In the 1990s, there was a shake-up when a few big corporations bought most of the major publishers in New York. Then they dropped many of their midlist writers, and there were protests and petitions.
In the 21st century, the changes have continued. The e-book has become quotidian, and we gaze at our Kindles, Nooks, Sony Readers, and Kobos on buses and planes. Borders went out of business last year, so Barnes and Noble got rid of its comfortable chairs. Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million are the last storefront chains.
Amazon dominates the book market, and I often shop there. I’ve found hundreds of out-of-print books, scholarly books, and small-press books I would simply have been unable to acquire elsewhere.
I am not much of an “e” person. But the latest e-book pricing crisis, which may be a bit like what happened when newspapers tried to compete with themselves at their own websites, is a dire problem for publishers. How can they profit from e-books when Amazon takes such a big cut? I read with interest about the recent “price-fixing” scandal of the Big Six when they tried to negotiate for higher e-book prices with Amazon on “the agency model” so they could make more money. The Department of Justice came down on Amazon’s side, and the lawsuits continue, yadda yadda yadda.
When I read about the DOJ decision, I thought, “Thank God,” because it justified my purchasing Anthony Brigg’s short biography of Tolstoy and his translation of War and Peace from Amazon. If Amazon is legally correct, it’s okay for me to buy from them, right? And though having Amazon isn’t life-changing, it is certainly convenient in the current bookstore culture. And I shop there because it’s the best bookstore.
My husband told me that he didn’t think it cost much to make e-books. I realized I don’t quite know what an e-book is, and vaguely thought it had something to do with websites.
I suspected the production and pricing might be more complicated for some of the publishers, though.
One of the best explanations of the effect of cheap e-prices on publishers is at the blog Gone Publishing, written by Curt Matthews, CEO and founder of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), a distributor of independent publishers. He writes about its effect on IPG, and it turns out terms for the Big Six publishers and IPG’s smaller clients are very different.
…the Big Six used their market power to compel Amazon and other resellers of eBooks to accept 30% of sales while all the other publishers have so far had to give Amazon and most of the others 50% of sales (Apple deals with everybody on agency terms). Obviously, the extent of the market dominated by the Big Six is a fact we need to know.”
He explains that the publishers, writers, etc., are responsible for the content and production of e-books, and of course deserve to be recompensed, while the retailers like Amazon, B&N, etc., sell them digitally, without much human intervention, and with no effort. He says prices of e-books could be even lower for consumers if retailers didn’t take such a high percentage.
In February, Amazon removed all of IPG’s titles from the store, because IPG dramatically wouldn’t accept the new unprofitable e-book contract, which was even worse than the previous one.
May I admit that I don’t have a Kindle?
This is all so complicated that I wouldn’t be able to understand it adequately without reading up on the publishing world and spending hours talking to the likes of Curt Matthews, Jeff Bezos, and publishers and booksellers and taping every word they say, which isn’t going to happen, because it’s not my business and I’m not that big an e-person.
And of course I’ll continue to shop at Amazon, because they sell the books I want.
And yet… shouldn’t the smaller publishers be given a break?
In the meantime, let me recommend the IPG website.
A few years ago a publicist introduced me to the website of IPG, a distributor of small presses, independent publishers, and some English publishers. It is owned by Chicago Review Press, which you may know for its beautiful editions of Anya Seton’s historical novels (Katherine is my favorite) and Mary Stewart’s classic Gothic novels. Some of IPG’s better-known clients are Hesperus Press, Peter Owen, Little, Brown, and Vintage Classics.
It’s a good place to browse, and you can actually buy books there, too.
Or you can buy them at Amazon, B&N, an indie store….