About That Note From John Sargent

Being asked if I have any comments on this note from John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, about ebook pricing and subscriptions. Briefly:

1. With regard to the ebook pricing, it appears to me that what he’s saying is that ebook prices are going to fluctuate more than Macmillan might prefer, probably because Apple’s deal allows them to bounce prices around, and Macmillan is likely contractually obliged to Amazon and other retailers to allow them to match prices with whichever retailer is offering the lowest price. It also appears he’s annoyed with the Justice Department about this. As he notes, there is some irony here.

From my point of view this has the potential to be annoying but on a day to day basis, meh, unless Apple decides to tube prices for the entire publishing industry, and I don’t really see them wanting to do that. Given Amazon’s still-dominant position in ebooks, they would be doing Amazon’s work for them.

2. With regard to subscription services, I’ve offered my thoughts on them recently, and generally speaking my opinion on them hasn’t changed. Basically I’m still not entirely convinced that all subscription services offer isn’t another chance for someone else who is not me to a) have a say in the shape of the publishing market, b) take money that might otherwise go to me. It’s adding more of those dreaded middlemen. I’m not sure I need any more middlemen in the mix. I’ll need to be convinced. We’ll see what happens from here.

3. General upshot: Hey, did you know publishing is changing? Always has been, always will be.

16 Comments on “About That Note From John Sargent”

  1. As always with any thread about publishing, especially involving Amazon in some way, if you pop in reading off cue cards about “traditional” publishing vs. “indie” publishing, you’ll likely bore the crap out of me, and I may mallet your comment. Employ that doughy sac of grey matter known as your brain, please.

  2. Aside from retail cost to an individual consumer, I have so many issues with ebook pricing for libraries. Ebooks can be be up to 500% more expensive for libraries to purchase, and many publishers meter as well (or in addition). For example Macmillan meters checkouts for 1 year, then we have to repurchase the book. HarperCollins meters for 26 checkouts. Hachette and other publishers inflate prices (eg James Patterson’s 1st to Die is $6.84 to buy at Amazon, but $48 to buy for the library)

    This is one reason why so many ebooks are not available at your local library. It’s feels (as a librarian) like price gouging and our budgets keep shrinking so we can’t keep up. I haven’t talked to an author yet who DOESN’T want their books to be in a library collection, but these pricing structures are huge barriers to access.

  3. Dena:

    Not precisely on target for this particular thread, I’m afraid. We’re talking about the consumer market, not the library market. So let’s go ahead and close up this line of conversation, please.

    (Note well that although I’m closing up this line of conversation, I’m sympathetic; the library pricing thing is, in my opinion, more than a little bit counter-productive. But as noted, that’s best save for another time.)

  4. I think the subscription model for older paperback titles make a lot of sense. I know I certainly would read a lot more books that I wouldn’t otherwise pay for. Presumably authors would receive more little bits of money from something like this than they get now (far fewer bigger bits of money).

    Of course, no really knows what will happen. But as a consumer, I look forward to book subscriptions.


  5. Your point number 2 seems to be missing some sort of negation.
    What would it take to convince you that “all subscription services offer is another chance for someone else who is not [you] to a) have a say in the shape of the publishing market, b) take money that might otherwise go to [you]”?

  6. The Apple thing honestly seems like it won’t be an issue. I mean, given that the whole agency model/high pricing regime came about with Apple’s active encouragement (and possibly criminal collusion, depending on how that appeal goes), it doesn’t seem likely that they’re going to be doing any deep discounting.

    So from a consumer perspective, the takeaway on this seems to be that the publishers are now, after a brief interlude, back to the exact same “this price was set by the publisher” agency model that the DOJ broke up, and everything is back to exactly how it was before the DOJ action. Am I missing some longer-lasting effect from the DOJ settlement?

  7. I am at that phase where I kinda need at least one “dreaded middleman” in the form of a literary agent… or someone who knows more about promotion than I do. The “writing” part is relatively easy (hey the computer even checks your spelling, once you program the dictionary) it’s the SELLING part I have trouble with… mostly because”
    A.) I have virtually no clue about marketing
    B.) I have a day job that takes up a lot of time and energy (No kidding, I go to work at 0330 five days a week and I’m off when we’re done… kinda wears a guy out)
    so… Help, Mr Wizard?

  8. As someone who gave up buying comic book “floppies” (single issues) and got a subscription to Marvel’s Unlimited service, I can tell you I’m happy with the subscription model and feel like I’m still contributing to the art form I love. I’m also aware there’s a wide difference of opinion on it, but I think it’d make a valid comparison or at least starting point for anyone looking into it.

  9. @karl, for me the subscription question is more of how is renumeration to the author and supporting team handled. I’m not inherently against a subscription model, but if it makes it harder to be an author and support yourself when your considered successful…

  10. FWIW- If I buy a book used, then the author gets no money (I can’t afford to buy many new books, even paperbacks). All I want is to read most books once, then I either trade them in or give them to a thrift shop. I would go for a “pay per read” model in a heartbeat, even if it cost more per book than what I pay for a used one, because then the author would be getting at least something. So one can make a case that the $$$ issue isn’t less money instead of more money, but some money instead of no money and since we’re talking about older backlisted works that seems like A Good Thing to me.

  11. I DO look at price when buying books. I’m also a heavy reader.

    If it is a brand new book from Scalzi, Stephenson, Rothfus, Bacigalupi or Stover for example, I buy it at midnight on release day (or pre order it) and don’t look at what it costs. Sounds similar to a hardcover pricing model.

    I always have lots on my “to read” list. When choosing what is next from that list, I often look at price. The list is already vetted if you will – it wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t already interested. I am glad to see the days of the $9.99 minimum ebook go away. If a book is 5-10 years old, I would have bought a paperback for under $5.00. Why not an ebook?

    I buy and prefer ebooks but think they should cost less in general than their paper counterparts. I can easily loan the paper ones and can’t really (won’t since DRM is trivial and I like my authors to make money so they can write more) loan the ebooks since I can’t be sure it won’t get “loaned” again.

    I would think the “cost less” bit as time goes on when it comes to ebooks should come out of all the ends of the book BUT the author though. I mean if it were paper, there are all the stocking and distribution costs. Since it isn’t, there is really not much in the way of carrying costs. Certainly there is some value being a retailer in the loop, but really it should begin to approach pass through if the free market were really allowed to act. I would get the same book instantly no matter who I buy it from so I might as well buy the book from whoever sells it the cheapest.

    As a side note, I do break DRM on every purchase I make. I use nook / BN and don’t want to lose my books when they become insolvent or decide to change platforms or whatever. I remember buying (not renting mind you) a digital copy of a favorite world series game a number of years back. Downloaded it. Played fine. Didn’t realize it had DRM. When I went to rewatch the game a few years later, MLB had changed platforms. The server the copy called home to no longer was there. I was out my copy of the game.

  12. So far the major book subscription services pay % list price (close to typical royalty when Mark Coker blogged about it when Smashwords joined either Oyster or Scrbd) per book either per download (trad published book) or per % read (Smashwords/indies/some small presses). Amazon would be an exception as it pays KDP/indies out of a pool of money instead of % of list price.

    So far the book industry does not seem to be going the way of Netflix (buy once at a bit of an inflated price & lend infinity). Nor is it following the music industry of paying artist minimums.

    The question is can the subscription services stay in business. They are counting on more people getting subscriptions & overtime not using them and forgetting to cancel than people like me who read beyond the subscription monthly. This would be the “gym membership” model. Only time will tell if they are correct. I know when I belonged to a variety of book and music clubs where I got stuff automatically Every month it took years for me to cancel after I was no longer interested. That stuff took up space and had an easy form where I just had to check a box and mail it back.

    My understanding of how Kindle Unlimited pays different types of publishers/authors impacts what books I borrow versus what books I buy outright based on which is both cheapest for me and benefits the author most. Most of my borrowing from KU is trad published books and my buying is indie after 1st in series.

  13. What makes you think publishers will have to ask permission for subscription services? Couldn’t they just account for them under deep discount or net receipts?

  14. Question for authors: Don’t you have a say in whether your book can be included in a subscription service or does the standard contract giving all distribution rights to a publisher give them the option to include it in a subscription service as well?

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