An American Editor

August 22, 2012

Why Aren’t Publishers Pushing eBooks?

In a post discussing a twit from author Brent Weeks, Nat Hoffhelder of The Digital Reader wondered, in his blog post “Not All of Us Drink a $4 Coffee, Mr. Weeks,” why publishers aren’t “trying to convert paper book buyers to ebook buyers,” considering that publishers make more money on ebooks than on mass market paperbacks. Setting aside the question of whether publishers make more money on ebooks than on mass market paperbacks, the question is truly piercing: Why aren’t publishers trying to convert readers to ebooks?

We can begin with the proposition that ebooks are clearly the tsunami of the future for reading. It is not that the demand for pbooks will disappear entirely, just that ebooks will become greater than a majority share of the book market. One would think that publishers would want to grab the brass ring early while they can still steer the market.

Under the current scheme of things, ebooks are a much better investment than pbooks for publishers. If I buy a pbook, I can share it with an infinite number of friends, none of whom has to buy his or her own copy as long as they are willing to wait. In contrast, assuming I don’t pirate the ebook, every one of my friends who wants to read the ebook has to buy a copy.

OK, I realize that I cannot just shunt aside the pirating problem as if it didn’t exist, but there is a certain reality to pirating — the very vast majority of readers do not pirate ebooks. Instead, they buy a copy and if they share it, it is shared only among immediate family, often by letting the family member borrow the reading device. It is a small number of readers who post pirated copies of books and a small number who go to the trouble of finding them and downloading them.

Offsetting, I think, what believe the cost of pirating to be — or at least a goodly portion of that cost — are that with ebooks, publishers have no physical inventory to maintain, no cost of returns (unsold and overinventoried pbooks are returned by booksellers), errors can be inexpensively fixed (i.e., books do not need to be destroyed and entire print runs lost; with ebooks, the errors can be fixed and the ebook replaced very inexpensively), and sales are certain (under the pbook wholesale model, the publisher sells pbooks to a bookstore but doesn’t know how much it will ultimately be paid for the pbooks because they are subject to returns by both the consumer and the bookseller; contrast this with how the ebook market works). I’m sure there are other offsetting features of ebooks.

The publishers have been focusing, I think, on the wrong numbers when they discuss pirating. They seem to focus on the number of books available rather than on the number of downloads. Haven’t the Harry Potter ebooks demonstrated the problem with piracy numbers? Before the release of the ebooks, pirated versions were available. But their availability doesn’t seem to have affected very much sales of the official-release versions.

Publishers should be pushing ebooks, trying to convert pbook readers to becoming ebookers. In fact, if publishers wanted to twist Amazon’s nose a bit, they could subsidize Barnes & Nobles’ Nook: Buy a Nook for $99 and receive $99 worth of popular books of your choice (not the publisher’s choice) published by XYZ Publisher. Yes, the publishers would probably lose a bit of money to start, but once people get in the habit of reading electronically, few, I think, would stop.

Electronic reading done on an ereader is addictive, or at least I, my wife, and our ebooker friends have found it so. We are reading at least twice the number of books we previously read, and we read a lot. What we are not doing is reading more of the Big 6’s books — in fact, we are reading significantly fewer of those books. The reasons are simple: the big publishers, often called the Agency 6, are not pushing us toward their ebooks but away from their ebooks by their overpricing and their use restrictions.

Yes, pricing is an old argument that keeps coming back, but the bottom line is that it is an argument that cannot be avoided. Brent Weeks’ new novel — regardless of how much time and effort he put into its authorship — simply is not worth $14.99 to many of us. He is not a must-read author. Each reader has his or her own set of must-read authors, that handful of authors for whom we will pay $14.99. But the kicker is that for many of us, we’ll spend that $14.99 on the pbook version, not the ebook version, because that is the way publishers are pushing us.

This is a strategic mistake. It would be better to push us to the ebook version at a significantly lower price so that we become accustomed to buying the ebook version at a “reasonable” price. I have found that my list of must-read authors has dwindled considerably over the past several years. The more ebook reading I do, the less pbook reading I want or am willing to do. Consequently, when a must-read author’s new book arrives, I rethink how “must-read” the author really is.

The more time I spend with my ereader, the less willing I am to pickup a pbook. Yet that unwillingness does not convert to a willingness to substitute the ebook for the pbook when the ebook costs as much or more than the hardcover pbook. Increasingly, I find that I just pass on that “must-read” book and the author becomes a former must-read author. My list of must-read-traditional-publisher authors has dropped from more than 20 authors to 4 — David Weber, Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove, and L.E. Modesitt, Jr. — although I expect Hobb and Turtledove to be dropped from the list over the next few months. (I also have a list of ebook-only indie authors, like Emma Jameson, Michael Hicks, Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, Rebecca Forster, and L.J. Sellers, among others, who I consider must-read but whose ebooks are at bargain basement prices compared to what the Big 6 and Brent Weeks want.)

By not pushing ebooks, the Big 6 are shrinking their market rather than expanding it. They are losing a significant number of sales that they (and their authors) should be making. More importantly, from the publishers’ and the authors’ perspectives, they are causing must-read author lists to shrink. As I noted earlier, it is clear that growth in the book marketplace lies in ebooks. pBooks may have some small growth, but not enough to sustain the industry.

Interestingly, I think that if the Big 6 changed their focus and pushed ebooks, they could easily pickup some of the best indie authors and publish them in ebook-only versions. The biggest problem that the indie authors have that the Big 6 could solve for them is getting the word out that they have a new book available.

I think three changes need to be made. First, publishers need to wrap themselves around ebooks as their future and start pushing them and doing so by pushing readers toward ebooks.  Second, they need to come up with a way to make brick-and-mortar bookstores relevant as showrooms for ebooks. Failure to make these changes is likely to exacerbate the decline of the Big 6. Agency pricing at current levels is really only a stopgap measure, not a sustainable plan for the future. Third, the Big 6 have to change their attitude toward indie authors and start looking to become the publisher of the better indie authors by offering intensive, high-quality marketing (along, of course, with better royalties than the standard pbook royalty scheme).

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