Long-term there’s no future in printed books. They’ll be like vinyl: pricey and for collectors only. 95% of people will read digitally. Everybody in publishing knows this but most are in denial about it because moving to becoming a digital company means laying off like 40% of our staffs. And the barriers to entry fall, too. We simply don’t want to think about it.
The above quote is from an anonymous publisher, who unburdened herself to writer Sarah Lacey. Sobering words. And at the heart of it is the observation that, unlike traditional print publishers, Amazon does think about the digital transition. A lot.
We’ve written about it before. Skirmishes over publication rights as they relate to Amazon’s eBook lending library. Legal battles over eBook pricing. Accusations of collusion between Apple and the Big Six publishers. In all of this, Amazon is either in the middle of it or standing close by.
As our anonymous publisher notes, the battle lines are primarily being drawn at eBook pricing — and author advances.
When ebooks started, we were pricing ebooks at the same price as the print book, and Amazon was selling them all for $9.99. So they were losing like $3-$4 per book. And they weren’t doing it simply to move Kindles, since they don’t actually make any money on the Kindle unit sales… I think they actually intend to keep print books at their current prices, and they want ebooks to be even cheaper. What they’re actually targeting is the publishers’ margin.
As many authors realize, it’s a select few celebrity writers who keep the lights on. They are the publishers’ margin, since they rake in big bucks and essentially subsidize everyone else. According to anonymous, Amazon is targeting these authors; we’ve said that ourselves. As tribute to how serious they are, they’ve signed Larry Kirshbaum to run their publishing arm. “He’s a savvy vet with 30+ years of publishing experience–and they have some editors, too. And they’ve been paying a ton of money for books.”
Well, not for all books. Let’s stay with the celebrity writer here. Amazon is paying lots of money for those books. Prices that few publishers can afford. Millions instead of six figures. Anonymous: “We can’t pay $1 million for books anymore. Amazon could probably afford to lose $20 million/year in their publishing arm just to put the other publishers out of business.”
I’m with Sarah Lacey when she says she doesn’t feel sorry for the publishing industry. But I am not fond of living in a one-company town either. Some commentators, notably John Gruber, are looking at Apple as the savior on a white horse.
Says Gruber: Apple’s opportunity with books is that there’s already a dominant money-winning bully at the table: Amazon.
The problem with that horse is it is now saddled with lots of legal baggage. Specifically, the U.S. DoJ, the European Commission and a host of states are all investigating possible collusion in eBook pricing. Apple is at the center of that investigation, along with the Big Six publishers; some people in legal circles think they’re the bully.
What to do? Lacey suggests a new publishing model will arise out of the ashes of the old. I suspect that Apple will be part of that, as their iBooks Author and textbook initiatives suggest. Building a better toolset will make it stupid-easy for authors to get onto Apple’s iBookstore; on that front, Amazon is still in the dark ages.
But the onus is still on the Big Six. Or, more precisely, their disaffected executives. Oh wait. I’ve said that before, too. It bears repeating.
The best strategy at the moment is for publishers to get their own houses in order, so they can take advantage of emerging opportunities. That means aggressively embracing new technologies and alternative distribution mechanisms. And building alliances that spread, not concentrate, opportunity.