazon is a particularly farsighted, powerful, and ruthless competitor” he says. I don’t think we’ve seen a business this competitive in the tech space since Microsoft.” '
  The one dastardly corporate entity in the publishing arena!

  Apple's Steve Jobs, who had never sold a book, comes into the biz and tells all the large publishers he'd like to give them the higher pricing he recommended they charge (sourced in earlier stories here) but that if they wanted to publish with him, they must use his Agency model's structure and pricing for all the other bookstores, getting rid of the decades-old bookseller-wholesaler pricing that allowed bookstores to sell books lower than the publisher-set List Price if it helped drive sales in a competitive business.

  In effect, as others have noted, Jobs was successful in immediately killing the long-time bookstore model as applied to online e-books, especially Amazon's, that made lower prices on most new books possible for e-book-buying consumers, a selling point for the Kindle.  Barnes and Noble e-book pricing, with brick and mortar stores an emphasis, was not as competitive.

  However, as is mentioned often in the news, Steve Jobs and the iPad together are being touted as "savior" to the publishing industry that also prints our news or information.  So we won't be reading such adjectives for Jobs from Auletta's quoted publishers, or from "several literary agents, the latter reporting to Auletta that "a senior Amazon executive asked for suggestions about whom Amazon might hire as an acquisitions editor."

  Publishers and literary agents, watch your back.  You're overfocused on just one book-selling party's interest in going direct to authors.

  Auletta balances publisher anxiety (if not their blackhatting) with matter-of-fact reality from Amazon's Russ Grandinetti, but that isn't likely to soothe publisher nerves.  I don't think reason or history has much to do with it at this point.

  Publishers have TWO strong book- (and hardware) sellers interested in offering authors (primarily those who'd never get a look from large publishing houses) deals for rights to their work.  Of course, if already successful authors are free from contracts or have back-lists of books they own the rights to, Amazon and Apple are just doing what comes naturally in this digital age.

  I don't think, though, that Amazon ever required that all publishers listing books with Amazon use only Amazon's own traditional wholesaler arrangement (which publishers admit gives them more revenue, on the lower-priced e-books, to share with their authors), nor would they have been interested in keeping selling-prices higher and the same at all bookstores.

  The new digital world brings added possibilities, and the large publishing executives need to find ways to maximize their business, including taking advantage of the intense interest in e-book reading.
  They have literally millions of customers wanting to pay them for new e-books, with that audience growing at an exponential rate, but they treat this new market as a negative force only because of fears that e-book sales, if encouraged at lower prices than normally heavily discounted bestselling hardcover books, could "cannibalize" hard-cover sales.  They try to ignore that people who buy expensive e-readers in order to gain portability and convenience, while easing the need for physical storage space, are not going to be rushing out to buy hardcover books.  They'll have plenty of material from which to choose when wanting to read (and even more entertainment to choose from with an iPad or other e-reader-included tablet, the latter market also exploding in the next couple of months).

  They ignore that e-book buyers remember (with the help of licenses that come with digital books) that they are not allowed by the publishers to re-sell or give away the e-books they buy (although with the Nook some publishers will allow one and only one person to borrow a purchased e-book, ever, in the life of that e-book).  Macmillan's John Sargent does not allow Macmillan's e-books to be included in public libraries.

  Hardcover books will just share more selling space with e-books.  Publishers should print as many hardcovers as actually wanted by the market and lower the costs in doing that with a realistic look at the changing audiences.

 They should offer e-books with the book text only and add value-added "enhanced" editions with multimedia features, with background, context, and author interviews, in video or with informational links.

There's no question that Apple's iPad is a much better match for magazines, so there is essentially no competition there vs a device focused mainly on text accompanied by infrequent black and white photos.

  Going back to the topic of aggressive companies (this is not new).   Apple apparently did not want to compete with Amazon's lamented lower pricing so they encouraged the raising of e-book prices nationwide, knowing that the publishers would of course appreciate this and feel supported by Apple, who would give them leverage with Amazon who does want to continue lower pricing, which publishers say "devalues" their books.  Of course, publishers do also fear a "too-powerful" Amazon who they feel might be able to dictate terms as publishers and Apple are doing.  There will always be competition, as we've seen.

 I've already explained how, on a $26 dollar book, under the old wholesaler method, the publishers would have received approximately $13 on a $10-book while the new Agency method gives the publishers only $7.

The NY Times's Rich also wrote in the March 18 column:
' ...Apple, which has effectively said that any publisher that wishes to sell its books on the iPad must offer the same terms to all booksellers.
  In other words, to do business with Apple, publishers must export Apple’s business model to all retailers.  Amazon, by contrast, has not promised to adopt the agency approach for any but the largest publishers. ”
Some interesting responses by Auletta.
' [Yes] Authors would get a higher percentage of royalties by signing directly with Amazon to publish their books. The question is: Would Amazon be able to provide the editing and marketing support that publishers provide? '
Publishers provide this for a tiny percentage of hopeful authors.

  Auletta responds to another questioner:
' What I think midlist or unknown authors would miss if bookstores, particularly independent bookstores, keep shrinking is the word of mouth spread by bookstore salespeople customers know and whose taste they trust.
Yes, though most today read the reviews readily available from several periodicals and they also read the customer reviews on several book sites, from interested readers like themselves.

To a thought from a questioner that "the publishing industry just doens't get it yet" - Auletta replies:
' They’re getting it—probably too slowly. '
(I didn't see indications, in the article, of their getting it.)

To the question "Do you believe that e-books will become popular and accessible enough to make independent bookstores obsolete? If so, what would you estimate the time frame for this?"
'That is my fear, and the fear of many publishers. Independent bookstores are shrinking fast.  As e-book sales continue to grow exponentially, without being able to offer e-books in stores, or if they do offer them to be able to match the lower prices of Amazon or Apple, independent bookstores are menaced. How soon? Too soon.'
So, he does share with the publishers the fear of the success of e-books and its anticipated impact on independent bookstores.

  They are reacting to what they experience as a Volcano of E-books threatening (for some) to cover all with ashes.
  The solution: Preparation, keeping in mind that could actually be, instead, a mountain of opportunities for mining.

 Barnes and Noble is wisely encouraging visits to their store with the Nook's bonus store-features and encouraging discovery of its e-reader by non-store regulars at Best Buy stores.

I liked the advice he gave to a questioner.
'You’d have to be a fool not to worry.  The challenge, however, is not to be immobilized by fears, to think of the digital world as a challenging opportunity. '
I couldn't agree more.

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  1. My company Arcata Arts has just a dozen titles but several are "evergreen." We have published 4 Kindle books and hope to work with Apple when they open the gates to small presses who want a direct relationship.

    I'm grateful indeed for the information you have provided on this story. Hopefully this will develop quickly and anything more that you can offer here will certainly be helpful.

    Thanks for a great Blog!

  2. Gordon, thanks! The iPad will be better for illustrated guides, certainly. I would just contact them, if interested.

  3. Do you happen to know who at IPAD/Apple would talk with a small press about an ebook publishing program? This is really important.

  4. Gordon,
    No, they started hiring in March for such a position (working with small publishers and self-publishing authors) and now it's May, so I'd call Apple and ask them to connect you that department.

    Have you tried that yet ?


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