The Mother of all Mistakes

If “the customer is always right” is the golden rule of business in a free market, then “assumption is the mother of all mistakes” may well be right behind it. Apparently, assumption is also the wrench in the works of the business machine, including that of the book industry.

I was perusing the Author Earnings Report for February 2016 this morning, and a few lines rather jumped out at me:

The Big 5 now account for less than a quarter of ebook purchases on Amazon, while indies are closing in on 45%. (from the Author Earnings Feb 2016 report)

unit-sales-trend-20160110

In a delightful contrast to the above data, Digital Book World had this to say on the top ten best-selling eBooks during the same period:

Many of them are priced above $10; only one is self-published; and the others are published by big-six (soon to be big-five) publishers

So, according to DBW, the “best-selling” eBooks are not only pricey, but also not indie published, save one. And yet–according the above graph–indie eBooks made up nearly 45% of all eBook sales on Amazon. Conflict aside, the DBW article got stranger the more I read:

Further, there are many books priced below $2.99 and even more priced in what we’re now observing as the most popular price range for best-selling ebooks: $3.00 to $7.99. Why this is significant is that consumers are now getting used to paying a relatively low price for best-selling eBooks. Savvy book buyers probably understand that new releases may cost over $10 but that most eBooks can now be purchased for less.

Does anyone else find this assumption a little disconcerting? It sounds like just another excuse.

Contrary to the articles’ inference, I maintain that consumers have known for some time–one may argue for centuries–that waiting a little while for something to fall out of the ‘new’ category is practical shopping. I was once a high school student with a part-time job, rummaging through the ‘bargain bin’ at my local bookstore which was invariably full of last year’s unsold ‘new’ releases. My mother, and grandmother, both had similar experiences as have–I unashamedly assume–many untold others. This is not a ‘new’ phenomena among book buyers.

I would expect diversionary tactics and thin excuses in a political election, from politicians, especially individuals who rely heavily on the assumed ignorance of one’s constituents. I do not, however, have to accept the same proffered tripe from self-proclaimed professionals of the book industry, merely attempting to shroud the very real issue of eBook prices behind the oiled paper of blame-shifting. Prices are lower because consumers have sought it out, and turned their back on pricier offering, in favor of indie titles, willing to forgive typos and formatting errors in exchange for good reading material at half the cost.

The article got one thing right: the eBook consumer is savvy.

The consumer knows eBooks are a 10th of the cost of a paper book to produce and thus should cost less to buy than a paperback. Add the incentive of less money to eBooks being better for the environment, as well as the fact that indie books give the author (aka creator of the prose) more of each sale to keep. In most business circles that’s known as a win-win-win.

But… not everyone wins, contrary to much of the sporting advice young people are fed from elementary age onward. In order for someone to be winning, someone must be losing. The numbers reflect this logical notion, and from the Author Earnings graph above we can see clear losers:  namely the cabal of traditional publishers colloquially referred to as The Big Six, or Five, depending on to whom you speak.

The AE graph is quite appalling from a business standpoint. It shows a marked trend of book consumers gravitational pull toward indie books. The consumer also seems to see no problem in an average eBook price between 3-7 dollars (US). If the numbers do indeed reflect that consumer sentiment has changed, then perhaps we should ask why the Big Five/Six have not adapted to cope with it. Instead, they’ve handed over their share of the market to Amazon, almost without a fight. Certainly, they threw a few tantrums–and then hid behind the skirts of the court system–but what indies and reader alike wanted was for them to compete with Amazon. But, the opportunity passed them by and–for now–Amazon is as cemented in the US consumer mind as Band-Aids and Kleenex.

Until the Big Five/Six come up with a better mousetrap, the eBook consumer will likely continue to flock to Amazon and its never-ending well of new indie titles.

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L. R. Styles is a writer of Fiction for Belator Books

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