Tour’s Books Blog

May 20, 2009

Blogging Fixations – Amazon, eBooks and the Future of Publishing

Filed under: Editorial,General,opinion — toursbooks @ 1:45 pm
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Every blog has its own fixations. Some concern themselves with the lofty analysis of romance in ways only academics care about. Some focus on the nature of the hero and what makes him a hero – flawed, as he is. Some address publication in general and do so with great perceptiveness. I mostly review books with the odd editorial. One thing book blogs seem to have in common is very strong feelings about the impact of the business models of Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, Borders and other major retailers on publishing and book distribution, promotion and the growth of ebooks as a market segment. #Amazonfail and its ripples are still being felt, and the importance of Amazon and Barnes and Nobel rankings to authors and publishers even makes it into novels themselves. (Death and the Chick Lit discussed it as an author talking point at a fictitious conference.) The latest concern combines the two issues as Amazon expands its many tentacled empire building beyond being the most powerful estore seller of books into publishing as well. Dear Author expressed their concerns this past weekend with their AmazonEncore post.

The Booksquare blog just a posted column on ebook costs and consumer perceptions of ‘value’ in formats with regards to the pricing of David Baldacci’s latest release, The First Family, on Kindle, priced well above the $9.99 Amazon had promised for bestsellers – at least temporarily. (See the link to Mike Shatzkin’s blog on the Booksquare link above.) Mike Shatzkin makes some truly excellent points and more importantly, technically correct ones. But there is still a lot of pricing reality that must be dealt with.

What do Dear Author and Booksquare, two bloggers with rather differing views on Amazon have in common? Ideas on the future on ebooks, retailing, and future of publishing. As a reader, what drives me is cost and a strong preference for print books for any favorite author. Yes, I miss the corner bookstore, but I miss the corner drugstore too, and the local hardware store and so many other family owned businesses driven out by chains like CVS, Home Depot, Barnes and Nobel and now on the internet by Amazon. Is Amazon a bully to be feared and reviled? Already, Amazon exerts huge influence on publishing, well past book price. Look at the firestorm from #Amazonfail. What will happen when they too become publishers? Or is Amazon simple moving along a natural evolutionary chain for a technology driven company? Will the very system they’ve created for shoppers be rigged in favor of Amazon published books?

Already, publishing is on the ropes thanks to the smaller and smaller margins forced by mega-sellers, the cost of print publishing is ever increasing, and other economic realities – like lower sales – are hitting bottom lines everywhere in a kind of perfect storm. Now the very people selling their products are going to become their competitors in the business! Man, there’s a living nightmare if there ever was one. But, is it really that horrible?

As a consumer, I’m not sure how I feel. Dear Author certainly makes a case for being concerned about this development, but DA has a strong bias against Amazon, so that needs to be taken into account. Even so, their points are valid and readers should be paying very close attention to Amazon’s actions. Where does all this leave us, the readers?

Like most people these days, I look for the best buys on books, comparison shopping price, using coupons, etc. Swapping books, sales, used books, remainders, ebooks, saving a bit here and there where I can. The simple fact is Amazon offers great value for my dollar. Like everyone, I want as much value as I can get and that means looking beyond the purchase price. Because I look at value over the long term, I think I see things a bit differently. Already publishers give customers two options on their top selling authors – hardcover, usually deeply discounted, or an ebook at an even lower cost. About a year later they’ll publish a trade paperback for $9.99 and up on bestsellers. Then, maybe, some will be published in mass market format at $7.99. Authors that don’t get hardcover, but are better than low end paperback, get a large format trade paperback priced $14 to $18 and then discounted to $10-13. Maybe it will go to mass market, maybe not. Consumers now have tiers of pricing and what amount to periods of exclusivity for various presentations of print books. If I want to read the latest Lee Child book, I can buy the hardcover (I did), get a dedicated format ebook or wait my turn at the library. Will that change? I doubt it. If I wait long enough, I can get a used copy at a UBS or get it through some swapping service like PBS. Maybe there will be deep discount remainders. (I’ve gotten more than one former bestseller for less than the paperback price that way.) It’s all about how long you’ll wait to get a bargain. For me, in some cases, the value does lay with the hardcover book. Why? Well, part is my impatience to read a book and part is the fact I will likely re-read and keep the book. Plus, should I choose to get rid of the book I can sell it, swap it for another book, or donate it and take a small tax deduction. Hardcovers just hold up betters over time, so for ‘keepers’, they are my preferred style.

So, does the trend on increasing print book AND ebook costs bother me? You better believe it. I have a finite number of dollars and increased costs means fewer books. But there’s a very different trend that bothers me far more that neither blog looked at.

What I really fear is the annoying trend in the serialization of ebooks. I don’t mean complete books in a series, like Lord of the Rings, I mean taking one book, dividing it into 3 novellas, and selling each novella at such a price that the total cost for what is really one book is 35-50% higher than the ebook price! I’ve had at least 2 different epubs pull that stunt and I was not a bit happy about it. How can they justify charging $3-4 for something 20,000-30,000 words and $6.99 for a book at 100,000 words? This trend is the one that’s bugging the crap out of me! Remember when Stephen King serialized a novel to promote online publishing a LONG time ago? What was it? $1/chapter? It ended up costing some insane price for whole book. But the problem is, once you’re hooked on it, you’ll pay to see what happens next.

The fundamental nature of publishing is in transition as it comes to grips with technology and lifestyle changes that promote the growth of ebook sales. I see it in my own changing buying habits. The financial dynamics of traditional publishing-author- reader relationship has already been impacted by online sales and rankings, yet old line New York publishers seem to be resisting instead of embracing these new opportunities. Inadvertently, they seem to be creating the gap that Amazon is setting out to exploit. Publishing is like any other business, it’s evolve or perish.  And when you get right down to it, sharing prints books is far easier than sharing ebooks, so maybe the volume of sales for ebooks would be even high IF they control the cost per book.  Wouldn’t that be an opportunity?

It seems to me that readers of traditional print books are a dying breed. We might be going more slowly than those who read newspapers, but go we will. If you had asked me 20 years ago if I’d be reading the news on my computer instead of reading the daily paper, I would have laughed at you. Ten years ago, I might have waffled. Now, I no longer get any newspaper. I read two or 3 different ones online. Do I miss a lot? Yup. So why did I give them up? Part of it was price, but equally large parts were recycling and time. Since I read 2 papers a day they piled up rather quickly. Combined with all the papers I had no time to read thanks to my travel schedule, it became too much. I cancelled my subscriptions. And ten years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of buying ebooks – now I do, albeit to a far more limited extent than print books.

I am no oracle, least of all in the publishing business, but major changes are inevitable and will be forced on business and consumer alike. I know fans of Kindle, Sony and other readers would fight to keep their little, lightweight library. And I know people like me who want the feel and pleasure a print book, to keep, to pass on to others, not be locked into some electronic device. With a generation growing up without the sentimental and emotional attachment to print books, the publishing world will be a very different place in another 10 years. Maybe I’ll be writing a column about how I swore I’d never own an ebook reader and now can’t live without one. Thankfully, the future of publishing does not hinge on my choices.

Time for me to get back to the print copy of Bunco Babes Tell All and to leave the prognostications on the future of publishing to those better versed in this subject.

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