by Amanda S. Green
For the past week, I’ve been pretty vocal about my feelings about the Amazon v. IPG dust-up, Random House’s huge increase in the price of e-books for libraries and the double standard some authors have when it comes to Barnes & Noble v. Amazon. What these three issues are indicative of is the way the industry is changing. And, as with any major change, folks are taking sides. Some are clinging with their last fingernails to the old standard. Others are embracing the change with open arms, seeing change as a necessary step if the industry is to survive.
Me, I love the changes even as some of them scare me. But change is necessary. Publishing has become stagnant, relying on business plans that became out of date with the dawning of the digital age. I’ll give you the fact that the last five years have brought more changes in technology and consumer demand than most anyone could have predicted. However, when those changes started happening, and when they started being embraced by the consumer public, publishers should have taken a moment to think about it and then they should have started acting. But they didn’t. Instead, they tried to build protective walls around the old model, hoping beyond hope that the changes would soon disappear and authors would continue trusting all that came out of the gilded board rooms in New York City.
But the public has embraced the new technology. More than that, the public has become vocal thanks to that new technology. Social media, discussion boards, websites and blogs such as this one have become sounding boards for readers and authors to talk about what they see as the problems with traditional publishing. E-books are here to stay, whether the legacy publishers like it or not. The question now becomes, are they going to go the way of so many record labels or will these publishers find a way to survive?
If legacy publishers are to survive, they are going to have to take steps now. There is a lot of negative consumer feelings to overcome, not to mention bad business practices for years now. Then there is the growing discontent of authors, especially a number of mid-list authors, those same authors who have been the workhorses for the publishers and yet have also been the least appreciated authors over the years. So, what do they need to do?
With regard to the purchasing public, it’s really quite simple. First, publishers have to stop believing the public is as dumb as it seems to think. The average person does understand that it doesn’t take a much money to produce an e-book as it does a hard copy version of the book. Most of the time when you see a publisher or distributor trying to justify the high price of their e-books, they list the same services being needed for the e-book as are needed for the hard copy book, i.e. cover design costs, editing, proofreading, page design, etc. They don’t seem to get that we know they aren’t designing new covers or doing completely new edits for the e-book as opposed to the hard copy. Heck, after the last two e-books I’ve read from major publishers, I’ll lay odds they don’t have anyone doing quality control on them. And, before you ask, one of them was a NYT best seller and yet the layout was horrible and difficult to read. The errors in the text were mirrored from the digital edition to the paper version. So, no, that argument doesn’t fly.
The truth of the matter is, publishers are still trying to protect print sales, especially their hard cover sales, from being diluted by e-book sales. So, instead of staggering releases, they price the e-book as much, if not more, than the mmpb version. Now, there are those readers out there who will pay the higher price for some authors, just as there are those readers who will rush out to be the hard back of certain authors’ books. But to charge $9.99 or more for a book that has been out for years, in paperback, is ridiculous.
Something else publishers need to do is get away from the agency pricing model. Readers want to be able to shop around and find the best price for a book. By letting different online vendors discount e-books at their discretion, just like stores can do with their stock, it will help drive sales. They don’t have to give complete pricing control over to the vendors. But there should be some wiggle room for the vendors, something to help encourage them readers to buy an e-book they might not otherwise because of the cost.
There is something else that, to me, is just as important than lowering price. If publishers are to win back the trust and loyalty of readers, they have to do away with DRM. Digital rights management didn’t work with music. It isn’t working with e-books. People want to be able to read their e-books across different platforms. They don’t want to lose the ability to read an e-book because the have changed computers, etc., and no longer have a “license” for a particular title. They don’t want to have to go through a lot of hoops, some of the technically illegal, to read an e-book bought from Amazon on their Nook or from B&N on their Kindle.
There are two different levels this would have to be changed. The first is on the publishers’ end. They add their own DRM to books AND they limit the number of devices it can be read on. Most limit their titles to 4 – 6 devices, but I have seen some limited to just 1 or 2. I don’t know about you but that is limiting. In my household there are two PCs, two laptops, two kindles, an iPod touch and a tablet. Guess what, that is more potential reading devices than would be allowed to read most titles from legacy publishers.
The second level of DRM comes from the retailer, be it Amazon or BN or Sony or whomever. Many of them will tie an e-book download to a particular device. In other words, if you tried copying a title on your kindle and reading it on your laptop, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to because of different device IDs. That needs to change.
Yes, yes, I know what the argument is. DRM is attached at both levels to prevent piracy. I even saw a quote earlier this week where a publishing insider commented that DRM was there to “encourage” readers to do the right thing. In other words, publishers think most of us are crooks and would sends hundreds or thousands of copies of our e-books out, cutting into publisher profit. I don’t know about you, but I’ve just been insulted.
The real issue is what are we, as customers, buying when we buy an e-book. Most of us think we are buying the book, just as much as we are buying the book when we buy the hard cover or paperback version. But, according to the publishers, we are only buying a license to read the book, hence all the restrictions. This is also why we can’t sell an e-book after we finish reading it.
The reality of it is, publishers are in a huge battle to win back readers. Over the last couple of years, traditional publishers have taken black eye after black eye, usually because of actions by the big six. Price increases on both print and digital version have cut into the public’s ability to buy as many books as they once did. The very short shelf life of most books in stores. The declining quality of editing, proofreading and even the physical construction of books has become a concern. We hear more about the lack of editing and proofreading in e-books because, for whatever reason, those errors seem to stand out more than they do on the printed page. Yet, all too often, if you compare the two versions, you’ll find the same errors in both. Then there are the books that fall apart after being read only once or twice, the ones with pages missing or whole sections printed upside down or backwards. Yes, I’ve had it all happen to me as have a number of others.
But where the publishers are really hurting themselves, because they are harming public institutions, is their stance with regard to libraries. The big six’s decision to either not make their e-books available for loan or to limit those loans to an artificially low number or, sigh, to charge what can only be called extortionate fees for these e-books hurts every library patron, even those who don’t read e-books. How? By forcing libraries to decide what books, or e-books it won’t purchase for its collection in order to buy e-books.
Oh, I can hear the publishers now. They’ll tell you they are willing to “discuss” these terms–if libraries give them enough statistics to warrant it. Besides, they’ll say, no one but the librarians will know. Well, no to both. First, the statistics they’re asking for don’t exist right now and are such that libraries can’t collect them. How in the world is a library going to tell a publisher how the loaning of an e-book will impact the sales of that same e-book or the hard copy version of it? How can a library discuss the impact of being able to loan the digital version of a book v. the number of times the physical copy of that book is loaned out IF THEY CAN’T AFFORD THE DIGITAL VERSION?
As for the myth that no one but librarians will know, I laugh. No, I guffaw. Librarians aren’t the meek, silent stereotypes from the old movies. They are professionals who have to justify their budgets to their city and county officials. They talk to their patrons. In this day and age when libraries are fighting for finances to stay alive – and they are adapting to the changing technologies and demands of their patrons – they aren’t holding back.
And shall we talk about the way publishers treat many, if not most, of their authors? Smaller and smaller advances, that somehow never seem to earn out. No push or promo for books. Late payments. Quarterly or semi-annual payments, even on e-books. Dropping authors, saying their books just didn’t catch on with the public, when those authors’ books are still available on bookstore shelves a year or more after publication (and this in a time when most books don’t stay on the shelves more than a month, maybe two unless it hits best seller status). There’s more, but you see where I’m going with it.
Is it any wonder the public is starting to look at traditional NYC publishers with a jaundiced eye?
Is it too late for legacy publishers to change course and survive? Quite possibly, at least if they want to continue in their current configuration. The next few years will be interesting, not always fun, often scary, but publishing will survive. There will be casualties, however, and I have a feeling a lot of them will be in NYC as the guilded board rooms realize they are on the publishing equivalent of the Titanic.