Crash-course preamble: before Apple announced the iPad, it spoke to many publishers about providing content for its new device, which it hoped could be used as an e-reader. Perhaps hoping that the iPad could somehow do for books what the iPod did for music, many publishers–including the six largest corporate publishers, who include companies like Harper Collins and Penguin–made arrangements to distribute content via the new device at a price point of $14.99, 30% of which Apple retained. This seemed a coup for publishers, and flush with excitement over the deal, Macmillan decided it was going to use its new leveraging power to re-negotiate terms with Amazon and its Kindle, where e-books tended to run $9.99 when published by the big six. Why, Macmillan figured, should it accept $9.99 when it could charge $14.99 (nevermind that $14.99 is, at this point, mythical, given that the iPad right now only exists on Steve Jobs desk. So far as I know, we can’t even pre-order it yet)?
Amazon held firm to its price, and then a couple of old white guys fought like only the knew how, by digging in their heels and refusing to budge. If John Sargent and Macmillan were going to refuse their pricing scheme, Jeff Bezos and Amazon decided, well, they no longer needed to sell Macmillan books. Which included a lot of imprints, like TOR, Forge, ROC, and myriad others.
And readers, who tend not to care so much who publishes their favorite authors so long as they can buy the books, got hurt. Collateral damage.
Writers? Hurt too. Because most authors have no control over those sorts of things. Certainly not over how much their books cost.
The resulting mess and its Twitstorm highlighted the bigger issue, which is digital distribution, pricing, and information. The appropriate cost of an e-book is endlessly debated because the market is still nascent and nothing has yet emerged as the “right” price point. When Apple’s iPod came out, it established price points: 99 cents per song, $9.99 for most albums, with some bargains thrown in.
Apple came late to the e-book party because Steve Jobs didn’t want to admit he was wrong when he declared “Nobody reads anymore” several years ago. Also because, of course, he wanted to get it perfectly right. That’s what Apple tends to aim for (whether the iPad manages the feat is still anyone’s guess. My thought is close, but not yet). Amazon got to set a price–$9.99–that was widely but not universally adopted. I didn’t hear much about publishers grumbling over the price; all I really heard then, mostly, was publishers hoping to be saved by the Kindle.
For my money, I think even $9.99 is too high. I tend to think e-books’ price should fall around the price we’ve always paid for mass market paperbacks: ~$7.99 or so. Over here, Jeff Vandermeer notes why he thinks the mass market paperback analogy doesn’t work, but I’m not convinced by his argument, if only for the fact that he bases his argument on the mass market paperback business model–i.e., that a book needs to sell a lot of hardcover copies to justify the bulk order of paperbacks–which for me doesn’t make sense because why are we talking about printing books?
I understand why the publishing industry feels the need to justify its own existence. I’m just not sure it can.