EBooks and Agencies [Uncertain Principles]


EBooks and Agencies [Uncertain Principles]

The big publishing news this week is the US Department of Justice bringing an anti-trust suit against the major book publishers and Apple for allegedly colluding to force the "agency model" of ebook pricing on Amazon and other retailers, resulting in higher prices for consumers. I already links dumped an article about the detailed charges, and three of the six companies involved have agreed to a settlement that will change the way their books get priced. A couple of the publishers, particularly Macmillan, whose nasty public spat with Amazon kicked this whole thing off, have decided to fight it, seeing the prices Amazon wanted to charge as having apocalyptic consequences for the industry.

I'm kind of torn about this whole business. On the one hand, I'm an author (buy my books! Quantum physics! Relativity!), and have gotten a significant amount of income from the publishing industry over the last several years. I've enjoyed the process of writing books and getting paid for it, and would like to continue to write books and get paid for it, so I have some interest in the publishing industry continuing as a viable entity. And having been through the writing and editing process twice now, I find a lot of the arguments that publishers don't actually provide anything of value to be somewhere between disingenuous and insulting.

On the other hand, though, I'm also a consumer of ebooks, and one who definitely balks at some of the pricing that has come out of the agency model. While I understand that editors and publishers add a lot of value to books beyond just converting the files into a readable format, I still have a hard time with the idea of paying $17.99 for a 100kB digital file containing a new release book. And a lot of the arguments in favor of the agency model strike me as just as flawed as the arguments against it-- a lot of publishing people were crowing about this SmashWords article showing their average ebook price has dropped since the shift to the agency model last week, but it strikes me as largely irrelevant to the main concern of the anti-agency argument. SmashWords is a self-publishing outfit, with their catalogue consisting of a mix of books by small-time authors who can't or don't want to have their books published by a traditional publisher and backlist titles from established authors who have retained or recovered electronic rights. This is a very different market segment, and I don't think there's much relationship between the pricing of those books and the pricing of new releases.

But then, that's relatively easy for me to say, because I'm not depending on my book income to make the rent. If deeper discounts from Amazon make commercial publishing less profitable, well, I still have my day job, so I don't have as much of a stake in this whole thing as a lot of other people.

Which is a long way of saying "Enh. I dunno." I can see arguments for both sides, and none of them seem really conclusive. Which means this is ideal for a lazy "What do you think?" fishing-for-comments blog post...

(Make sure to keep a civil tone, though. I know that tempers run high on this issue, so choose your words carefully. I will not hesitate to delete or disemvowel comments that seem to me to cross the line between expressing an opinion and attacking people personally.)

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