Agency pricing lawsuit could lead to shift in consumer book buying habits

Kristine-Kathryn-Rusch-196x300.jpgThe obvious effects of the agency pricing anti-trust lawsuit are, well, obvious, with the publishers suddenly having to operate under new rules and intense scrutiny. They can’t impose agency pricing and higher e-book prices, at least immediately, so they’re having to sell somewhat lower than they would like. But on her blog, “The Business Rusch,” Kristine Kathryn Rusch points out that there is a set of less obvious consequences that might very well have a greater effect on the publishing industry in the longer term.

Rusch, long-term industry insider that she is, notes that the agency-pricing kerfuffle hardly marked the first time the Big Six publishers had colluded. Indeed, they had been working under a sort of de-facto “gentlemen’s agreement” since forever, communicating with each other to stagger the release of major titles that might otherwise compete with each other, so that each might have its own best chance to shine on the bestseller lists and bookstore shelves.

Movie studios do much the same thing with their “tent-pole” releases, but because the movie industry is so much larger and schedules so much further in advance, the release dates of major blockbusters are a matter of public record a year or more ahead of time, so the studios don’t have to collude privately. They have plenty of time to make any necessary schedule shifts in advance. Publishers, however, tend to work on a much shorter schedule, so this kind of advance coordination is not possible without some communication. And thanks to the closer scrutiny the publishers are getting in the wake of their little agency pricing no-no, suddenly any form of communication across company lines is suspect.

This coordination has been necessary because brick and mortar bookstores can only push so many new releases at one time, and readers are only likely to buy so many at once. Indeed, Rusch points out, many book buyers are still unconsciously operating in the old mode where they buy a book as soon as it comes out because it may not be on bookstore shelves when they get around to wanting it—even though, in this era of Amazon, people can have practically any book they want at any time regardless of whether it’s still at their local Barnes & Noble.

And another factor is that the important thing for a best-seller list is not necessarily how many copies a book sells, but how fast it sells them. A book that sells 5,000 copies in its first week and then a thousand copies a month after that has a better chance of getting on lists than one that sells 6,000 per month for those same six months. That first week, in which a book has the cachet of its newness to sell it, is crucial.

If the market is diluted by having several attractive books going head-to-head, to say nothing of all the independent books that have their own fanbase who probably won’t be buying something else if they’re buying their favorite…well, suddenly things are going to look very different. Making the best-seller lists is very important to a book’s continued longer-term success in the weeks that follow. If there’s a big shift in the kind of books that make the list, formerly-bestselling authors could be hit right in their pocketbooks.

But perhaps the bigger change than that is breaking readers of that unconscious habit of buying now. If readers can’t handle all the material from their favorite writers coming all at once, they might well not buy all of it right then. So another one of those forces driving the traditional bestseller list will go away.

This is only the beginning. Traditional publishing needs discoverability so that books can sell fast enough to hit a bestseller list. Traditional publishers aren’t used to growing a book over time. Yet a lot of indie writers (with patience) understand that’s how books actually sell. There will be a lot of hand-wringing. There will also be a lot of articles on how to “find” readers. But readers will continue to buy books—at greater volume than before—but not the same books at the same time.

We’re living in interesting times. You never know. The publishing world could look very different in a year or two.

2 Comments on Agency pricing lawsuit could lead to shift in consumer book buying habits

  1. As an author and small publisher, I have trouble imaging why I should be afraid of anything the Big Six publishers might do. In fact, I’d be delighted to see more colluding and raising of ebook prices. The higher their prices are, the better my prices will sell. Give us more $50 ebook bestsellers. The more the better.

    Each of the major publishers taken separately has been more than a little clueless about what the new digital technologies mean. That’s why Amazon is beating the socks off them. Combined and conspiring, they’re likely to be even more foolish. I hate to see Amazon winning, but I do think the major publishers, stuck in one business model for so long, need a long string of failures before they’ll wake up and change enough to give Amazon trouble.

    Keep in mind that digital books are probably the freest market in human history. My modest titles get the same online shelf space as a mega-novel from a giant publisher. And if a book I publish takes off, sales can jump from one-a-day to a hundred-thousand-a-day without my doing a thing. Amazon and Apple servers can easily handle the increase. That’s not even remotely true with paper. In the print world, it would be extremely difficult for me to handle the costs and risks that come when a modestly selling POD title becomes a runaway bestseller.

    It’s also true that many of our problems stem from the obsession many publishers have with making the generic, NYT-like bestseller lists, hence all their schemes to contrive higher rankings. The result isn’t impressive.

    There are major bestsellers that are so awful, they’re only useful as toilet paper–and I joke not. In the last couple of years I’ve started a couple and quickly abandoned them. Much of their success, I could tell, hinged on catering to the bigotries, stupidities and stereotypes of a certain sort of ill-informed reader–essentially people who read a lot because they’ve never done enough with their lives to understand how the world works.

    It’d be much better if the find-a-good-book market wasn’t be distorted by just-count-the-sales ranking and driven by the tastes of the nothing-else-to-do ill-informed. For that, we need rankings created by various reader interest groups, such as those interested in both fiction and non-fiction about the Civil War. That list would give interested people a way to discover good books on that topic. Reading good books would then teach them the difference between good and bad historical fiction.

    I like what you said about sales ‘over time’ mattering more. I’ve always tried to write and publish with that in mind. My latest two books are based on when I worked at a major children’s hospital over 30 years ago, but their themes are timeless. Issues of death and dying, particularly in children, never change.

    So are events in history that shape our lives today in profound ways. The one I’m editing now is reworking parts of a successful but long and complex nineteenth century adult novel about the Reconstruction South into a shorter and moving young adult novel with a theme that’ll matter for generations of teens. Lily’s Ride will be an exciting tale of a young girl who rides through the night to intercept her father and warn him that a large contingent of mounted Klansmen plans to intercept and kill him.

    Whether it makes the bestseller lists or not, that’ll always be a great story.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

  2. Susan Lulgjuraj // November 3, 2013 at 2:30 pm //

    I read this post earlier by Rusch and been trying to figure it out. I feel like it’s something not as severe as she was speculating things might be.

    However, she did make some interesting points and definitely opens eyes a little bit in her posts.

    I certainly don’t buy all my books when things come out. Although, I keep a reminder that this is book I want to read.

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