So Macmillan is moving from a "retail model"* (with a 50/50 revenue split) to an agency model (with a publisher-70/bookseller-30 split) in its relations with booksellers (and other publishers are quickly following suit), and the entire book-blogging community is flipping out. "This will mean higher ebook prices across the board," bemoans Jane of Dear Author. "But authors will earn less if their books are listed at $14 than if they're listed at $25.99 and discounted to a sawbuck by Amazon!" wail others. And dozens upon dozens of readers insist that "Macmillan just lost themselves a customer!"
*For those of you wondering, I employed quotation marks because since the 1930s, bookselling has been a gruesome marriage of retail and consignment. In a true retail model, retailers own the merchandise they buy from manufacturers and set the sale price at whatever they think the market will bear. If the merchandise doesn't sell, the retailer is stuck with it, and either shifts it to a liquidator or puts it on clearance--often for less than wholesale--because recovering some of their investment is better than nothing. In a consignment model, the providor of goods sets the consumer sale price, and if the item doesn't sell it either sits there unsold forever, or the consignment broker simply returns it to the owner, no harm no foul.
In bookselling, retailers are not stuck with unsold books. Those books are either returned to the publisher for full credit (in which case the publisher can remainder them to recover some of their losses), or stripped and pulped and the covers returned to the publisher for full credit (in which case, the publisher swallows a total loss on them). So for the retailer, bookselling embodies all the benefits of retail and none of the risks, and for the publisher, all the risks of consignment--and more, in the case of mass market paperbacks--and none of the benefits. Sweet deal for bookstores, no?
Like income tax--which was brought in to help compensate for economic stressors that were temporary--this hybrid consignment/retail model was created as an interim measure to help bookstores stay afloat in the Great Depression. And like income tax, we're still stuck with it, long after the initial conditions demanding its creation have passed. Frankly, this is not a situation that could have continued indefinitely. If publishers were to survive in an increasingly tight market, something had to give.
Like most industries undergoing a paradigm shift, there are some who will claim the sky is falling. And maybe it is.
But me? I'm not that worried. Certainly this news would dismay me more if I were a Macmillan author, but as an ebook reader and an ebook author, I'm pretty sanguine about the whole debacle. Here's why.
None of this is going to affect the way I purchase books, or negatively impact the publishers to whom I'm willing to submit my work.
With one glaring exception, I've never paid more than $8 for an ebook, and have never, ever bought an ebook that was priced higher than it's lowest-priced print version, so this move isn't going to affect my options as a reader one bit. To my knowledge, I have never bought a Macmillan ebook--if I have, it was priced under $7. The $9.99 ebook has never been an option for me, nor will it ever be one. So I couldn't care less if Macmillan books sell for $9.99 or $109.99, they weren't getting my money before, and they ain't getting it now unless the price comes down.
The publishers who got my money before will still get my money (a bigger share of it, in fact, if they also embrace the agency model with a 70/30 split), and the publishers who didn't won't unless they lower prices. And despite my strict personal policies on ebook purchases, there are plenty of ebooks available to me (and about 35 of them are sitting on my Sony right now, waiting for me to get to them). This is because no matter how bugfuck, baffled and blind most traditional publishers are about ebooks, there are a few out there (like Baen and HQN) who mostly know what they're doing and are cashing in on that knowledge.
As an ebook author published with a house that understands the market and the consumers who drive it, this shift in the marketplace is a net gain for me. The traditional publishers (like Baen and HQN) who understand their readers, will thrive. Those who don't and continue to refuse to learn, will falter. If, as Jane insists, ebooks from trad-pubs will only go up in price, well, the more $15 ebooks there are out there, the more attractive my own publisher's books will be to readers. I certainly can't see publishers like Samhain suddenly raising cover prices to $15. Just because Macmillan jumps off a bridge doesn't mean publishers with brains will join them.
Amazon's insane discounting of insanely priced ebooks from insanely clueless publishers has only subsidized their insanity and cluelessness and allowed it to perpetuate. It helped publishers like Macmillan with their ludicrous $25.99 ebooks to compete effectively in a market filled to brimming with smaller, smarter publishers who actually know what the fuck they're doing. Those smaller, smarter publishers have suffered because Amazon's deep discounting was making the biggies' products more attractive to consumers than they should have been. By discounting those Macmillan ebooks, Amazon was both subsidizing their stupidity, and making it harder for the good guys to get the attention they deserve.
Without Amazon absorbing losses that should have been borne by publishers and their dumb-assed pricing strategies, the products of publishers like Baen, HQN, Loose Id, Samhain, and others will have a better chance to shine, and idiots like Macmillan will either wise up or their ebooks will fail.
This system will benefit the publishers who get it right, and penalize those who willfully continue to get it all wrong.
And me, I'm just sitting back and smiling at the thought of walnut-brained, traditional publishing dinosaurs either evolving or going extinct, while the small, agile mammals of the epublishing age flourish. And I'm thanking my lucky stars I'm with a publisher who has eyes to see and a brain to think with when it comes to the digital market.
I don't have to boycott Macmillan. No one does. Just keep on keeping on, insisting on value before you hand over your money, and it will all come out in the wash.