Oncoming Meteor Targets Traditional Book Publishers

by Patrick Lefler

Oncoming Meteor Targets Traditional Book PublishersThe Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote an interesting article recently that asks the question: As more and more readers make the switch to digital books, why are so many of the most popular ones priced so high?

As physical book sales fall, publishers’ fixed costs are becoming more cumbersome. One area major publishers can cushion the blow is by keeping e-book prices higher. “If e-book prices land at 99 cents in the future we’re not going to be in good shape,” said one New York publishing executive, who asked not to be identified.

The business is changing. If publishers are having a hard time covering fixed costs today, it’s only going to get worse tomorrow. The publishers who will eventually survive are going to be those who find innovative ways to reduce their fixed costs; not devise complicated models to pay for them.

E-book prices on many new national best sellers are higher today than they were at the start of last year. That’s because the six major publishers have adopted a new pricing model, known as “agency pricing,” championed by Apple Inc. Publishers, worried about the deeply discounted $9.99 digital best-sellers promoted by Amazon.com Inc., agreed to set the consumer prices of their digital titles. Under this model, retailers act as the agent for each sale and take 30%, returning 70% to the publisher.

The major significance of agency pricing was that it made it impossible for a retailer to discount the price without the approval of the publisher. The impact was immediate. Amazon had built its market share in part on aggressive price discounting in which it actually lost money on the sale of many of the book industry’s most popular titles.

Aside from the fact that this agency pricing model sounds like pricing-fixing to me, it seems that publishers are trying exert increased pressure on both price and supply in a market that they no longer control. There are also some who would question why authors would support a model that seems to reward them less and less in the long run.

The bottom line is that the traditional publishers need to find a way become more relevant. As e-books replace traditional print, much of the traditional value provided by publishers is disappearing. Rather than placing new controls on the market through rigid price and supply models, publishers need to find a way to provide new value to the industry. In the long run, the only way they’ll grow revenues is by innovating to provide new value.

Here’s the takeaway: When the meteor hits, you either evolve or die. For today’s traditional publishers, impact time is rapidly approaching.


Follow @ixchat on twitter

Don’t miss a post (3,200+) – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Innovation Excellence group!


Patrick LeflerPatrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group – a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.

No comments

  1. It will be interesting to see which of the old media companies (not just book publishing, the same situation applies to music and TV production too) are prepared to accept the reality of way internet is changing business.

    These companies really don’t need their West End offices any more, their big editorial departments, production departments, etc. Pretty much the entire process can be outsourced to freelancers.

    There was a huge amount of wastage in the old method – wastage on promoting new authors whose books never sold as well as the publishers hoped they would, wastage on printing too much.

    By monitoring self-published authors, it should be a lot easier for publishers to figure out which authors are going to be hot, and which ones aren’t going to sell, so they can cherry pick those which they get behind.

    Yes it’s going to be some bitter medicine for the large publishers to take, but those who are prepared to reposition themselves to take advantage of the benefits that come from electronic distribution have a bright future ahead of them.

  2. How would a company go about getting to meet with the traditional publishers to pitch such a solution to them? In another article I read, it at least seems that the publishers want to move to be more available on the internet, but none of their current big providers are willing to do what they want for consumers (fear of loss for the providers, I’m presuming).
    Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.

Leave a Reply