If I wanted to borrow A Better Man by Louise Penny—the country’s current No. 1 fiction bestseller—from my local library in my preferred format, e-book, I’d be looking at about a 10-week waitlist. And soon, if the book’s publisher, a division of Macmillan, has its way, that already-lengthy wait time could get significantly longer.
In July, Macmillan announced that come November, the company will only allow libraries to purchase a single copy of its new titles for the first eight weeks of their release—and that’s one copy whether it’s the New York Public Library or a small-town operation that’s barely moved on from its card catalog. This has sparked an appropriately quiet revolt. Librarians and their allies quickly denounced the decision when it came down, and now the American Library Association is escalating the protest by enlisting the public to stand with libraries by signing an online petition with a populist call against such restrictive practices. (The association announced the petition Wednesday at Digital Book World, an industry conference in Nashville, Tennessee.) What’s unclear is whether the association can get the public to understand a byzantine-seeming dispute over electronic files and the right to download them.
In a July memo addressed to Macmillan authors, illustrators, and agents, the company’s CEO John Sargent cited the “growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales” as a reason for embargoing libraries from purchasing more than one copy of new books during their first eight weeks on sale. “It seems that given a choice between a purchase of an ebook for $12.99 or a frictionless lend for free, the American ebook reader is starting to lean heavily toward free,” he claimed.
Many individual library systems and companies that work with libraries swiftly responded with objections. “Public libraries are engaged in one of the most valuable series of community services for all ages, for all audiences,” said Steve Potash, the CEO and founder of OverDrive, a company that supplies libraries with e-books. “The public library is just something that is underappreciated. It certainly is so by Macmillan.”
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“If you think about equitable access to information for everybody, there shouldn’t be discrimination or anything like that,” said Alan Inouye, the senior director for public policy and government relations at the ALA. “So consumers can get this book on Day 1 without limitation, but libraries have to wait for eight weeks? That’s just very wrong.”
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The controversy over Macmillan’s new policy gets at one of the central issues facing book publishing today. “There’s a tension in e-book pricing generally between consumer expectations that a digital file will be less expensive than a physical copy and the reality that very little of the cost of making a book is tied up in the physical format,” said Devin McGinley, a senior industry analyst covering book publishing for Ibisworld Inc., a market research firm. “Publishers are rightly concerned that if the price of books erodes too much, they will no longer be able to cover their creative costs and subsidize more speculative bets on emerging authors.”
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“They really did not have any reasonable data to support a narrative that if an author’s new book is withheld from public library lending when it first comes out, that might impact the author’s or the book’s sales during those first few months,” Potash said. “That isn’t borne out. The data that OverDrive has is that for every title that actually gets borrowed or downloaded, the library is engaging with dozens and dozens of readers who are discovering the book, sampling the book, or just looking for a recommendation on what to read next.” Potash said that studies consistently show library patrons to be more frequent book buyers overall—which is another reason Macmillan’s letter stung. “They are taking their readers, their customers, their fans, and intentionally trying to frustrate them,” he said.
Link to the rest at Slate
PG will state that whenever a business executive talks about making a decision to avoid “cannibalizing sales,” you will find many other stupid words and acts following shortly thereafter.
Steve Job famously said, “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.” He made this comment when Apple was selling a lot of iPods, and had just announced the iPhone.
Did the iPhone cannibalize Apple’s iPod business? You bet. Were any Apple shareholders upset by this cannibalization? Not really. The iPhone would make Apple the most valuable company in the world.
The first iPhone was announced in January, 2007, and went on sale in June, 2007. One year after the announcement of the first iPhone and six months after its launch, in January, 2008, the value of a share of Apple stock had almost doubled. About six months later, in July, 2008, when Apple launched the iPhone 3G (the first iPhone with an app store), the stock value was 285% of the price only 18 months earlier.
Not many people were worried about iPod sales at that point.
From an interview with James Allworth, the co-author, with Clay Christensen and David Skok, of a new Nieman Reports article called “Breaking News– Mastering the Art of Disruptive Innovation in Journalism.” The Harvard Business Review published a transcript:
Well, if you can see a way of cannibalizing your existing business, then chances are somebody else can see that same opportunity too. And if it’s a choice between you or your competitor cannibalizing that business, I think in almost every instance you will be better off in the long run if you yourself choose to do it.
Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review
Back to Macmillan, once a book is completed, PG will note that each copy of an ebook that Macmillan licenses to a user costs the company essentially nothing. This cannot, of course, be said about a printed book, each one of which carries costs for printing, shipping, warehousing, handling returns of unsold books from bookstores, etc.
PG suggests that an intelligent executive would be happy to cannibalize the sales of more copies of costly printed books by selling costless ebooks.