When I commented on the NYTimes report about the supposed "decline" of ebook sales, I pointed out the limitations of the AAP's data and how certain publishers were increasing their ebook prices (and thus reducing ebook revenues).
I carefully sidestepped trying to explain why the publishers were raising their ebook prices. That is a whole other post, one which John Scalzi addressed yesterday.
After pointing out that the cited AAP stats did not reflect the whole market, Scalzi went on to explain why publishers might want to sell fewer ebooks. The short answer is that they are propping up their print sales:
This is in part because (and this seems to be a point of some confusion) there’s more to publishing than maximizing eBook sales numbers in the short term. Publishers, for example, might decide that it’s in their long-term interest to stabilize and even grow the print market, and price both their eBooks and print books in a manner that advantages the latter over the former in the short term.
Why would they do that? For a number of reasons, including the fact that Amazon is still 65% of the eBook market in the US, and publishers, as business entities, are appropriately wary of a retailer which a) clearly has monopsonist ambitions and tendencies, b) has been happy to play hardball with publishers to get its way. Investing time in strengthening alternate retail paths makes sense in that case, especially if, as the article suggests, consumers are happy to receive the book in different formats for an advantageous price. If people fundamentally don’t care if they read something in print or electronic format, as long as they get a price they like, that leaves publishers a lot of room to maneuver.
I wouldn't put the same spin on it, but I agree with Scalzi. The major publishers are raising their ebook prices so they can keep their print sales up.
Most in publishing would tell you the same thing; the point where we disagree is whether we think this is a good idea.
Scalzi has presented what he sees as a reasonable argument in favor but what he left out was that the major publishers are pushing sales from digital, where Amazon has a two-third market share, to print, where Amazon has a one-third share (64% of online print sales, also) and a lot more freedom on the prices they can charge.
Publishers are trading one set of problems for another, and to make matters worse those same major publishers are raising ebook prices and pushing consumers to buy the expensive print products during a recession.
Sure the publishers are propping up their print sales but they're also driving price-conscious consumers to wait for sales and buy cheaper books from competing publishers (this, at a time when the major publishers are shrinking).
That arguably makes the print/digital decision penny wise and pound foolish.
image by Adam Tinworth