PG’s last post on December 24 was about the following Vox article that purported to talk about what a bust ebooks have turned out to be.
If you missed it in the holiday rush, there were some good comments and, yes, it is a Vox article, so you can assume the author was born yesterday.
At the beginning of the 2010s, the world seemed to be poised for an ebook revolution.
The Amazon Kindle, which was introduced in 2007, effectively mainstreamed ebooks. By 2010, it was clear that ebooks weren’t just a passing fad, but were here to stay. They appeared poised to disrupt the publishing industry on a fundamental level. Analysts confidently predicted that millennials would embrace ebooks with open arms and abandon print books, that ebook sales would keep rising to take up more and more market share, that the price of ebooks would continue to fall, and that publishing would be forever changed.
Instead, at the other end of the decade, ebook sales seem to have stabilized at around 20 percent of total book sales, with print sales making up the remaining 80 percent. “Five or 10 years ago,” says Andrew Albanese, a senior writer at trade magazine Publishers Weekly and the author of The Battle of $9.99, “you would have thought those numbers would have been reversed.”
And in part, Albanese tells Vox in a phone interview, that’s because the digital natives of Gen Z and the millennial generation have very little interest in buying ebooks. “They’re glued to their phones, they love social media, but when it comes to reading a book, they want John Green in print,” he says. The people who are actually buying ebooks? Mostly boomers. “Older readers are glued to their e-readers,” says Albanese. “They don’t have to go to the bookstore. They can make the font bigger. It’s convenient.”
Ebooks aren’t only selling less than everyone predicted they would at the beginning of the decade. They also cost more than everyone predicted they would — and consistently, they cost more than their print equivalents.
. . . .
When the Kindle entered the marketplace in 2007, Amazon had a simple sales pitch: Anyone with a Kindle could buy all the ebooks they wanted through the online marketplace, and many of those ebooks — in fact, all New York Times best-sellers — would cost no more than $9.99.
$9.99 is a steal for a new book. At the time, most hardcovers were averaging a list price of about $26, and many cost more. But for Amazon, this price point was an apparent no-brainer. The first generation Kindle was expensive, and value conscious customers needed some incentive to buy into it. Why would anyone spend $399 on an e-reader if they couldn’t expect to make up at least part of the cost in a discount on ebooks?
And while this point is often glossed over, Amazon was actually following a precedent set by publishers in its pricing model. In her opinion for US v. Apple, Judge Denise Cote noted that before 2009, most publishers discounted ebooks by 20 percent from the price of a hardcover, which often led to a suggested list price of around $9.99.
But by 2009, publishers had changed their minds. Now they considered the idea of $9.99 ebooks to be an existential threat. Printing and binding and shipping — the costs that ebooks eliminated — accounted for only two dollars of the cost of a hardcover, publishers argued. So the ebook for a $20 hardcover book should cost no less than $18. And according to publishers, by setting the price of an ebook at $9.99, Amazon was training readers to undervalue books.
. . . .
Before we delve further into the weeds here, a quick primer on how book prices are set. Print books are generally sold under a wholesale model, which works like this: First, the publisher will set a suggested list price for a book; say, $20. Then it will sell the book to resellers and distributors for a discount off that suggested list price. So if Simon & Schuster wants to sell a $20 book to Amazon, Amazon might negotiate a discount of 40 percent for itself and end up paying Simon & Schuster only $12 for that book.
But once Amazon owns the book, it has the right to set whatever price it would like for consumers. The $20 list price that Simon & Schuster set was just a suggestion. Under the wholesale model, Amazon is free to decide to sell the book to readers for as little as a single dollar if it chooses to.
Until 2010, ebooks were sold through the wholesale model too. So if Simon & Schuster was publishing a $20 hardcover, they could choose to set a suggested list price of $18 for the ebook — two dollars less than the hardcover — and then sell that ebook to Amazon at a 40 percent discount for $10.80. And Amazon could, in turn, feel free to sell that ebook for $9.99 and swallow a loss of 81 cents.
To be clear, the numbers we’re using here to get a handle on how pricing works are imaginary. (Amazon negotiates different discounts for itself at different times from different publishers, sometimes around 40 percent, but at other times higher and at other times lower.) But we do know that Amazon was making very, very little money off ebook sales in 2010, and was in fact probably losing money on most of them.
. . . .
“Amazon can still discount whatever they like on the print side,” explains Jane Friedman, a publishing consultant and the author of The Business of Being a Writer. On the ebook side, however, Amazon now lists publisher-mandated prices, often with the petulant italic addition “Price set by seller.” “So the market is very weird, and often the ebook costs more than the print,” Friedman says. “Sometimes it feels like Amazon is trying to make the publishers look ridiculous.”
And because ebooks are often more expensive than Amazon’s heavily discounted print books, traditional publishing’s ebook sales seem to have fallen off — and Amazon is more dominant than ever in the print book market. “It’s so much cheaper,” says Friedman.
In this new market, high ebook prices make it harder than ever for young authors in particular to survive. “The split has really hurt debut novelists,” says Friedman. “It’s hard to ask readers to take a chance on someone unproven at that high price point, and since the ebook market does lean towards fiction, it’s hurting the new people.”
Self-published authors, meanwhile, are flourishing. They’re allowed to set their own ebook prices just like publishers are — and consistently, they set their prices very, very low. “It’s a shadow market,” Friedman says. “Novelists with huge backlists go and put them out as ebooks independently. And if a reader has a choice between reading this great series at $2.99 a pop or a $12 novel, what are they going to pick?”
Antitrust law professor Christopher Sagers argues that the outcome of the DOJ’sebooks case shows that the real problem with the industry is not just that Amazon has a monopoly. The big trade publishers, he says, have a monopoly too.
“There used to be hundreds of publishing companies. They’re now mostly owned by five,” Sagers says. (After that Department of Justice lawsuit, Penguin merged with Random House, and the Big Six became the Big Five.) “Why are ebooks expensive? It’s not because Amazon is vicious. It’s because there’s no competition at the wholesale level.”
. . . .
The Big Five publishers “are huge, and they have been able to put in place practices that are kind of unfair and that authors have to put up with,” Friedman allows. “That said, they need that kind of size to be able to effectively deal with something like Amazon. If you look at an indie publisher, I wouldn’t want to be one of them.”
Link to the rest at Vox and thanks to DM for the tip.
PG notes that the OP devotes one paragraph to independent authors and that paragraph implies that indie authors are primarily publishing their revered backlist titles.
Unlike Big Publishing, nobody is really beating any publicity drums for indie authors.
One other point the OP doesn’t discuss is that Barnes & Noble is still cratering and, when it finally goes down the drain, retail bookselling via physical bookstores will take a huge hit and publishers who have failed to develop their chops selling ebooks and encouraging readers to buy them will regret that their profitability will take an enormous hit.