Sticking with the piracy theme for a moment (yeah, I know, so out of character, right?), here’s an article at TechRadar that features an interview with one George Walkley, head of digital developments for publishers Hachette UK, talking about ways in which the publishing industry has tried to learn from the spectacular blunders and ostrich impressions of the music recording industry – the issue of file format compatibility, for instance. [image by Eirik Newth]
Says Gary Marshall the journalist:
Digital downloads weren’t cheaper than CDs, and for now at least ebooks probably won’t be cheaper than print. That’s partly because most of the costs apply whether you publish a book on paper or on an iPhone, and it’s partly because of tax: “printed matter” books are zero rated for VAT, whereas electronic ones have to charge the full 17.5%.
It’s a weird anomaly, and if we were in the book business we’d be lobbying Alistair Darling like crazy to get electronic books treated the same as printed ones.
The challenge for publishing is to avoid being seen as greedy. In music, the debate quickly became characterised as The Man versus The Kids, where The Man was Bono, his celebrity mates and their filthy rich record companies.
In reality, most musicians are struggling to pay the rent, but that’s not what the average file sharer thinks.
This is very true… as is the article’s revelation that the book-buyer demographic and the music pirate demographic are very very different. But as a side note, I’d point out that almost all musicians (and, I suspect, the vast majority of novelists) have been struggling to pay the rent for decades, and that the exceptions to that norm – the Bonos and McCartneys and Rowlings of the world – have been enthroned on their disproportionate mountains of cash by the same business models that are now collapsing under the pressure of filesharing.
I’d even go so far as to say that the business models in question have gone some distance toward ensuring that the smaller names in music and writing can’t make a reasonable living wage at it; if there’s [x] amount of money sloshing round in the economy that people are willing to spend on entertainment, then the way that money is divided up between the entertainers is controlled by the distribution and publicity systems of the industries that publish them.
The utopian promise of The Long Tail is that the more obscure artists will have a better chance of being discovered by readers or listeners who will enjoy (and hence purchase) their work, while the megastars will wane to a more modest brightness as the monopoly control their publishers had over the formerly-limited channels of publicity and sales frontage is eroded. Whether that utopia arrives or not remains to be seen; personally, I think we’re headed in that direction, but it will take hard work from the publishers to avoid creating the black-market demand that buried the big record labels. I want to see the artists I enjoy get paid, and I’m happy to pay them… but the price has to be right, as does the share that goes to the creator. Walkley is wise to this, it seems:
“Copyright infringement cannot be prevented altogether, only reduced,” he says. Speaking personally, he says he’d like to see action against the most egregious offenders – but he also says that the key is to give consumers what they want.
“One of the most important things we can do is to make the purchase of legitimate ebooks as easy and as convenient as possible and produce a broad range of titles in digital formats,” Walkley says. It’s a lesson that took the music industry more than a decade to learn.
Amen. And right on the tail of that article comes an announcement from Amazon, wherein they try to sweeten the deal on Kindle-based ebook pricing for publishers:
Amazon.com […] today announced details of a new program that will enable authors and publishers who use the Kindle Digital Text Platform (DTP) to earn a larger share of revenue from each Kindle book they sell. For each Kindle book sold, authors and publishers who choose the new 70 percent royalty option will receive 70 percent of list price, net of delivery costs. This new option will be in addition to and will not replace the existing DTP standard royalty option. This new 70 percent royalty option will become available on June 30, 2010.
Delivery costs will be based on file size and pricing will be $0.15/MB. At today’s median DTP file size of 368KB, delivery costs would be less than $0.06 per unit sold. This new program can thus enable authors and publishers to make more money on every sale. For example, on an $8.99 book an author would make $3.15 with the standard option, and $6.25 with the new 70 percent option.
It’s a generous offer, but it looks to me like Amazon wants to be the iTunes of books – which is an understandable business goal, certainly, but hinges on locking publishers and consumers alike into one proprietary and intrinsically limited hardware platform. I suspect that once Steve Jobs has delivered his next sermon to the Fapple faithful, and the much-vaunted Tablet paves the way for cheaper and more open equivalent hardware, the range of affordable and open devices upon which ebooks can be read comfortably will mushroom.
Will the publishers be ready with the right formats at the right price? Will the book-buying demographic be more willing to compromise than the BitTorrent kids? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
[ Full disclosure: I have done freelance work for Hachette UK, and George Walkley is an acquaintance of mine. ]