The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

The Discussion That Will Not Die!


Tales from the Crypt Bronte

Now the dust has almost settled on the Amazon-Macmillan dispute, John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, laid out their new position on availability, pricing and the (much discussed) agency model yesterday:

We will price our e-books at a wide variety of prices. In the ink-on-paper world we publish new books in different formats (hardcover, trade paperback, and mass market paperback) at prices that generally range from $35.00 to $5.99. In the digital world we will price each book individually as we do today… For physical books, the majority of new release hardcovers are published in cheaper paperback versions over time. We will mirror this price reduction in the digital world.

This follows hot on the heels Motoko Rich’s second stab at explaining the issues around pricing for The New York Times (her previous — fairly woeful — attempt is here):

Publishers argue that it would be difficult to sustain a vibrant business on much lower prices. Margins would be squeezed, and it would become more difficult to nurture new authors…“You’re less apt to take a chance on an important first novel if you don’t have the profit margin on the volume of the big books,” said Lindy Hess, director of the Columbia Publishing Course, a program that trains young aspirants for jobs in the publishing industry. “The truth about this business is that, with rare exceptions, nobody makes a great deal of money.”

This echoes similar points made by Lydia Dishman’s in an earlier article, “The Case Against Dirt-Cheap E-Books”, at BNET:

If massive sales are the only aim, content is devalued to the point of creating digital pulp. Maybe no one old enough to remember real pulp fiction (not the Tarantino film) is reading this, but the only thing that lives on from that era are histories of the pulp fiction genre, not the actual books, which by definition were cheaply produced and contained even “cheaper” content. Pulp’s inherently ephemeral — not exactly a stable foundation for a new business model.

Pricing seems to be the issue that just will not go away right now, and none of the points raised here are new. But I guess the upside is that there is now some more informed discussion going on and publishers are beginning to take it seriously. That, and John Sargent giving other CEO’s a free lesson in communications and transparency.

(Image from R. Sikoryak‘s Masterpiece Comics published by Drawn & Quarterly)

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  1. Thanks so much for linking to my post. I agree that more informed discussion is going on and that is a good thing. A far cry from the “days of old” when such discussions (and the forums in which to have them) did not exist. Hopefully it will serve to change the business for the better.

  2. Thanks Lydia — I enjoyed your post. And I think it is important to stress that (contrary to Chris Dannen and Michael Kinsley — who really doesn’t know what he is talking about) the vast majority of publishers do not have a lot of “fat” to cut.

    Even before e-books and the recession, publishing was already a nickel-and-dime business, and publishers are always looking at ways to cut costs… Most publishing staff are already under-paid and work long hours. Most publishers don’t waste money on useless advertising (which is one of the reasons why newspapers have found it so so easy to get rid of book review sections as opposed to say sections devoted to cars where manufacturers and dealers advertise a lot) and if they advertise at all, they’ll do it for books or authors that are already successful (notice how often “New York Times Bestseller” appears in ads?). Expensive cross-country author tours, and boozy junkets are becoming a thing of the past, and despite one or two high-profile deals, few publishers pay massive advances. Nevertheless, this isn’t the perception, and it is important to keep saying these things, communicate and be transparent…

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