It was the best of weeks, it was the worst of weeks……. and no one knew which.
This was, quite simply, a massively huge week in the publishing industry. All of the various pressures on the industry seemingly came to a head: the steady rise of e-books, downward pressure on book prices (due to bad economy/presence of e-books/competition with free content/used books/inevitability), the rising clout of e-tailers, an increasingly difficult landscape for independent bookstores, and the industry’s creeping dependence on a small handful of mega-bestselling authors.
First, several new e-readers are giving the Kindle a run for its money in both its functionality… and its bizarre name. Meet the Alex (yes, THE ALEX), the Que (yes, THE QUE) and the Nook (yes, THE okay that one doesn’t bother me so much). Also: I call dibs on ¿Qué? jokes for the next five years.
The Nook is perhaps the most notable of all as it is backed by Barnes & Noble, features wireless that you can use in a physical B&N to read/preview basically anything, and also allows you to “share” a book with a friend for 14 days, during which you can’t actually read it. Kind of like a real book.
It remains to be seen how popular all of these devices will be, but certainly e-book adoption is moving ever closer to the mainstream.
Meanwhile, WalMart dropped a megaton bomb more faster than you blink and sparked a ruthless price war with Amazon by announcing that they would sell 10 hotly anticipated titles for $9.99 through WalMart.com. Amazon quickly matched and announced same-day delivery in 7 cities, then WalMart countered by lowering the price to $8.99, which Amazon also matched. Then Target jumped in the fray, and so did Sears, who announced that if you by a $9 book from Amazon, Target or WalMart they will reimburse the entire amount if you buy something on Sears.com and spend $45. So, basically, you can get a free book when you buy your dog a pirate costume (come on, you know you want to click through to see that one).
Where does this end?
Right now, even as WalMart, Amazon, Target and Sears fight it out for e-tailing primacy, publishers are still receiving the standard amount for every copy sold, or roughly 50% of the hardcover list price, meaning WalAmaTargEars are the ones taking a loss. So, assuming the deep discounts spur sales, in the short term this has turned into a huge cash cow for the few publishers/mega-bestsellers WalAmaTargEars have chosen.
But who loses? Well… potentially just about everyone else. In the words of literary agent David Gernert:
If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over. If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s ‘Ford County’ for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25? I think we underestimate the effect to which extremely discounted best sellers take the consumer’s attention away from emerging writers.
And as Eric at Pimp My Novel notes, this could have huge impacts on independent bookstores, who simply can’t compete with the discounting. He also notes that if a few e-tailers cement their dominance over the bookselling market, they could have increasing clout to dictate terms and discounts.
There are some who are cautiously optimistic about the price war. An anonymous publishing executive told the Times: “If this is a short-term statement to let hundreds of millions of people know that they will be able to buy books from Walmart.com, it’s a good thing.”
But surely this isn’t temporary. These trends have been in the makings for years, from deep discounts (now something everyone takes for granted) to competition with other cheap media to the rise of e-books to the industry’s shedding of mid-list authors, their simultaneous aversion to small risks and dependence on big risks, and their increasing reliance on bestsellers, who they often overpay.
This doesn’t have to mean the end of publishing as we know it. As former editor Marion Maneker writes, this could spur publishers to reevaluate their deals with their top sellers, and he also notes that people are already accustomed to paying more for different products. Just because James Patterson’s latest is selling for $10 doesn’t mean someone won’t pay more for a book by someone who sells less.
But it looks as if book prices are coming down, one way or another. And that shift is going to send major shockwaves through the industry. Already Stephen King, an early e-book champion, announced that S&S will be delaying the release of the e-book edition of his new book, citing a desire to help bookstores, while simultaneously expressing concern that the deep print discounting “threatens the industry’s pricing structure.”
So is it the best of times or the worst of times? It’s too soon to know. Lower prices don’t have to be a bad thing provided people buy more books. Smaller authors don’t have to lose out provided consumers don’t flock en masse to the deeply discounted bestsellers.
But things are changing very, very quickly. The longtime trends that have been shaping the industry are only accelerating, and everyone in the business is holding on for the ride.