An American Editor

November 26, 2012

The Merger Apocalypse

It has been a while since I wrote about ebooks and books in general. For the most part, nothing new or exciting has been happening once you move away from the hardware side of things. But the merger of Random House and Penguin is a comment-worthy event.

In the past, consolidation has been very bad for professional editors. Somehow these mergers and purchases needed to be paid for and with supposedly declining sales in bookworld, the way to pay for the merger was to cut expenses. The primary way to cut expenses has been to cut costs in areas that consumers do not see or notice until too late, thus primarily in editorial and book production.

Past consolidations have resulted in layoff of editorial and production personnel and in lowering of fees paid to freelance editors. In preconsolidation days, there was competition for editorial services, so freelancers could easily raise prices. In postconsolidation days, competition has been greatly reduced, there are fewer publishers to compete with each other for editorial services and thus the (successful) downward pressure on pricing. Freelance editors have little place to turn when where there was once two there is now but one job opportunity (publisher).

The merger of Random House and Penguin, who combined will account for approximately 25% of traditionally published (as opposed to self-published) books, is likely to spur a second merger, that of HarperCollins and Macmillan (or perhaps it will be HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster), who combined will account for at least another 20% of that market. And when pricing for freelancers is set, it will be set companywide — it will make little difference which imprint of the RandomPenguin colossus a freelancer works for, the pricing will be fairly uniform, and increasingly depressed. Or so experience says.

I understand why the merger is occurring: somehow a company has to combat Amazon and Apple and the most logical way is to make it so that Amazon and Apple cannot ignore the publisher’s demands because neither can forego stocking 25% of traditionally published books. (And let us not forget that Amazon is working to build its own publishing behemoth as a foil to these publisher tactics.)

Yet there is another possibility. What if one or both of these megapublishers — RandomPenguin or HarperMacmillan — decides to combat Amazon and Apple directly? It strikes me that the way to do it would be to buy Barnes & Noble. Buying B&N would give them immediate access directly to consumers. They could set terms for distribution with their captive company (bring back agency pricing) and tell Amazon and Apple they, too, can have access to these books but on the same terms as B&N. It would put the publishers back into control quickly, and B&N could be bought cheaply — a couple of billion dollars ought to do it.

Another possibility, although one that would likely have limited success, would be for publishers to start a “first edition” club only for brick-and-mortar stores. B&M stores would be given the exclusive opportunity to sell to consumers collectible first edition-first printing-author signed hardcover books that come with an included ebook copy. If done smartly, it could be an incentive for consumers to enter a b&m bookstore. I think, however, publishers would blow it simply because they seem to blow everything else.

The bottom line is that just as these consolidations are likely to be bad news for editors, they are likely, too, to be bad news for consumers and for sellers like Amazon and Apple.

The consolidation of the publishing industry has been ongoing for 30 years. The problem is that there are fewer large publishers to consolidate today than 30 years ago. It strikes me that if the Justice Department doesn’t think that Amazon dominates the ebook retail market in the United States and that it never did, it would be hard pressed to oppose these consolidations or even the purchase of B&N by a combination of the megapublishers because their market position would be less than that of Amazon.

Are we in for interesting times in publishing? I think more worrisome than interesting. If book quality is noticeably declining preconsolidation, what will it be postconsolidation? If editorial incomes are in decline, how much more rapid will that decline be postconsolidation? If book prices are on the rise, how much faster will they rise postconsolidation?

The question that comes to mind, however, is this: Would RandomPenguin have come about if Amazon were not acting like the Wal-Mart of ebook world? I have no inside information but I suspect that the answer is no, the merger would not have been proposed. I think it is fear of the Amazon vision of the future that is driving this merger, with the final straw being the court’s decision to approve the settlement in the agency pricing case. That settlement gives publishers little leeway against Amazon in the absence of controlling a large enough portion of the market that Amazon cannot do without that portion’s product, which would be the case with RandomPenguin controlling 25% of the traditionally published market.

The more I think about the megapublishers joining to purchase B&N, the more I think it would be a smart move. There are a lot of ways that publisher ownership of the chain could effect cost savings, and with good planning, the physical stores could be made relevant again. More importantly, B&N’s online store is already a well-established and well-known destination for books for consumers, which would relieve publishers of having to create a new online presence and drive traffic to it, a difficult task. And, as noted earlier, it would provide leverage for dealing with Amazon and Apple.

What do you think?

May 7, 2010

Smashwords is the Real Threat to Agency Pricing of eBooks

Smashwords and ebooksellers like Smashwords (such as Books for a Buck) are the real threat to agency pricing and the Agency 5 (Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and HarperCollins). The reason is simple: the combination of quality and low price.

I find it hard to justify paying $14.99 for a fiction ebook unless I am absolutely enthralled with the author, and even then I am more inclined to pass on the ebook than spend that kind of money on a read-once-throwaway ebook. No need to repeat all the reasons; they have been bandied about the Internet and the magazines for months. And if I don’t know the author, I certainly wouldn’t pay the agency price. Amazon may have had it right when it set a top price of $9.99.

But look at Smashwords and similar sites. They sell ebooks in many categories from authors with whom I am not familiar for a reasonable price. I’m much more likely to spend $3.99 on an unknown author than $14.99. Of course, that isn’t enough to be a threat to the Agency 5. The Smashwords threat comes by Smashwords’ authors also being available in the iBookstore and Amazon, but primarily in the iBookstore.

It is in the iBookstore that the Agency 5 are face to face with competing books that cost significantly less. In publishing, it isn’t the publisher who sells an ebook; it is the author, the story synopsis, the ebook itself. No one goes around and says “I bought a great Hachette ebook yesterday.” Publisher branding value among ebookers is nearly nonexistent and I suspect noninfluential in the decision whether or not to buy an ebook.

For agency pricing to succeed, by which I mean the Agency 5 at minimum do not see a decrease in ebook sales from the pre-agency days, ebookers have to equate quality reads with the names of the giant publishers. Otherwise, all that will happen is that the blockbuster bestseller from the Stephen King-/Dan Brown-recognition-level authors will sell at the agency pricing and less-recognized authors down to unrecognized authors without the Oprah kick will have less-than-stellar ebook sales.

It is these second- and third-tier authors who have to compete against the Smashwords authors and for whose readers price is a major component of the decision to buy or not. In a bricks-and-mortar world, the Smashwords authors stand little chance, but in the Internet world they stand an equal chance — the Internet is the great sales leveler.

The playing field is level because all books display a cover, offer a sample read, have similar story blurbs. The differences are price and publisher name, but the latter has little, if any, swaying power, especially when you get down to the subsidiary names with which few readers are familiar. (Can you tell me who owns Ballantine? DAW? Basic? Do you care?)

The advantages that the Agency 5 do retain really relate to the level of professionalism in putting together the ebook — the professional editing, the professional cover design. But that advantage is easily eliminated by Smashwords authors who could hire these services independently [see, e.g., Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1) and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)], and with the right pricing, is readily overlooked by ebookers. Even though I am an editor and find amateurish errors annoying (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), I am more forgiving of them in a $1.99 ebook than in a $14.99 ebook, where I won’t forgive them at all. (Perhaps the Agency 5 should rethink offering a warranty of quality; see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty.)

The big gamble that the Agency 5 is making is that ebookers will associate quality reading with their brands and be willing to pay an inflated price for that quality. The reality that will strike home eventually is that such thinking is delusional. eBookers do not equate quality with the Agency 5 brands; if anything, the Agency 5 have done such a poor public relations job with every aspect of ebooks that any association of their brands with quality have long disappeared. eBookers, as is true of most readers, look first for an interesting and seemingly well-written story. Then they look for pricing and production quality.

Combine an interesting and seemingly well-written story with a reasonable price and you have an ebook sale. The ebooker doesn’t care if the ebook is from Smashwords or Hachette. Consequently, Smashwords-type ebooksellers are the real threat to agency pricing and the Agency 5. The more Smashwords and its companion ebooksellers, like Books for a Buck, do to increase quality of the books they offer and the lower the prices they offer those books for, the more in trouble agency pricing and the Agency 5 are. I’ve yet to meet an ebooker who only buys Simon & Schuster ebooks. And we haven’t even touched upon the all the places that offer free ebooks, such as Feedbooks.

Smashwords, Books for a Buck, Feedbooks, and other smaller, independent publishers or ebook outlets are squeezing ebook pricing. eBookers want a good read at a reasonable price, which is what they get from these alternatives. The Agency 5’s plan to force ebookers to “value” ebooks by keeping pricing artificially high will not withstand the assault. Yes, the very top authors — the most popular authors — will probably be able to command the Agency 5 ebook prices, but they are not enough to sustain traditional publishers. There are too few Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings to build a business around the popularity of their books.

If iBookstore sales aren’t significant for the Agency 5 at the higher end of the agency pricing scheme, and if iBookstore sales for the Smashwords-type publishers/sellers show growth, the Agency 5 are doomed. Of course, it doesn’t help the Agency 5 that Random House is sitting on the sidelines. Imagine if its ebook sales continue to grow while the Agency 5’s sales decline.

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