Oh that pesky little invention called an e-book is once more confounding the Big 5. You see, that wonderful digital product continues to confuse and confound them. Well, that and the buying public’s taste in books, determination of what the best price point is for an e-book, and related issues continue to cause consternation in publishing circles. And indie writers are sitting back and smiling because it really isn’t that difficult to figure out.
You can blame our own Dr. Monkey for this post. Well, him and my frustration after considering buying the latest book in a series my mother enjoys and telling her it can wait until it is under not $12.99, not $10.99 but under $6.99. Either that or she can borrow it online from the library.
Whether the Big 5 wants to admit it or not, they are confused and, if they are smart, more than a little scared by what is happening in the business. According to a Publishers Weekly article, EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) dropped last quarter and lower e-book sales were a big reason why. At HarperCollins EBITDA fell 23.6% over the same time period last year. It would have been down 33% had HC not purchased Harlequin. Lower sales of Divergent are being cited as at least part of the reason for the lower sales. (More on this in a minute.)
Simon & Schuster reported lower e-book sales but those losses were off-set by increased digital audio sales. CEO Carolyn Reidy isn’t quite ready to say she is worried about lower e-book sales, saying it wouldn’t surprise her to see e-book sales increase again. (Duh, Christmas is coming and new electronic devices will be sold and with them e-books will be bought.)
You can look at the linked article and see the figures, some of which are estimates because actual figures haven’t been released.
Here’s the thing, Reidy also said in the article that “S&S has seen little evidence to suggest that higher e-book prices are behind the e-book sales slump. . . .”
No, it is much easier to blame lower sales on the declining interest in a book series — see the comment about Divergent above — or in the end of a series (remember how they used that as an excuse after the 50 Shades trilogy ended or the Sparkly Vampire series). This tendency points out two major issues with the way the Big 5 are deluding themselves and failing their readers. First, they are putting all their eggs in the basket held by only one or two authors. That wouldn’t be so bad if they had a Magic 8 Ball to tell them what the next big hit would be. The problem is, they don’t. Publishing has a long track record of books being contracted for, huge advances being paid and then the book flopping and not coming anywhere close to selling out the first print run.
Publishers also seem to think that the newest, biggest fad will continue to be a fad. They see a Twilight or a 50 Shades of Grey and tell agents that is what they are looking for. If they have really drunk the Koolade, they will stop production on entire lines of books so the covers can be redone to remind readers of the original book that started the fad. (Remember all those books that suddenly had black and grey covers with handcuffs or whips or blindfolds on them?) Branding helps sell something but the product inside the covers has to be worth the money.
And that is where the second issue comes in. The product has to be worth the money. The Big 5 hasn’t come to the realization that their customer base is not so foolish that they can’t figure out that it doesn’t cost nearly as much to produce an e-book as it does a print book. It certainly doesn’t cost as much as a hard cover. Yet, those same publishers continue to want to charge above mmpb prices for an e-book with the vague promise that the price will come down some time in the future.
Sure, there are some folks who will pay that $10.99 – $13.99 to have the e-book when it first comes out. There are the impulse buyers. But for those avid readers who have to choose whether they want to spent that much money for one book or for several if they buy older e-books or — gasp — indie published e-books, well, that is most of the market and they are opting for more bang for the dollar.
And that is something the Big 5 has failed to grasp. Most readers couldn’t give a flying fig about who the publisher is. That is about as important in a reader’s mind as who the author’s agent happens to be. All the reader cares about is having a good read that is well formatted, well researched and priced affordably. The Big 5 and their bean counters needs to wrap their heads around the fact they are no longer the only game in town and their control of the market is slipping out of their hands. If they don’t adapt their business model and business practices, the Big 5 (which used to be the Big 6) will see its membership shrinking even further.
The truth of the matter is, traditional publishing can only publish so many titles a year. There are only so many slots they have budgeted for. Most major publishers haven’t grasped the fact they can publish digitally first. Those who have, have frankly dropped the ball. They make those digital lines less important than their print/digital lines. Even their marketing of those lines, both to the reading public and to authors, screams “not ready for the big league!”. So, instead of tapping into a growing market — which they would see if they would simply look at Authors Earnings and pay attention to the best seller lists on Amazon — they look at how their e-book sales have declined and refuse to admit that high prices and limited available titles might have something to do with it.
So, here’s where it comes to, at least for me. As long as the Big 5 and their ilk continue to sell e-books for more than $10 a pop, they will see very little of my money. (The exception is almost always for non-fiction which usually sells for more, print or digital.) There are very few books I can’t wait for the mmpb to come out — and for prices of the e-book to drop. That means delayed income for the publishers and for authors. I hate that authors are being caught in the middle here but that is the way it is, unfortunately. My book money is limited. It is a luxury. So I would rather buy two books that sound good and that have samples that made me want to keep reading than one book by Ms. Best Selling Author and published by Big 5 publisher.