In thinking about ebooks and the future of publishers, I, as have most commentators, have reflected the thinking of publishers that the solution is singular in the sense that one solution will fit all parts of a publishing business. The reality is quite to the contrary; because publishing is a pluralistic endeavor, the solutions must be as well.
Publishing has its great divides, like fiction, nonfiction, and academic, but there are even finer divides. For example, nonfiction can be biography, self-help, technical, cooking, current history, 20th century history, and on and on. When commenters talk about pricing and value, there is little discussion about the particular division under discussion. Most discussions, however, seem to be centered on fiction — the straight text novel.
Admittedly, a new J.D. Robb novel is significantly different than a new Tony Judt history of post-WWII events. Certainly, it is the rare novel that is footnoted. So perhaps a different schema is required for the Robb novel than for the Judt history. In pbooks the schemata are the same, thus publishers are not currently thinking in smaller divides for ebooks.
I can buy the argument that the price for fiction is too high; I see a significant difference between what is for me a read-once book (novel) and a keep-for-further/future-reference book (history). But I also recognize that a best-selling novel has sales that dwarf by a thousandfold, if not more, sales of a best-selling history, and that it is the novel’s sales that subsidize the publishing of the history book. It’s a quandary.
The easiest solution, of course, is to “let the marketplace” decide. If history books don’t sell enough to make a profit, then stop publishing them. I think, however, that very few readers would want to adopt this approach. Could we survive on novels alone? (And could novelists write so well without a grounding in history that they get from access to history books?)
Publishers might instead think about dividing the market for pricing. Price novels and histories differently. Genre pricing of ebooks may well be the wave of the future. And the price differences could be justified by enhancing the history and not enhancing the novel. The history buff is interested in original documents, for example, or detailed maps. But the novel reader is more interested in simply reading the novel and moving on.
Unfortunately, none of this gets us past the fundamental flaw of the idea of genre pricing; that is, that fiction provides the funding for nonfiction. How low can pricing go and still support a vigorous publishing industry? I am willing to concede that in today’s Internet world there is less of need for publishers in fiction than in nonfiction. After all, few people look to the novel as a source of information; it is a source of entertainment. But this isn’t true of nonfiction where the function is less one of entertainment and more one of a source for information and requires a more vigorous publishing industry.
J.D. Robb doesn’t have to be credible except as a good storyteller. Readers aren’t scrutinizing her novels to learn astronomy or history. Yes, it helps if her “facts” are true, but as science fiction and fantasy authors routinely demonstrate, made up facts and worlds are acceptable. In contrast, Tony Judt’s credibility lies in the verity of his facts and that they are verifiable from other credible sources.
What to do about pricing remains the unanswered question. It is clear to me, however, that if publishers continue to use a united schema for pricing of all books regardless of genre, ultimately publishers will fall and readers will be the losers. Should publishers divide the pricing schema into schemata based on genre, I think they will enhance the chances of surviving in the ebook age.
What remains to be determined is the price point at which each genre grows or dies. To that there is no easy answer.