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The state of ebook pricing

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 Blog ("iBooks Author: Appreciating Apple's Intent"). It's republished with permission.

With all the buzz about the agency model, the Justice Department, allegations of collusion, etc., I figure the time is right for a post about ebook pricing. Here are some quick thoughts as both a consumer and a publisher:

Eliminating waste is always a good thing — Walmart has mastered this for years. They squeeze every bit of waste out of the supply chain and generally end up with the lowest prices. I'm a frequent Walmart customer, and I greatly appreciate this. In fact, the only people who don't like this are (a) other retailers who can't match those prices and (b) ecosystem players who are part of the waste that's being eliminated, including suppliers.

Loss leaders are a great retail model — Selling some products at or below cost is a great way to bring customers in the door, regardless of whether that door is physical or virtual. I'm sure I've bought many cartons of milk at a loss for the retailer who made it up by selling me other items at a nice profit. It's a model that works, but have you ever seen a store that sells most of their products at a loss, every day?

Taking loss leadership to a new level — Remember when Amazon first launched the Kindle and pretty much every ebook was $9.99? It's no secret that Amazon was losing money on the majority of those sales. In fact, they still are. Prior to the agency model, Amazon was free to set whatever customer price they wanted for ebooks, even if it meant they were selling every single one of them at a loss. That brings up the razor/blades model, where it's not unusual for the razor to be sold at a loss, but the profit is made on the sale of the blades. So, if ebooks are the razors, what are the blades? The ereader device? According to iSuppli, the Kindle Fire's manufacturing cost is slightly higher than its retail price. How long can a retailer stay in business when they're losing money on both the razors and the blades? Presumably, they're making some money on other products they're selling (e.g., shoes, electronics, etc.). Perhaps. Then again, if they have deep enough pockets they can continue selling all their products at a loss until the cash dries up. In the meantime, competitors will find it difficult, if not impossible, to compete, so they'll disappear. What happens after that? Do prices remain low as products are still sold at a loss? Not if that company wants to stay in business.

The agency model prevents brand erosion — Think of the premium products you've bought or admired. Oftentimes, their prices are higher than most of the competition's. What would happen if those prices were suddenly significantly reduced? Would those products retain the full value of their premium brand? Highly unlikely. And shouldn't the owner of that brand have a say in what price is associated with it? Again, it's OK for a short-term loss-leader model, but I'm talking about selling something at or below cost for years and years, not just for a day or two. Over time, the value of that brand is affected. That's why I think publishers should definitely have the option to go with the agency model so they can manage retail prices and not let their brand lose value. By the way, consumers will ultimately vote with their wallets. If they feel the publisher's prices are too high, they'll stop buying and that publisher will either need to make adjustments or go out of business.

Fixed prices vs. price-fixing — In the U.S., we're so used to competitive retailer discounts that we're surprised to hear of the fixed price models used in other countries. For example, in Germany the price you pay for a book doesn't change from one retailer to the next. They're all required to sell them at the same price. Obviously, there's a huge difference between Germany's fixed price law and the price fixing the Justice Department is alleging. Germany's model doesn't lend itself to squeezing out waste like the U.S. model, but I'll bet it prevents one deep-pocketed retailer from putting its competitors out of business.

I don't work at a big six publisher, but I believe publishers should have the option to choose between the agency and wholesale models. The key issue though is that the Justice Department has suggested that Apple and a number of publishers colluded to keep prices high. I think this article by Gordon Crovitz in The Wall Street Journal sums it up quite nicely, particularly in the closing two paragraphs. Read that piece and ask yourself if the Justice Department's efforts will actually fix or merely add to an existing problem.

What's your opinion of the pricing questions and allegations currently facing the book publishing industry?

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