EU ebook pricing and The Lord of the Rings

It might be due to the fact I’ve watched the movies far too many times, or perhaps some inherent nerd gene I was born with, but whenever some big publishing new breaks, I am generally reminded of a scene from one of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings films. I’ve tried to work out the directly applicable analogy between The Two Towers and our industry, and have come pretty close: Saruman is Amazon, the hill men are self-published authors. Traditionally published authors are the Elves – our best hope and strongest ally, but our most unlikely saviours. And we, the traditional publishers, the men of Rohan, must fight our own corner.

Last weeks’ news that Amazon has ‘won’ the EU antitrust probe into ebook pricing as the committee accepted the publishers’ settlements reminded me very solidly of this scene. The upshot is that retailers will set prices or discounts for a period of two years, and the “most-favored nation” contracts will be suspended for five years. After which time, who knows what.

There are publishing houses who are not currently using the Agency model, of course, who won’t be affected by the decision. You may say they’ve been getting along ok without it, maybe it won’t make much of a difference. Except I heard a statistic recently (not a made up one) that more than 90% of the total fiction market belongs to the top 10 publishers, and given most of those are using agency… well, let’s just say I don’t think any of us yet know the full implications of retailers having the power to discount freely.

Much like King Theoden, I feel the pointlessness of a fight about this, now. Last year I might have torn the throat from a person unwilling to see the value of publishers setting the price of ebooks. It’s too late for that now. Our actions must be decisive – I will be very interested to see what, if any, changes there are in RRP pricing strategies by publishers, and who of the Big 6 will move into DRM-free first.

More interestingly, though, was a comment I heard at Futurebook. Someone made the observation that ebook pricing is currently being used as a tool for discoverability, as there doesn’t seem to be another way to break the visibility barrier in a flooded market. This won’t change. But if what happens now is deep discounts across the board, readers will quickly move toward a new way to find books they love.

If every book looks the same online, what will be the most effective way to sell it?

I currently can’t see an upside to this. I am filled with dread about the immediate celebration, the announcement to consumers that Amazon will make, which won’t be answered by publishers who so badly need to explain the value of ebooks in simple terms and why they should be priced at a certain level. Dread for the hardbacks that will be released at the same time as deeply discounted ebooks, hurting all retailers but one (the high street most of all). Dread about the manner in which we’ll retain value in a format that is already being priced down to 20p by some publishers, and is the dominant format for some big authors. Dread about the prospect of a race to the bottom and what we’ll all find when we get there.

These are dark times for publishers. We aren’t provided with a view of the ebook market as a whole, due to retailers’ unwillingness to share data between each other, the absence of a Bookscan for ebooks (which would be largely ineffective at describing the entire market anyway given the volume of self-published, ISBN-less titles). This makes it hard to know where our next ally might come from; to know the best route to market for books.

Let us hope we survive the night.

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