Mar 032011

One result of the agency model

A couple of days ago, Random House became the last of the “Big 6” legacy publishers to switch over to the agency model. The agency model (described in full detail here) forces e-book retailers (like Amazon and B&N) to sell e-books at the prices that the publishers choose, with no discounting allowed. The retailers receive 30% of the purchase price.

Switching to the agency model usually results in higher e-book prices (for example, bestsellers rising from $9.99 to $12.99 or more once Amazon is no longer allowed to discount them), and should ensure that prices are the same at any e-book retailer. (On the plus side, that means there’s usually little point in shopping around for e-books; on the minus side, that means you’ll rarely find a sale or good deal, everything will be “full price.”)

Part of the reason (perhaps the main reason) Random House succumbed, 11 months later, is to get their e-books on Apple’s iBookstore, which requires an agency model contract (the timing of the announcement coming on the heels of the iPad 2 introduction can’t be a coincidence). And some Random House titles are starting to show up in the iBookstore. But, with the iBookstore struggling, was this a smart move for Random House? After all, before the switch, Random House was the only large publisher still using the retail model (the same model used for printed books), where Random House received 50% of the “list price,” which was often the same as the hardcover price, and Amazon could discount the e-book as much as they wanted without cutting into the royalty. So, instead of Amazon selling bestsellers for $9.99 and giving Random House $13 or so, now they’ll sell them for $12.99 and give Random House $9.09 (70%). (Click here for more on the cost breakdowns of e-books and printed books.)

Will iBookstore sales make up for selling fewer books and earning less on each sale through Amazon and B&N? Consider me skeptical. I thought it was more likely that the other large publishers would switch away from the agency model when their original 1-year terms end next month. Do they know what they’re doing, or is this just another example of large publishers hastening their own extinction? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below….

$0.99 is the new $9.99

I bet the big publishers wish they had been happy with $9.99.

As I mentioned in this post about the agency model, 5 of the “Big 6” publishers demanded that Amazon stop discounting e-books to $9.99, and insisted on controlling retail prices — immediately raising many new release e-book prices to $12.99 or $14.99.

Amazon argued that the agency model and those high prices were costing publishers sales, and I knew that readers would vote with their wallets, but for a while it appeared that publishers were doing OK with $12.99 e-books (although $14.99 pricing never really caught on). But a look at the current Amazon bestseller list shows that readers are voting with their wallets in a big way, and what they want is inexpensive e-books.

In fact, almost exactly half of the Kindle Top 100 consists of e-books that are $5 or less. (Additionally, there are several selling for about $5.50 that I’m not counting.) In fact, a quarter of the e-books on the bestseller list are $1 or less.

On top of that, the books at the very top of the list are skewed even more towards low-priced e-books than the whole list. Books $5 or less make up:

  • 4 of the Top 5  (80%)
  • 7 of the Top 10 (70%)
  • 12 of the Top 20 (60%)
  • 20 of the Top 40 (50%)
  • 49 of the Top 100 (49%)

And, more than half of those books are very low-priced: $1 or less. Books $1 or less make up:

  • 3 of the Top 20
  • 9 of the Top 40
  • 25 of the Top 100

And this does not include all the free e-books being downloaded on Amazon.

Further exacerbating the publishers’ nightmare, a decent percentage of these e-books are by independent authors, including uber-indie Amanda Hocking, who has 3 e-books in the Top 12 and reached #2 overall in the Kindle store. She sells as many books in a day as I sold last year, and the big publishers didn’t want her. But in 2011, it’s the readers, not the publishers, who have the power.

Maybe, instead of fighting with Amazon over $9.99, publishers should have been happy that Amazon had ingrained $10 as a reasonable price point for e-books. Instead of thinking they could get even more, maybe they should have thanked Amazon for getting customers to pay that much for e-books that have no printing, shipping, or returns costs. Because now readers are demanding more and more low-priced and free e-books, and don’t even feel guilty about it because they feel that publishers tried to take advantage of them with overpriced e-books, delayed releases, poor formatting, blocking lending, blocking text-to-speech, and invasive DRM. And now big publishers are being crowded out of the bestseller lists by independent authors, and are being forced to lower their own big-name titles to $5 just to compete with indie authors at $1 and $3.

I bet $9.99 is looking pretty good to them now.

I spend a lot of time reading forums related to e-books and e-readers, including the official forums at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I’ve seen countless posts by readers decrying (a) high e-book prices (the agency model and $14.99 e-books), (b) delayed e-book releases, (c) publishers blocking text-to-speech, (d) annoying DRM attached to e-books (and the incompatibilities that result), and (e) recently, publishers blocking the lending feature (which B&N has had for a while and Amazon just added).

In this new age of digital reading, readers DO have the power to help shape the new rules of the game. Readers control all the money spent on books, and that’s always been the case. Publishers will try to raise prices, window releases (delaying e-books), block text-to-speech, block lending, institute DRM, and their new frontier will be trying to get us all to read online in the “cloud,” which just allows them to lock down the content more effectively by preventing us from downloading a file.

But the thing to remember is that publishers can only get away with what readers allow them to get away with. Not all publishers are on the agency model (5 of the “Big 6” are, but Random House and smaller publishers are not). If readers refuse to buy books over a certain price, or with certain features blocked, or that do not allow us to download the file we’ve paid for, or whatever, then publishers will have to cave in and give readers what they want. We’ve already seen that readers generally wouldn’t pay $14.99 for new releases, and publishers lowered them to $12.99, which enough people seem to be paying.

Readers DO have choices. There are a million books a year published in the U.S. alone, and most of them don’t go through large publishers. Many books are sold for much lower prices, enable lending and text-to-speech, and don’t have DRM attached. True, you might have to take a chance in finding some new authors and you might not love all the new authors you find, but it is a choice, and the choices that readers make now will shape the way e-books are read for decades to come.

Amazon UK today made an announcement on its UK forums, apologizing to customers for higher prices by some publishers, who have insisted upon an “agency” pricing model. Under the agency model (described in further detail here), publishers set the final sale price of an e-book, and the retailer (like Amazon, B&N, or Apple) collects a cut, usually 30%. Under the retail model, which print books are all sold under and some e-books are still sold under, the publisher sets a “list price,” charges the retailer some percentage of that price (usually around 50%), and the retailer is then free to sell the book for the price they choose: at the list price, at some discount, even at a loss if they want.

When switching to the agency model, publishers almost universally raised prices on e-books across the board: Amazon had sold new releases at $9.99 (often taking a loss, paying publishers about $13 for e-books with a $26 “list price”), and backlist (older) titles around $6.39. Those prices have increased to about $12.99 and $7.99, respectively, increases of around 30%. (Note: 5 of the 6 largest publishers in the U.S., with the exception of Random House, embraced the agency model when Apple’s iBook Store opened in April as a way to break Amazon’s dominance of the e-book market).

Was this just a business decision to maximize revenue? A campaign to humble Amazon, as publishers were fearful it was gaining too much power in the book-selling (especially the e-book-selling) world? Or a way to slow down the adoption of e-books and keep people buying printed books, which is, after all, what large print publishers are best at? I’ll let you decide.

In any event, how did the agency model work out for publishers? According to Amazon, not so well:

Unsurprisingly, when prices went up on agency-priced books, sales immediately shifted away from agency publishers and towards the rest of our store. In fact, since agency prices went into effect on some e-books in the US, unit sales of books priced under the agency model have slowed to nearly half the rate of growth of the rest of Kindle book sales. This is a significant difference, as the growth of the total Kindle business has been substantial – up to the end of September, we’ve sold more than three times as many Kindle books in 2010 as we did up to the end of September in 2009. And in the US, Kindle editions now outsell hardcover editions, even while our hardcover business is growing.

So, the growth of agency model books are less than half the growth of non-agency-model books. (Since e-books are growing so rapidly, an outright decrease in sales would be a true disaster — imagine two boats on a fast-moving river, one going with the current, and the other fighting it and being dragged more slowly along.) While some have hypothesized that publishers are intentionally shifting those sales away from Amazon and to Apple, I have serious doubts that many Kindle users are willing to buy a $499 iPad and change their reading preferences if they consider a book overpriced on Amazon — just to read the book for the same price on the iPad’s eyestrain-inducing LCD screen. No, I think they just find another book to buy instead. And, as the most recent sales figures show, e-book sales took a dip when the agency model was announced, but continue to show strong growth since then. So Amazon Kindle readers are buying e-books, just not as many e-books from agency model publishers as they used to.

Will this mean the upcoming end of the agency model? Do large print publishers even care if their e-book sales decrease, or only what happens to their print sales, which are still 91% of their total sales? (Note: August 2010 hardcover print sales are down 24.4% from August 2009, trade paperback sales are down 18.3%, and mass-market paperback sales are down 21.9%; so much for “protecting print sales.”) I think what publishers miss is that, once a reader switches to an e-book reader, they prefer the e-reading experience strongly enough to pretty much stop buying printed books (I know I’ve stopped buying print books, and a quick perusal of the Amazon forums will assure you I’m not alone). Further, they’re pretty much only going to buy e-books from the e-book store associated with their device — it’s just too convenient to get Amazon e-books on a Kindle in 60 seconds, not have to break DRM or convert files, have your e-books backed up for you, Amazon syncs your place in your books across reading devices, and Amazon already has Kindle users’ credit card info. Once a user buys a Kindle, the vast majority would never even consider the iBook Store, or any other e-book retailer. Why, when Amazon has the largest selection, all the benefits I described above, and the agency model ironically guarantees that, while Amazon can’t beat other retailers on price, neither can anyone else offer e-books cheaper anywhere else?

Apr 012010

If you’ve been following e-publishing lately, you may have heard that today, 5 out of the “Big 6” publishers forced Amazon to agree to an “agency model” when selling e-books instead of the previous “retail model.” Under the retail model, publishers set a “list price” for e-books (usually the same $25 or so they set for the hardcover), and retailers like Amazon pay them a fixed percentage of that price, such as 50%. Amazon would then pay the publisher $12.50 for each e-book sale, and price the book however they wanted: $12.51, $19.99, $25, or even $9.99 (as a loss leader).

As of today, 5 large publishers told Amazon they must sell their e-books under the agency model (physical books remain on the retail model). Under the agency model, the publisher sets the final sale price, and Amazon gets a flat 30% cut of each sale. That means Amazon is not allowed to have “sales” on e-books, and that a particular e-book should be the same price everywhere. This shift was caused in large part by the entry of the iPad (which I am still not convinced will be a popular place for people who actually buy and read e-books) and Apple’s embracing of the agency model (just like in their iTunes Store and App Store).

Apparently, the large publishers weren’t happy about Amazon taking a loss and selling NYT bestsellers for $9.99 (even though they sent the publishers $12.50 per sale), because they are concerned Amazon is “devaluing e-books.” If you ask me, the large publishers are terrified of e-books, since they require a massive shift in their business model (involving costly layoffs, restructuring, reduction of rent and other overhead, changing contracts and relationships, etc.). They know that some publishers might adapt well and stay on top … but not all of them will. So they seem intent on stalling e-book adoption as long as possible (as evidenced by them trying to raise prices in the face of clear consumer outcry, attaching invasive DRM to their titles, disabling TTS access, delaying e-book releases, and generally releasing poorly-formatted scans of physical books).

So, today, most large publisher e-books will go up in price from $9.99 to $12.99 or $14.99.

It’s times like this that I’m glad to be an independent author … while the idea of a huge book deal with a traditional publishing house had always been my dream, I’m thinking more and more of the benefits of being nimble in a quickly-changing e-book industry. I wonder if the big publishing houses read forums and blogs and comments like I do; I wonder if they have any idea what their customers are feeling or how they think. Sometimes I wonder if they “get” e-books at all. It sure seems like they see them as a threat to be fought, instead of an amazing opportunity to be embraced. “Let’s delay releases! Jack up prices to double that of paperbacks! Infest books with DRM! Format them like crap!”

One thing I know for sure is that the vast majority of Kindlers are passionate readers (in a world where readers are an endangered species). In other words, the publishers’ very best customers. Or, as I see it, the reason I write.

I hate to say it, but the big publishers jacking up prices can only make the prices charged by most indie authors look that much better in comparison ($0.99 vs. $14.99 — wow). But, if they succeed in killing the fledgling e-book industry before it can really take off, then we all lose.

© 2010 David Derrico