It’s Amazon vs Macmillan, round 1. And nobody is really going to win this one.
I don’t have a dog in this hunt, at least not one in the lead pack, since I don’t do eBooks. I appreciate the convenience factors like being able to carry a baby library around in my pocket. But I just prefer to read from print. Which shocks some of those who know me mostly as an equally voracious reader and techie, almost as much as finding out that that same techie does something as old fashioned as counted cross-stitch embroidery for relaxation. But that doesn’t mean I’m not affected by it.
In case you haven’t heard the news (I’m drawing most of my facts as posted here from the January 30th New York Times article, although I’ve done more reading elsewhere to verify and expand on what’s there), apparently there’s been a dispute brewing for the past year or so between Amazon.com and the major publishers over eBook pricing. Amazon’s Kindle titles run a pretty steady $9.99, which is highly discounted over the same book as a new hardcover. The publishers want them to charge more in the $15.00 range. This has come to a head with the release this week of Apple’s new iPad and the opening of their new iBook store, since Apple plans to offer the same books but with the publishers having more leeway in setting the prices. Not complete freedom, but priced using a formula that will bring things pretty much in line with what they’ve been asking Amazon to do. Macmillan is one of the really big guys who have signed on with Apple and Amazon has responded by effectively pulling Macmillan from its shelves. It says temporarily, but I haven't heard an end date.
How do you pull books from the virtual shelves of an online bookseller? Easy. Look up a title from Macmillan or one of its imprints, such as Farrar, Straus & Giroux or St. Martins (a HUGE name in the mystery world), on Amazon. You won’t see an eBook edition even listed, while other formats will be offered for sale only through third party (marketplace) sellers. You can’t buy an eBook edition at all and you can’t buy any other format directly from Amazon...OK, so what, I can still buy it, right? Yup, but marketplace sellers operate according to different rules, especially when it comes to shipping. Marketplace sellers don’t have the same standards in terms of speed or even packaging (this is from experience—I’ve bought out of print books this way). Some do, but it’s not something to rely on, varying by individual seller. While the cost will increase exponentially if you want multiple books—there’s no free shipping for purchases over a certain amount. Au contraire, there isn't any kind of volume discount—you have to pay the same fixed rate per book no matter how many books you buy, even if they're all from the same seller
There really aren’t any wholly good guys here. Amazon isn’t trying to keep its low pricing out of altruism and overflowing generosity towards its customers. The pricing is to help grow eBook sales, more specifically to encourage people to buy its proprietary eBook reader over other options, figuring to dominate a growing industry through volume of sales rather than per item profit. You can buy Kindle books from Amazon; you can buy other eBook formats a variety of places. And in my opinion they’re abusing power with this move, which affects everyone from the sorts of new authors looking for an audience that St Martins brings out, who will lose sales, to people on limited budgets who primarily use Amazon gift certificates they’ve received to meet their book buying needs and can no longer get the books they want, or at least not the same way.
The publishers lost me by justifying their actions with the “concern” quoted in the Times article: they’re afraid such pricing “devalues books”. Puh-lease. I suppose it explains a lot if they really do believe that all the value in a book lies in the price charged for it. This is why they wholeheartedly embrace high priced best selling one offs while cutting solid selling paperback edition only authors by the dozens. Me, I always thought it was the contents that provided the value in a book. Plus they're not averse to some bullying of their own. Macmillan has offered to let Amazon buy books on the same "agency model" they've just signed with iBooks, i.e. publisher sets the pricing with 70% going to the publisher. Or they can keep their current "wholesale model" and related pricing, paying 50% of the wholesale hardcover price, but then they will have a delay of seven months before they would have access to the books. As would Kindle readers (unless they went with another format bought elsewhere - Kindle does support a few other formats, and for a fee can convert others). While sorry, but how the sorts of major publishers who increasingly seem to publish based more on marketing plan than quality can talk with a straight face about anyone else devaluing books is simply beyond me. Seriously, I’d be more sympathetic if they were demanding the 60% increase in pricing because of rising costs for necessities like paper, printing, warehousing, shipping, etc. But these are eBooks. The lack of such things is a big part of the point. This is pretty strictly about profit for them too, just profit going to them instead of to Amazon and using a different model.
Competition is good. Giving people more options so that they aren’t stuck with Kindle or else is a genuinely very good thing. If you’ve any doubt, Amazon’s actions here show they’re not afraid to use their marketplace power to play the bully to get their own way. But that doesn’t mean the publishers are in the right either, nor have they shown much hesitation in bullying for their own ends. While I don't see a lot of concern from either side about the effect of their battle on readers or authors—the two other groups directly affected by it. This isn’t about giving people more choice or just keeping Amazon under control, and it's certainly not to free up more money for the authors who write the books or for saving customers money because they love them. It’s about two different sides trying to force their preferred method of leveraging a profit for themselves on an industry. The industry itself is hurt, as it is still in the process of establishing itself, with pricing one of the tools for doing so. While the public ends up caught by the basilisk stares of the two sides, each too focused on waiting for the other to blink to consider any collateral damage.
Feel the Force... come over to the Dark Side. Forsake the eRead (at least temporarily), head out to your local indy brick and mortar bookstore, and celebrate the joys of paper and print with a major investment. And no, you don't have to follow my personal purchasing model to do so.