Why do some book publishers seem intent on wandering off a cliff?


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“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye


Updated on Sunday, October 4: See note at bottom of post.

When I read that 20% of book publishers believe they should charge the same (or more) for a book in the form of a digital file that’s distributed online as they charge for the same book manufactured into a hardbound paper product, packed into cardboard boxes, stored in warehouses, distributed to bookstore shelves via 18-wheeler-trucks, returned and reimbursed if not sold by the retailer, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.

I won’t repeat all I wrote on this topic in July, but its point was to echo the wisdom of Peter Olson and Bharat Anand that, “Prices of e-books should be shaped by cost structures and customer demand rather than by comparison to traditional paper book pricing.”

As I said in that earlier post, I believe digital devices (note I did not say “eBook readers” as I think they are merely transitional technology) offer publishers an incredible opportunity to add value to the basic book and therefore generate brand-extension opportunities that make “the book” the center of a vast new pool of revenue-generating opportunities.

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But if publishers think “the book’s” price should be benchmarked to the price of a physical product, they are heading off the same cliff as record labels did — and will soon find themselves in the position record label executives find themselves today: Looking like that pivotal frame in a Road Runner cartoon when Wile E. Coyote is mid air, having just looked back at the cliff where the Roadrunner grins (help for those not following this: in this metaphor, the internet is played by the Roadrunner), he breaks the fourth wall with an “oh sh*t” glance to the audience and holds up a sign reading, “Help.”

But of course, by then, it’s too late.

So there you have it: Two references to great literature involving hapless fools wandering off cliffs. (Along with an inside-joking visual pun by using an image of the “Cliff”notes version of Catcher in the Rye.)

The record labels did this by thinking their product was a physical package and their important role was to control a pivotal juncture in the “supply chain.” They were so defensive of that belief, they grabbed the first anvil they could find: criminalizing their customers. And off the cliff they jumped.

And now, it appears some book publishers seem more inclined to view their job as protecting the existing supply chain rather than serving their shareholders. (And, apparently the authors, hey, forget them, they’re just “content.”)

Bottomline: If publishers attempt to screw the customers in an attempt to protect an out-dated supply chain model, the internet will crush them. Something publishers will call piracy will occur as naturally as gravity pulls Wile E. Coyote to the canyon’s floor. And those of us who love to read books will scratch our heads a little and wonder why we don’t feel guilty doing what publishers are calling “piracy” — by doing the same thing we’ve done all our lives when a friend lends us a book they’ve enjoyed or when we go check out a book at the “Free Library.”

By benchmarking the price of “the book” to a physical product, publishers will hasten their demise. And that’s a shame.

Readers need just one thing: Great books. Readers want to reward authors who write great books. Readers really care deeply about the authors who write great books and would gladly pay them directly for the great books they write. Even more than for listeners of a three-minute song, the reader who has invested many hours of their life reading a great book, actually wants to invest more into the opportunity to read more work from the author.

We (and I’m writing as a reader) care that publishers exist, because we believe they should be the place where great editors work — and great editors help good authors write great books. And we care that books we should read have the support necessary for us to discover them and to be able to easily purchase them.

But we (as a reader) don’t really want to pay to subsidize the current system of book publishing that was broken long before the internet existed. The way books are sold on a consignment model, for example, wherein the book retailer can return any unsold item for a full refund — with the high price of the break-out successful hardback print title subsidizing the wasteful and ridiculous model.

The attempt to have the sale of eBooks — which have no such consignment sales model — subsidize that failed physical book consignment model is beyond lunacy.

Dear publishers, charge for where you bring value — discovering, editing and marketing great authors. Don’t expect me to pay for all that waste you’ve created if I find a way to avoid it.

And publishers, please: Get back away from the cliff.

Update: The day after I posted this, an item appeared in the New York Times by Randall Stross, a professor of business at San Jose State University. Frankly, I tend to dismiss stuff Stross writes, but I always marvel that the New York Times gives him the platform to broadcast it. Today, Stross is doing all he can to imply there’s a looming menace to the book publishing industry that “books are about to be napsterized.” His is a call to arms for authors and publishers.

It’s crap.

Here’s the weirdest quote in the essay by Stross: “I will forward the suggestion along (to give away books free, like Nine Inch Nails does its music), as soon as authors can pack arenas full and pirated e-books can serve as concert fliers.”

The implication of that quote is to suggest musicians can monetize free content but authors can’t. In reality, a vast number of books published are, indeed, loss-leaders for authors. Consulting gigs, speaking fees and “publish or perish” professorships serve as the primary ROI on the investment most business writers gain from the investments they make in getting a book published. To use Stross’ example, however, if, for some hypothetical reason merely to follow Stross’ illogic, he were to give away the digital version of The Lost Symbol to anyone who wanted to download it — free, the lost revenue would be a rounding error to what he will make from all the different print versions, movies rights and marketing tie-ins he will receive over the life of the franchise.

While no one may ever pack an arena to hear Stross speak, the first weekend the movie The Lost Symbol appears in movie theaters, it is like $100 million will be generated — a number Nine In Nails couldn’t touch.

(Next, I feel that Stross will go after public libraries and their piracy menace.)

The premise of the original post is the same: Some publishers will start wrapping themselves up in the “P” word (piracy). And they will attempt to get authors to fight their battles for them.

The way publishers can fight back is to price correctly. A book that takes days to read is not the same as a song that takes three minutes or even a movie that take 90 minutes of your time. Priced correctly, digital books can be a boon to all parties. If publishers listen to fear-mongers like Stross, one day soon they’ll see authors and readers by-passing them altogether.

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  • Great post. I'm starting to believe that it's just asking too much for a once-successful industry to make radical changes to survive. Not to go all Clay Christensen on you, but in business after business that produce content — music, TV, movies, books, news — so few embrace the change and so many fight to maintain the status quo. It will probably take brand new players to change things.

  • alkalar

    Thanks, Rex. A good revision on a great subject.

    The competition is already in the race with great eBooks, often by new authors, priced in the $5 range. And the author gets a lot bigger slice of the action than the pittance the NY houses can afford for hard backs and mass market paperbacks. I'll beat our own drum for AKW Books (akwbooks.com). We're a new house, but with a more aggressive model aimed at lower prices, standards every bit as high as the NY publishers, and a growing stable of really talented authors. We're not a threat to Random House — YET.

    And we're not alone. Other small houses are getting into the act along with Google.

    And just to add to the big publisher's worries is an army of self-published authors. Not all of these are worthy of publication, but some are, and many of them are willing to do all the work necessary to get their books into the hands of the reading public. Most are pushing paper at fairly high prices (short runs cost more), but some are getting into the eBook arena.

    eBooks still lack a big audience because the portable readers are still too expensive. But Taiwan is getting into the act and eventually lower cost handheld readers will arrive along with Heaven only knows what new technology that could change the whole ballgame.

  • Dear publishers, charge for where you bring value — discovering, editing and marketing great authors.

    Doing all that isn't free, you know.

  • >Doing all that isn't free, you know.

    I don't understand what you mean. When I say charge for something, I mean don't give it away for free. Do I need to explain this again: If a book is not being printed on paper, don't charge me for the printing and paper.

  • I quoted the bit I mean: finding authors, editing their stuff, and marketing it. I suspect that you think this costs a whole lot less than it really does.

  • In my post, I linked back to another post that explores those costs — so no, I don't suspect anything, I know exactly what it costs. It links to the work of Peter Olson, the former CEO of Random House, who breaks down precisely those costs.

    I assume he knows what those costs are as well as you or I may know them, as he ran the worlds largest book publishing company for many years. He's the one I'm depending on to inform my understanding of the costs of “a book” vs. the cost of manufacturing and distribution of a physical product — and the wastes related to current book industry business model.

  • >Doing all that isn't free, you know.

    I don't understand what you mean. When I say charge for something, I mean don't give it away for free. Do I need to explain this again: If a book is not being printed on paper, don't charge me for the printing and paper.

  • I quoted the bit I mean: finding authors, editing their stuff, and marketing it. I suspect that you think this costs a whole lot less than it really does.

  • In my post, I linked back to another post that explores those costs — so no, I don't suspect anything, I know exactly what it costs. It links to the work of Peter Olson, the former CEO of Random House, who breaks down precisely those costs.

    I assume he knows what those costs are as well as you or I may know them, as he ran the worlds largest book publishing company for many years. He's the one I'm depending on to inform my understanding of the costs of “a book” vs. the cost of manufacturing and distribution of a physical product — and the wastes related to current book industry business model.