By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey, Jack Steel and Thomas Payne)
I know we keep on returning to the same subject, but for that I make no apology. Anybody involved in any way in the world of publishing will be aware that the industry is in a state of flux, with nobody quite knowing what’s going to happen next. The two factors driving that uncertainty are the global recession, which is clearly having an impact upon every industry in the world and upon what people spend their money on, and the almost simultaneous introduction of the Kindle and other ebook readers.
There was an interesting short editorial in the summer 2012 edition of The Author, which described the current situation in quite a concise and effective way, and I’m repeating some of his opinions in this blog posting. The author made the point that ebooks are neither a promise for the future, nor a potential new technology: they are already a very substantial part of the publishing spectrum. However, according to some of the latest figures, sales of ebooks appear to be levelling off, but absolutely nobody in the publishing business believes that the figures will decline, or that either the ebook or the ebook reader will prove to be a short term fad. No doubt in the future readers of various different types will appear, some with colour screens like the Kindle Fire, but the electronic reader as a technology and a device is here to stay.
Figures also indicate that the main appeal of the ebook is to the dedicated fiction buyer, which is perhaps not surprising. I’ve mentioned before that in my opinion the novel is a disposable item, something which is read once and then given away, and for that kind of usage the Kindle is absolutely ideal. The reader can download the book instantly, almost irrespective of where in the world he or she may be sitting, read it and then remove it from the device, secure in the knowledge that the ebook is securely stored in Amazon’s archive and can be retrieved at any time, and at no further cost.
Following on from this, it’s also becoming clear that ebook sales are supplanting rather than supplementing the sales of printed books, and most especially the sales of paperbacks, which given the foregoing is entirely predictable. What is perhaps rather unexpected is that sales of hardback books appear to be largely unaffected.
Other factors in the equation include piracy, which is likely to remain a problem. In one survey over one third of the ebook users questioned admitted that they had illegally downloaded copyrighted material at some point. There are two ways of addressing this problem: complicated and simple.
The complicated way is to employ some form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to try to ensure that only the person who has paid for the book is able to download it onto his or her device, and that it cannot subsequently be copied to another device or uploaded onto the web to be downloaded from there. The problem with this is that hackers regard such measures as a challenge, and are quite happy to spend hours, days or even weeks working out a way to disable the DRM or bypass them. It becomes a kind of contest which neither side is ever going to win.
The simple way is, really, really simple. When the price of an ebook, or anything else for that matter, is reduced to the point where for most people it is insignificant, which normally means about the price of a cup of coffee, there is almost no incentive for anyone to download a pirated version when for just a pound or two they can legitimately purchase the real thing. The problem at the moment is that publishers seem completely unable to grasp this fact, and almost without exception they are almost all pricing their ebooks at a similar – and in some cases even a higher – price than the paperback version.
I’m aware of all the arguments surrounding this subject, arguments which undeniably have merit, at least to people in the publishing industry. But they’re not selling ebooks to people in the publishing industry: they’re selling them to members of the general public. And most book buyers are very well aware that preparing an ebook and offering it for sale through Amazon is something that only ever has to be done once. Every subsequent sale of the ebook costs the publisher precisely nothing, whereas every paperback has to be printed, bound, stored, transported and finally displayed in a bookshop window or sent through the post, expenses which clearly have to be paid by somebody.
The inevitable result of this pricing policy is that most readers believe that full priced ebooks are at best unreasonably expensive, and at worst a rip-off, which makes the idea of downloading a pirate version infinitely more attractive.
I’m not really in the prediction business, otherwise I would simply win the lottery and retire to the Caribbean, but I’m prepared to wager money that within a couple of years, five years at the most, the essential truth of this argument will finally be realized, and publishers will begin selling ebooks at about the same price point as self-published authors are doing at the moment. In other words, for less than about £3.
And I’ll make a further prediction: if they do this, ebook piracy will be enormously reduced, and the publishers will be selling far more copies than they do at the moment, and making significantly larger profits.
Finally, in my probably vain attempt to retire to the Caribbean, could I urge everybody to take a look at the following website, and buy as many copies of the books listed there as you can afford!
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