Last week, the U.S. Justice Dept. sued some of the world’s largest publishers as well as Apple, accusing them of eBook price fixing. This lawsuit wouldn’t be necessary if eBook publishers would learn the lessons that music publishers did a decade ago.
As it stands now, publishing companies like MacMillan, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and others want to charge more for the digital versions of books than most of their customers think they are worth. These companies frequently price eBooks the same, or just below, the printed versions. Few of their customers see the logic in this — publishing a book electronically removes the costs of printing, shipping, and storing a physical object.
The argument the publishers make in response is that the majority of the cost of a book isn’t in printing it, but rather in their overhead of paying authors and editors, advertising, etc. The answer this this is clear: if they don’t find ways to significantly lower their overhead, these companies are going to be out of business in a few years.
Learn from the Past
There is another industry that was in a similar situation a few years ago: the music business. Around the turn of the millennium, the Apple iPod had made the CD obsolete, and consumers wanted to buy MP3s. The music publishers didn’t want to sell these — they liked being able to force people to buy a whole CD in order to get the one or two songs they actually wanted.
Consumers felt they were being ripped off, and turned to pirating songs instead of buying them. The music industry struggled for years… until record companies finally bit the bullet and started selling songs in digital formats at reasonable prices. Now, people are buying more tracks than ever and the music industry is healthy again.
History Repeating Itself
Book publishers must learn from music producers. Currently, when their customers complain that eBooks are too expensive compared to the security of owning the printed version of a work, the publishers tell them to buy the printed book — as if that was the only other option.
As was clearly demonstrated with music, if consumers feel they are being systematically charged more for the digital copy of something than they think it is worth, they’ll find ways to get it without paying for it. This is already happening with eBooks, as virtually every oneof them can be found on file-sharing sites for free.
But the book publishing business can be put back on track. Once record companies put a reasonable price on their products, the vast majority of buyers gave up piracy and started paying for their music. The same can happen with eBooks.
But publishers must realize that few people think any eBook is worth more than $20, and some would say $15. And they can’t charge $8 for works that were published decades ago and can now be found in used book stores for $3 or less.
Lead or Get Out of the Way
The music industry went through a profound change once the Apple iPod was released. Electronic book readers like the Apple iPad and Amazon Kindle are just beginning to revolutionize the publishing business, but significant changes are inevitable. Companies either need to get in sync with their customers or they will be swept aside.
What they have to realize is that, in the eBook business, authors and readers are necessary, publishers are not. They can have a role, finding new authors and assisting current ones to do their jobs, but they aren’t required.
Many writers have begun self-publishing their works on sites like Amazon, where they often sell for 99 cents. Consumers choose which of these to buy based on the reviews of other readers, not on the opinions of an editor in New York.
In the new age of publishing, authors are going to have to take a more active role in promoting their work. But there will be a benefit, as publishing companies won’t be taking such a large share of the profits.
The main beneficiaries of all of this will be readers. They will get far more choices in books selling at lower prices.