Of Apple and Amazon and e-book sales
Sitting here this morning, wondering why I dreamed about having to bug-out because of an invasion of man-eating spiders (which, btw, are a lot worse than zombies because spiders can hide in much smaller places), I scanned the publishing news for the last few days and found myself wondering if we’ve stepped back in time. No, a quick glance at the calendar confirmed we haven’t. So I guess it is just more of the same-old-same-old while everyone waits to see what happens with the public hearing on copyright (and, yes, I will get to that but it will be next week. There’s a lot of material to wade through and I’m just now starting to feel well enough to do that sort of heavy reading)
The first example of how there are some in publishing that just don’t want to give up even in the face of overwhelming odds, is Apple. Even after losing the price fixing suit filed by the Department of Justice — and this after being abandoned by most of its named co-defendants when they settled the case instead of going to trial — Apple continues to fight. It now is trying to get the class action law suit against it dismissed. Now, most of the time, I wouldn’t think twice about this sort of thing. This isn’t one of those times. Apple is basically using the same arguments it used in the price fixing case to get this suit dismissed — arguments that obviously didn’t work. If you’ve already been told by a judge that your actions were not “pro-competitive and beneficial to consumers,” why are you still arguing it?
The only explanation I can come up with is that Apple simply isn’t used to losing. A company with very deep pockets, it rarely comes out on the short end of the stick. I have a feeling Apple will soon find itself on the short end again. Judge Cotes has already ruled once on this assertion and I don’t see her accepting it now. But Apple being Apple, they will keep trying and we will keep watching. More than that, considering how slowly cases proceed through the courts, the supervision period set out by Judge Cotes will probably have run its course before Apple exhausts all its appeals and then everything will be moot anyway.
Then there’s this article in Publisher’s Weekly about how the slowing e-book sales are a “mixed blessing”. When I saw the blurb for the article, I almost didn’t click over to the full piece. Part of me expected it to be another post extolling the fact that e-books really are nothing more than a flash in the pan and now that the “ooooh shiny” has worn off, folks will get back to buying print books. Fortunately for the continued existence of my laptop, it wasn’t all about that. The article does point out that you can’t keep up with triple digit sales increases over a long period of time. It also notes, as several of us here at MGC have, that the initial leap in sales had a lot to do with people buying e-book readers and tablets and getting books to go on them. That’s the sort of thing you see with any new tech. Just watch the increase in sales of video games over the next few months as the PS4 and XBox One — and the associated new gen games — hit the market.
However, this article — like so many others — is hampered by the fact that it is using figures that are no more accurate than BookScan sales numbers. That means whole markets are being left out as are a huge amount of indie and small press titles. Does this mean e-books sales haven’t slowed? Probably not. What I would bet on, however, is that they haven’t slowed as much as the study alleges and that means the gap between print sales and digital sales probably isn’t narrowing as much as is being assumed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying e-book sales are continuing to rising at triple digit levels. Nor am I saying the print section of the industry is doomed. My issue is that articles like this, based on data provided by third parties hired by interested parties in the debate, never give the full story. We don’t know what sources were used to determine sales. We don’t know if they used only sales from major publishers or from only members of AAP. We all know that studies like this can be manipulated and being the suspicious person that I am, I need to know the background information before accepting such a study at face value.
Then I came across this article from Dear Author and I thought that, for cone, I was going to have to disagree with them. But I can’t because I agree. The basic set up is this: a new e-book comes out and you buy it right away because you like the description or you’ve read other things by the author, etc. Being an e-book and (probably) written by an indie, you don’t mind dropping $4.99 or so for it. After all, you know the author’s work or you checked out the preview and it is less than that half-caf venti mocha you planned on for the afternoon.
So you click the pretty gold button on the product page and wait for the e-book to be downloaded to your e-reader or tablet and go off happily to read your new book.
Only to discover a few days later that the author has put the book on sale for 99 cents.
Now, $4.oo isn’t going to break me but, I guarantee you, I’m not happy to discover that I have just been penalized for being an early purchaser of the book. We’re not talking about a book that’s been out for months or even years. We’re talking about a book that has been out just a week or so. As Dear Author says, “Those on the pricing side can use price promotions to drive sales, but to do so at the cost of alienating loyal fans for not much long term gain seems counterintuitive.”
And that brings up the whole question of just when and how to promote your work which, in turns, brings up the question of do you go exclusively with one retailer or not. Amazon offers some great promotional programs for indies and small presses — if you go exclusively with Amazon for at least three months. If you ask three authors what they think about “limiting” yourself this way and you will get three different answers. One author will tell you that to go exclusive is to cut out sales venues and that means fewer sales. The next author will tell you that you should consider it but only after you’ve had your work out for at least six months or a year on all outlets to see where your best sales are. The third will tell you to definitely do it because Amazon is the gorilla in the marketplace and you can choose to not have DRM which means your buyers can convert their e-books into whatever format they want.
The correct answer is there is no correct answer. You have to decide for yourself what works best and, to do that, you need to know where your sales come from. You also have to consider how quickly you get paid. Then there is how quickly sales channels are updated so you can see what your sales trends are. But to simply discount an option because it comes from “evil Amazon” is to potentially cut off a viable promotional tool that can increase your sales.
Now, if the other outlets want to compete, they need to offer similar tools for authors. Frankly, I don’t want to write my book online using a retailers interface. I don’t want to wait weeks and months for a book to get through the review process (which I’ve been doing on a couple of titles and have finally pulled them and am resubbing them with some strategic changes in tagging and descriptions). I don’t want to risk having my books pulled from sales because someone thinks they are erotica based on a tag someone besides me put on them.
In other words, it is still up to us to keep on top of what is happening in the business. We have to educate ourselves about trends and programs and apps and all other things that can make our job easier and bring us into closer contact with our readers.