The Post-agency Customer Mood: Publishers, Panic Now!

panic.jpegIf the well-read, book-loving and e-loving crowd at Mobile Read is any indication, the Agency Five may have misfired more than they realize with the new pricing model and ensuing chaos. My three standout experiences this week involved a library book, a paperback book, and a poll at Mobile Read to see if I was the only one wondering when on earth the madness would end... 1) The Library Book This is a simple enough tale. A book came out three weeks ago. It's part of a series and I have read every single other book in this series. In the old days, I would have bought it at once. Someone always had a coupon code, or a rebate or something. I would have gotten a deal and bought the book the day it came out. No coupon codes now. No sale prices. No rebates. And a hardback price. So I wishlisted it and waited for the price to drop. And this week? It turned up in the new releases area of my public library's ebook collection. Lesson to the customer: she who is patient can read the book for free. Lesson to the publisher: he who over-prices loses the sale.

2) The Paperback

This is the sort of mess the new agency system was supposed to fix for us. I was price-shopping for The Stand by Stephen King. It’s an old favourite, and it’s massive, so I thought that if the right price came along, I could turf my old paperback and same myself some shelf space.

But it seems the ebook rights are held by the rights holders of the hardback edition—and it’s a different publisher than the one who holds the rights for the mass-market paperback. So, while one can buy a new retail paper copy of this book for about $7, the ebook version is hovering at nearly three times that at every e-tailer but Amazon.

I still think ebooks should cost less than paper. But you could convince me that an equal price–parity wit the cheapest paper copy—is fair, certainly for new releases where publishers fear a cannibalization of sales (I don’t think this is a problem, myself, but I would accept this argument). I don’t think that argument holds for a book that is two decades old at this point, though. And I don’t think any reasonable customer would agree that they should be priced higher!

I think the agency system could work if there was some sort of standardized pricing scheme—books less than a year old cost X with the price going down Y percentage, incrementally, every six months or year or whatever, until they reach Z at which they remain. But this whole confusing business the have unleashed upon us now is far from such a system, and it’s leaving customers baffled and angry and suspicious. No way am I paying hardback prices for an ebook version of a decades-old mass market paperback! Are they crazy?

3) The Poll at Mobile Read

So I took it to my friends on the forums and posed them this question: how has your ebook spending changed since the agency switch? Are you buying the same amount of books you used to buy? Less? More? Other?

Over 100 people have responded so far. 11 people answered that their spending remained unchanged. A whopping 80 (more than 75%) are spending less. And how many respondents are spending MORE under this enlightened new scheme? 2 people. TWO!

Lesson to the customer: the publishers have no idea what they’re doing
Lesson to the publisher: OMG you’re screwed

19 Comments on The Post-agency Customer Mood: Publishers, Panic Now!

  1. I personally have completely stopped buying ebooks. The new pricing model has turned me off altogether. Most ebooks are poorly formatted and poorly proofread and I refuse to spend more than a few dollars for a DRM encumbered two second blip of electrons.

    Recently I checked out Baen books. Wow! Now there is a publisher that has a grasp on reality. Their ebooks are very well laid out, come in multiple formats, are cheaply priced, and, I believe, are free of DRM. They really seem to take pride in their ebook offering – something I cannot say about ANY other publisher I have encountered.

    The world is swimming in digital media. Content providers have to provide the consumer with a sense of value for the money. So far the big book publishers don’t get it at all. They are all about scoring quickly from a new revenue stream while protecting their old revenue streams.

    But consumers are catching on. If you can’t find The Strand at a reasonable price I suggest strolling over to Baen and finding something else to read. Believe me, you will get value for your money.

    Recently I bought the Avatar Blu-Ray on Amazon for $19.99. Now THAT feels like value for the money. And I can lend it to a friend or give it away after I watch it. So I have to laugh when I see a tiny little, locked-down, poorly made ebook for $20.

  2. Part of the specific problem with The Stand is that there aee two versions. King added back the stuff that originally was cut for length and updated the dates and cultural references and republished it in hardback. Was that one ever published in MMP? That is probably the edition that the ebook is based upon.

  3. I haven’t purchased an ebook since the agency model rolled (sputtered?) out. My “to-read” list had been growing out of control, and will keep me busy for many months.

  4. Richard Askenase // April 30, 2010 at 11:07 am //

    As you said, I particularly object to an ebook priced ABOVE the then current paper version being sold. That is chiseling and I will never pay it. And just about no one else will either.

    Now, for some older books, like John Steinbeck and Hemingway, I have noticed that the only NEW books for sale are priced at about $10.00 and the ebook is the same price. Even though if I search I can get a used copy for pennies, I do think the ebook price is fair because it is at least equal to the current print edition. Publishers do NOT have to compete with used book prices.

  5. like many others, my purchases increased tenfold after moving to ebooks in early 2009. since agency pricing/the beginning of april, i’ve purchased no books (except the freebies), used the library more, and wishlisted indie authors selling for $1.99 or less. overall, i’m reading less and am being trained to lower cost or free reads.

    just a comment on the two folks in your pole who said they are spending more: i wonder about some lines of commentary by a few posters at mobileread and the amazon boards. for several years marketers have infiltrated the net, secretly posting favorable commentary under the guise of unremunerated fandom. i think some of the sharp, quick, sustained replies to anti-publisher postings might be coming from publisher-hired guns.

  6. When talking Agency pricing and stuff The Stand is a bad one to bring up as it’s not agency priced (it’s publisher, Random House, still uses the traditional pricing method). The pricing on that particular ebook has been an issue for many for years now.

  7. I’m not spending less, but I’m making different choices. In one case, I bought a used paperback instead of the e-book. The book had been out in paperback since 2001 and yet the Kindle price was $12. It was my book club’s next selection or I probably wouldn’t have purchased it. The used book cost me $4 including shipping.

    In other cases, while waiting for the price to come down, subsequent book reviews have made me lose interest. I used to be an ardent Stephanie Plum fan, but I stopped at 13. If I had been allowed to pre-order book 14 at $9.99, I would have bought it. It took forever for 14 to come out. When it did, the reviews were terrible so I didn’t buy it. Now even $9.99 is too much for this series.

    Before I got my Kindle, I never questioned book prices. I didn’t buy hardbacks, I waited for paperbacks. One of my original reasons for getting a Kindle was the lure of best sellers for $9.99. I knew about digital books and PDA’s, but never bought any because book prices were too high. Once I got my Kindle, I became a convert. It isn’t just about the price anymore. I find the whole digital reading experience to be superior to paper books.

    I’m still price conscious. I don’t think a digital book should ever be more than the paperback. I’m rarely going to pay much over $10 for a digital book. There are a lot of good books out there to choose from at reasonable prices. And since I can sample first, there’s not a lot of risk to try someone new.

  8. Before the Agency Model I was happily paying about $100 a month on ebooks. Now I only buy ebooks that are priced less than the print version which has cut my spending to about 20% of what it once was. Instead I’m going to buy a second ereader just so I can read ebooks from my library. I’ll save the money in the long run and I won’t be supporting publishers that don’t value my business.

  9. Ironically, all of the Stephen King ebooks priced above $20 are published by Random House, the only big publisher to not switch to Agency Pricing. These books are priced to match the Random House hardcover edition. Each of these titles is published in hardcover by Random House in hardcover, and in mass market paperback by one of the Agency Pricing publishers. I believe that if the ebook rights had been sold to the publisher with the mass market paperback rights, the price would have been $6-8 dollars like the rest of the King ebooks.

    I basically have stopped buying ebooks from the agency pricing publishers for two reasons. First, my former preferred retailer, Fictionwise has not come to terms with any of them. Second, I’m not convinced that they’ve updated their pricing correctly at the various retailers. There are a number of books that I’ve been interested in purchasing where the ebook price listed at the publisher’s website is at least a dollar cheaper than the prices found at any retailer. Also, if the publishers are setting the prices, why are the prices at Sony’s eReader store at least 5% higher than at Amazon or Barnes & Noble?

    With the exception of some ebooks I’ve purchased at Fictionwise with a 100% micropay rebate, I never buy ebooks that are priced higher than a mass-market paperback. In most cases, I’ve purchased ebooks at a discount of at least 15% from mass-market paperback, so I don’t consider ebooks priced the same as the mass-market paperback to be that great a deal.

  10. Like Diane, I’m still spending my same monthly book budget on ebooks, but I’m spending it differently – more indies, more books from small pubs and the few others who have their heads screwed on straight. Major pubs are missing out on my money as I put holds on their books at the library and read what I would have paid $9.99 for absolutely free. My guess is they are changing the buying habits of a lot of us forever and even if they wise up they’ll never get us to look at ebook purchases quite the same way.

    I find I’m looking at this whole thing as a war, and I’m on Amazon’s side.

  11. Felix Torres // April 30, 2010 at 4:03 pm //

    As I’ve said here and on Mobileread, I’ve stopped buying *any* books, e- or p-, from the price-fix five.
    Its been easy; half my fiction reading is BAEN to start with. The other half I can fill in by turning to my “one of these decades” closet. Ditto for my nonfiction; I have a bookcase full of stuff I’m interesed but hadn’t had the time.
    Well, thanks to the price-fixers I’m starting to make a dent. Just starting, though.
    I think I can probably keep up the boycott into the next decade. (It’s a big closet!) 😉

    My suggestion to folks annoyed by the agency ripoff: vote with your wallet and take a closer look at your bookshelf. The time you spend catching up will help you pass the time until the library (or the darknet, depending on how bad you want to get even) bring you today’s releases for free and you’ll be enjoying stuff you already paid off.

    The price-fixers have no idea of the snowball they’ve set in motion…

  12. I’m in the same boat. I checked out.

    – I purged my wishlist.
    – I deleted bookmarks to the main ebook sites
    – I deleted my bookmarks to author sites that made their bed with the price fixing cartel.
    – I unsubscribed from the new release mailing lists
    – I got a library card and have been checking out ebooks
    – I’ve been buying books from independent author sites

    I thought I’d make a dent in my TBR list over the next few years but it’s still growing.

  13. publishers really are screwed. in the e-book kerfuffle they have lost sight of what has been true for a very long time. they shouldn’t be fighting over formats. they should be fighting for our eyes.

    i think i’ll go watch tv.

  14. I used to be an impulsive ebook buyer. If I liked the look of an ebook I bought it. First geographic restrictions hit and cut my spending and now the big 5 wars have reduced spending to less than a quarter. I’ve nearly given up on the major ebook retailers – it’s too disappointing not to find what you what or to choose a book and then have ‘Not for sale in your country’ come up.
    Like others I’m investigating Smashwords and other independents and I’ve found a few gems that I’ve really enjoyed. If this whole mess isn’t sorted out soon I’ll have permanently changed my spending patterns.

  15. I have several books I’ve been working on as a writer, but I feel too discouraged to complete them. It seems all the publishers are spooked and the agents don’t know what they want or perhaps don’t want anything at all. Am I right? Should I keep on writing, or just bag it?

  16. Felix Torres // May 1, 2010 at 10:36 am //

    @Robert, the writers *I* know write because they are *compelled* to write. It is in their nature to do so. It’s not *that* great a career chice (right down there with football player, actually) unless you are very, very good and well-nigh indestructible (like the dozen or so superstar football players). If you don’t feel the passion and compulsion…

  17. Publishers tell us that they set e-book prices to be comparable to the cheapest print version. But in actuality, they have no means to do this. The price of the paper book is still out of their control – retailers set it. Take Little Bee by Chris Cleave. The Kindle edition is $9.99. The paperback is $8.00. The paperback lists for $14, so I guess the publishers are true to their word, but the list price to me is just an imaginary number in a fantasy world. Add the fact that we now pay tax on the e-book but not the p-book, and the discrepancy gets worse. I am not going to buy the paper book because I just don’t like reading paper anymore. But I won’t be ripped off on the e-book either. So I guess it is a pass for Little Bee and I will reluctantly take my money elsewhere. It is funny. I have gift certificates demanding to be spent, but the publishers are turning up their noses at me and saying “No Thanks – try Random House instead.”

  18. but surely The Magic iPad will save them?

    i’m convinced that’s the publishers’ theory – that they will be getting so many new customers via new devices that they don’t really care what happens to the old ones. maybe they’re right.

    but maybe not. i have heard people talking about how much easier it is to find epubs on torrent sites lately…

  19. I find it a simple thing: agency pricing is a way to recoup the costs of the ebook transition as fast as possible. But customers are not buying. Noone buys that electronic books can be more expensive than paper one.

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