Slate's Jack Shafer suggests publishers will bring about a Napster effect if they force Amazon to raise ebook prices. I found myself agreeing with Shafer on some aspects of his article while totally disagreeing with him on others, so let's look at it piece by piece.
He starts off by making it sound as though all publishers oppose Amazon's typical $9.99 Kindle book price. We don't, or at least I don't. There's no question that if $9.99 is the new pricing ceiling for ebooks it will have a profound impact on the industry, but that could be a very good thing. As I've said many times before, quickie conversions of print content to econtent isn't the model of the future. That's not adding value. That's simply squeezing every last penny out of the intellectual property. And as long as DRM is part of the formula customers may feel the e-version has even fewer benefits than the print version.
The cannibalization issue is real in some publisher's minds and it can't be ignored. That's why I was disappointed but not surprised by Sourcebooks recent decision to delay the ebook version of one of their upcoming titles. It's an interesting contrast though: Here I am trying to find new and innovative ways to use e-platforms to get content out before the print product and Sourcebooks is doing the opposite.
I wonder if Sourcebooks has ever thought about the Kindle customer. I haven't bought a single print book since I got my Kindle over a year ago. I refuse to buy print books for myself, mostly because I want to get the most out of my $360 device investment. Every Kindle owner isn't as rigid as I am on this but I wonder how many are. I'm the type of customer Sourcebooks is at best delaying income from and at worst walking away from.
Shafer is right to note that gadgets are the key reason book publishing hasn't been Napsterized yet. Sure, there's been plenty of piracy in our industry for many, many years, but it's never rivaled the music industry's problem. I'd also argue that the 3rd-generation Kindle, the DX model, still isn't even as sexy as the original iPod. It will be interesting to see if Apple ever comes out with that "media pad" device, also known as the "iPad", which could completely change the playing field.
Many of us try to pinpoint where the publishing industry is on the iPod timeline, but Shafer makes a good point with this statement: "the electronic-book market finds itself roughly in the same place the market for MP3s was in 1999, the year after the release of the first portable MP3 player." So for the ebook world, 2009 is really 2 B.i. (Before iPod), but imagine what the world might look like when we get to 5 or 10 A.i.
The quote by Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps is painfully true: "Publishers are in denial about the economics of digital content." The $20 or $25 hardcover novel is likely to face a $9.99 ebook pricing ceiling going forward. Deal with it. Figure out ways to build franchises around these products so that the book sale is not the only income stream. At the same time, start thinking about how the book needs to evolve. Ebooks don't have the same constraints as print books. Publishers and authors, what value can be added to your products in e-format that you've been unable to add in print format?