With Readers Still Willing to Pay, Is Publishing Catching a Break?

In News by Dennis Abrams

dollars cash moneyBy Dennis Abrams

Writing for the New Republic, Evan Hughes, while acknowledging the difficulties facing bookstores and publishing, urges people in the industry to “Step back and look at books in a wider context,” because “if you’re in the business of selling journalism, moving images, or music, you have seen your works stripped of value by the digital revolution.”

People, Hughes argues, are still willing to pay money for books, both print and electronic, that they’re not willing to pay for other media. “I can buy songs for 99 cents, I can read most newspapers for free, I can rent a $100 million movie tonight for $2.99,” said Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice president of Kindle content. “Paying $9.99 for a best-selling book – paying $10 for bits? – is in many respects a very strong accomplishment for the business.”

And while everybody in the publishing industry “faces to threats to his or her livelihood: self-publishing, mergers and ‘efficiencies,’ and, yes, the suspicious motives of Amazon executives,” Hughes insists that “the book itself is hanging on and even thriving,” and “More than any major cultural product, it has retained its essential worth.”

In fact, he says, the “relative” economic health of the book industry has other media looking on enviously. “Putting together an album requires not just the talents of the musician, but expensive instruments and recording equipment, costly studio space, and a team of engineers and technicians. Each edition of a newspaper consumes enormous resources. Movies and television involve sinking millions into performers, crews, and effects. Yet audiences have come to believe they should get all that on the cheap, if not for free. Meanwhile, books – not as complex a production – have held up much better.”

As Hughes points out, part of the problem for journalism, music and television is disaggregation – all of them are products for which consumers can simply ignore the material they’re not interested in. (Films, he argues, are “victim not to disaggregation but its opposite: Netflix and the like have bundled films into affordable smorgasbords, undermining the perceived value of each movie.”)

But with publishing though, “the deal with the customer has always been dead simple, and the advent of digital has not changed it: you pay the asking price, and we give you the whole thing. It would make little sense to break novels or biographies into pieces, and they’re not depending on the advertising that has kept journalism and television artificially inexpensive and that deceives the consumer into thinking the content is inexpensive to make. Two new services are vying to be the Netflix for ebooks, but most publishers are wisely keeping their distance.”

Hughes concludes by looking at the positives: ebook revenue has “skyrocketed – by more than 4,500 percent.” — an increase that hasn’t come at the expense of more expensive hardcovers and paperbacks, “sales of which are only slightly down.”

“The profit picture appears more cheering still. Simon & Schuster reported in February that the company’s improved fortunes in recent years were owed largely to ‘the growth in more profitable digital book sales as a percentage of total revenues.’ A Power-Point slide presented by HarperCollins to investors this year indicated the same thing: ‘Historically, as ebooks replaced print books, revenues declined slightly on a title-by-basis. However, profitability increased significantly.’ Publishers used to claim, at least to agents, that the low price of e-books ate up their savings on printing, shipping, etc. Not so it seems. It’s not clear whether the situation changed, or if there was something strategic behind the publishers’ cries of poverty. What does seem certain is that…the major houses have done their part to uphold the value of the book in readers’ eyes…so that, even if the whole business does eventually go digital, there will be enough value built in to support the books of the future.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.