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Posts tagged ‘Frank Luby’

What Price E-Books

No, this isn’t a rehash of the agency pricing debate — or should I say debacle? — that is still wending its way through the courts. This is more a warning that there is now someone out there who the legacy publishers will simply adore, if they don’t already. Someone who says two things those same publishers not-so-secretly seem to believe: first, that e-books aren’t priced high enough and, second, that e-books really aren’t books or even “product”.

Last week, Digital Book World published a post that set up the scenario where you are in New England on a cold winter day and you want a book. According to the post, you have several alternatives. You can brave the cold and go to your local Barnes & Noble. Or you can go online and order a physical copy from Amazon. Or, barring that, you can go online and order the e-book of the title you are looking for.

Let’s start first with the problem of the scenario set up by Frank Luby, a pricing consultant and former journalist. First, notice that Luby’s scenario only allows for purchase from B&N. He doesn’t say “bookstore”. Nope. He limits it to B&N. Maybe he is one of those who now uses the big box bookstore as a generic name for all bookstores. Perhaps he doesn’t realize there are other bookstores out there besides B&N. But that sort of simple oversight instantly puts me on guard against anything else he has to say, especially since his scenario also leaves out the local library where a patron could check out either the physical or digital version of the book in question.

Moving on. . . .

“Ebooks are terribly misnamed,” said Luby. “They’re not a product. They’re a reader service.”

Read that again.

“Ebooks are terribly misnamed,” said Luby. “They’re not a product. They’re a reader service.”

That one statement is why I have a feeling we have some publishers sitting in their ivory towers in NYC, rubbing their hands together and trying to figure out how to leverage that statement to their benefit. After all, those same publishers already tell us that, when we buy an e-book, we aren’t really buying the book. After all, an e-book isn’t a “real” book. What we are buying is a license to read the words contained in the e-book. That’s why they load e-books with DRM, limit the number of devices an e-book can be on per license, and why they are fighting any change to copyright laws that would allow us to resell the e-books we’ve bought.

Now we have someone who calls himself a pricing consultant telling everyone that e-books aren’t a product but a service. Yep, those publishers and their bean counters are doing dances of glee. Someone finally understands!

“Ebooks should be more expensive than they are, more than print books — a lot more,” said Luby, adding that ebooks are relatively cheap because publishers and retailers don’t properly explain their benefits, namely, convenience.

And now those same publishers and bean counters are singing as they dance. Hallelujah! Someone is finally saying what we’ve said all along.We should be able to charge the reader more for something that costs us less, much less, because it is convenient for the reader.

Now, as you can guess, I have several problems with this statement. First is the assumption by Luby that readers don’t already know there is a convenience to e-books. Yes, it is easier to simply download a book either directly from browsing the appropriate e-book store on your tablet or smartphone or by looking at their online store via computer and downloading that way. However, the counterpoint to this is that it isn’t really that much more convenient when you are limited to what store you can shop at because of the e-book reader or software you have. If you have a Kindle, you are pretty much limited to Amazon (or sites that sell MOBI files). If you have a Nook, you are limited to those sites that sell EPUB files. Oh, and you can only have that file on so many devices at the same time. And you can’t resell it. Or loan it, unless it is one of a very few marked as loanable by the publisher and, if it is, you can’t read it at the same time your friend is reading it.

And for this we are supposed to pay more, much more, than we would for a print book.

This reminds me of how the head of MacMillan — I think that’s who it was — back at the start of the agency pricing debate tried telling everyone that publishers had double charges on editing, cover design and layout, among others, when it comes to e-books and print books. He was double-dipping in his explanation of what a book costs a publisher and it made me, and a lot of others, wonder if they weren’t double charging their authors on expenses as a result. Now along comes Luby telling us that we should pay much more for a “book” we don’t “own” simply because it exists in digital format instead of print.

In other words, he has put out a plan that aims to curtail, if not kill, the e-book market. The only good side to his plan, should the major publishers put it into effect, is that it would create yet another spike of sales for indie and small press e-books because economics would mean people would try the lower priced books instead of paying double digits, perhaps high double digits, for a single legacy published e-book.

Instead of worrying about how to raise the price of e-books because they are so much more convenient, publishers — and this so-called pricing expert — ought to be looking at why print books aren’t selling in the numbers they once did. Yes, e-books are part of the reason but they are only a part of the reason. Another part is the high price of print books, especially hard covers. Gone are the days when avid readers who were comfortably middle class could go into a bookstore and buy half a dozen or so hard covers at a time. Now readers collect only a small number of hard covers compared to what they once did. As for soft covers, the prices for them have gone up as well. At the same time, quality of the product has gone down. That is especially apparent with the goat-gagger books that are so thick the spine breaks and pages start falling out, often before you have finished reading the book for the first time. If the product was of high quality, more people would be willing to pay the price for it. They still wouldn’t spend as much as they once did because most folks don’t have as much disposable income as they did. But they would still be buying books.

But to say an e-book should cost considerably more than a print book because it is more convenient is ludicrous. It is especially so when the publisher refuses to admit that a reader buys the book instead of just licensing the right to read the book. As for Luby, well, he needs to quit drinking the kool-aid and realize that the reading public isn’t quite as naive — or foolish — as he seems to think it is. As for the publishers and bean counters still doing their song and dance of joy over what he had to say, they need to adapt t changing times and demands or be left behind. As the song says, “the times, they are a-changing.”