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Revisionist History: Penguin Now Claims to Have "Read Too Much into the eBook Hype"

5751213495_b79c9c6241_bRemember seven years ago when Penguin was one of five publishers which conspired with Apple to bring about agency ebook pricing?

Remember back in 2012 when they got caught in the conspiracy, the DOJ filed charges, and Penguin settled rather than going to trial?

If you can recall both events then I have some good news for you; you have a better memory than Penguin.

The Telegraph published a bit of revisionist history yesterday where a senior Penguin manager  claimed that:

Penguin wrongly lost confidence in the power of the printed word and invested “unwisely” amid the rise of eBooks, one of the company’s bosses has admitted.

Joanna Prior, the managing director of Penguin’s general books, said the firm jumped the gun and incorrectly pre-empted a major shift towards digital books.

The “bad moment” means Penguin – one of the UK’s biggest publishers– now takes steps “much more cautiously” than it would have five years ago.

Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Ms Prior said: “There was a definite moment when we all went shooting out after the shiny app thing and spent money on that and invested probably unwisely in products that we thought could in some way enhance the book.

“We somehow lost confidence in the power of the word on the page, which was a bad moment.”

Ms Prior added that Penguin had been forced to “regroup”, and that eBooks were now released “harmoniously” alongside physical copies.

Yeah, I don’t see how engaging in a conspiracy, the result of which was to raise ebook prices and slow the growth of the ebook market, could be described as having "somehow lost confidence in the power of the word on the page".

That looks more like a contradiction, don’t you think?

To be fair, Prior could be referring to other digital efforts – enhanced ebooks, perhaps, or ebook apps. Those have for the most part been unsuccessful due to consumers not really caring about how the lily was gilded; people just wanted to read, and they had no interest in the enhancements.

So Prior could be talking about Penguin’s failures rather than trying to rewrite history.

Nevertheless, I still call bullshit.

Penguin’s biggest decision with respect to ebooks was the price-fixing conspiracy, and its second-biggest decision was bringing back agency pricing in June 2015. Both decisions were made in the hopes of reducing ebook sales and promoting print sales (it worked, just not quite as Penguin intended).

So no, there’s no way anyone could reasonably say that Penguin lost sight of printed page; it was clearly foremost in their thoughts.

Any claims to the contrary is revisionist history, and once we understand that we should consider what Penguin’s real goal is here.

This right here is Penguin’s new spin for why they are keeping ebooks high and why their ebook sales stats are so terrible.

It’s not bad business decision like high prices stifling sales; no, consumers just don’t like ebooks – which were really doomed anyway, no matter what Penguin could do.

Yeah, right.

image by Liam Quinn

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Dukes_Mangola October 17, 2016 um 3:35 am

Spot on.

Barry Marks October 17, 2016 um 8:08 am

I don’t see the connection. If anything that might explain why Penguin did what they did in that price-raising collusion. She said they expected ebooks to be a huge shift in the market and they dealt with it. It seems likely that’s one of the ways they did so.


Nate Hoffelder October 17, 2016 um 8:36 am

What I got from the piece in The Telegraph is that Penguin now claims they went all in on ebooks, that they forgot about print and focused on digital. They say they got lost in the ebook hype, which isn’t true.

Penguin was one of the publishers which strangled digital in favor of print. They never lost sight of print.

Aaron Shepard October 17, 2016 um 2:17 pm

The article is about Penguin in the U.K., not Penguin in the U.S. You do know the difference, yes?

Nate Hoffelder October 17, 2016 um 2:27 pm

I do know that, but I don’t think it matters.

The UK branch of Penguin followed the US branch into agency. In fact, the June 2015 return of agency covered both the UK and the US in one agreement (or so press reports say).

BDR October 17, 2016 um 4:08 pm

History is often fluid and you have to wonder how they’ll write theirs in the next 5 years. After that? You don’t need a history if you’re gone.

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