If you’re one of the thousands of people getting a Kindle, Nook or some other type of ereader for Christmas this year, you might be looking forward excitedly to running amok on Amazon and buying loads of ebooks. And you might be assuming that digital editions of popular books will be cheaper than paper editions.
You might be in for a nasty surprise…
A digital edition should be cheaper, of course. There’s no physical production process, no investment by the producer in paper, printing, shipping and so on. Sure, digital books (in the UK) attract 20% VAT, but still: the digital edition should be much, much cheaper than the paper edition.
Yet if you look on Amazon, you’ll see that this is often not the case. In fact, ebook prices from the major publishers are rising. Some people see this as a sign that traditional publishers really don’t understand the market, while others argue that publishers have been squeezed so hard for so long that they desperately need the chance to mark up ebook prices. In other words, are ebooks too expensive, or are traditional paper books too cheap?
The answer is probably a bit of both. In the UK, most of us are used to physical books – popular titles, at least – being heavily discounted by retailers. That £6.99 new novel you bought last week? Perhaps it should more realistically have cost twice the price. In which case, can you blame traditional publishers for trying to ensure that they get a better deal from the new, still-developing ebook market?
And while corporations tend to get bad press these days, let’s remember that some publishers invest a lot of money in things like publicity, advertising and generally supporting their authors. Sure, some publishers don’t give a sh*t, but others aren’t quite so mercenary. The publishing industry, so large, has room for a lot of different types of company, and a lot of different types of attitude.
On the other hand, ebooks are a business like any business and selling cheap has always been a good way to gain a decent market share. Even if we can understand why a publisher decides to charge $10.99 for an ebook, we can still see that this type of attitude is unlikely to be a huge success. So perhaps what we’re seeing is the slow, painful death of traditional publishers; indeed, of the traditional publishing model.
Imagine you’re J.K. Rowling. Why bother with a traditional publishing contract? She could release a sudden, surprise Harry Potter book tomorrow in digital format, or with physical copies handled by Createspace or Lulu, and she could absolutely clean up. Traditional publishers, which tend to be top-heavy and have to cover the costs of staff, offices and all sorts of baggage, are finding that they can’t compete. The free market has been great for them for many years, but things change.
They won’t go down without a fight, of course. And they will complain – correctly – that a big publisher can’t invest in author promotion and sell new ebooks for 99 cents straight out of the bag. The rest of society does not, however, owe these companies any favours. They have no inherent right to survive in the new market. Live by the sword, die by the sword, and all that. Some will realise how to cut costs, slim down and compete more effectively in the digital era. Some will not, and will die. But unless you work for one of the big-name publishers, there’s no need to worry: books will survive.