How you ask? Let’s get to it.
It’s no secret Amazon has been selling digital books at a loss to gain more sales for its Kindle family. The strategy is simple enough … they need product (books or written content) to sell on their hardware e-readers which is where they make their profit. And they will give the product away, if necessary, to provide the widest selection available on its Kindle r-readers.
Amazon wants the biggest catalog available to choose from. And for those who are premium members (own Kindles and not some other product with a Kindle app … plus belong to the $79/yr Amazon Prime service ) they are indeed offering books for free from their library. You can borrow one book free a month and keep it as long as you want.
Amazon E-Library Is Publishing’s Profit Model
Nov. 14 (Bloomberg) — Amazon.com Inc. is at it again. To the consternation of much of the book industry, the online giant is again offering digital titles for less than major publishers think books are worth. And this time, the price is zero.
If you own an Amazon Kindle, as opposed to just using the Kindle app on another device, and you also belong to the company’s $79-a-year Amazon Prime service, you can now “borrow” one digital book a month from the new Amazon Lending Library for free. You can keep the book as long as you want, but you can have only one at a time.
The new service worries Wall Street, too, because it increases Amazon’s out-of-pocket costs. The company is paying wholesale prices for some of the books in the lending library. For others, such as the titles from Lonely Planet travel guides, it is paying a flat fee for a group of books over a period of time. (It will report sales figures on individual titles back to those publishers.)
Beyond short-term earnings, however, the lending library is just the latest innovation to raise big questions about the whole publishing ecosystem. In an environment where books are increasingly digital, what’s the most effective way to create value for readers, for authors and for intermediaries? And — the biggest question — which intermediaries will survive the transition?
Big Six Balk
The lending library doesn’t include any books from the Big Six U.S. publishers — Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., Penguin Books Ltd. and Hachette — because Amazon can’t control what it charges for their digital books. They are undoubtedly relieved to be excluded. But the pricing control they value so highly reflects rigid arrangements they may come to regret.
Amazon used to pay publishers a wholesale price for e- books, just as it does for physical copies. It set whatever price it thought best for its overall business, even if that meant losing money on an individual title in order to boost traffic or sell more Kindles. It could adjust prices up or down to reflect new information or offer special promotions. Its standard price was $9.99, which was often less than it paid for each copy. Major publishers thought that was too low, but most couldn’t do anything about it.
Then came the iPad and the accompanying iBooks store. Apple Inc. struck a different deal with publishers, known in the business as the “agency model.” Publishers set the retail prices, with Apple taking a percentage for its services. The Big Six liked that deal and wanted it to be the industry standard.
Amazon resisted, going so far as to remove all the physical books from Macmillan off its site in hopes of forcing the company to continue the wholesale arrangement. But that sales strike alienated Amazon customers, who were angry when they went to the site and couldn’t buy the books they wanted. Amazon blinked.
As a result, most of the big-publisher titles in the Kindle store now sell for $12.99 to $14.99 each — a range Amazon called “needlessly high” when it capitulated.
I should say at this point that I am not an entirely disinterested observer. I’m an author, with two books available in digital form. And I agree with Amazon that, at $14.99, my 1998 book “The Future and Its Enemies” was priced needlessly high when its Kindle edition was released last spring. You have to either love me or your Kindle a lot to pay that much for a 13-year-old book you can get in paperback for $6. But, like Amazon, I have no say over how my e-book is priced.
Publishers, for the most part, don’t believe customers care much about the difference between Amazon’s old price and their new, higher ones. They’re skeptical that consumers respond to small price differences. A former publishing executive recently told me he simply didn’t believe that “if I really want a book for $9.95 I don’t also want it for $10.95 or $12.95.”
Look at Research
People in publishing say things like that all the time. While they admit that charging $100 for the typical hardback would be foolish, they don’t believe that changing the price of a book by a dollar or two will significantly change the number of copies sold.
The economic research suggests the opposite. In a 2009 paper that looked at consumers using computer price-comparison systems, or shopbots, to buy physical books online, economists Erik Brynjolfsson, Astrid Andrea Dick and Michael D. Smith found that a 1 percent drop in price — a mere 25 cents on a $25 book — increased the number of units sold by 7 percent to 10 percent. Shopbot users tend to be more price-sensitive than most consumers, but that’s a huge difference.
Publishers resist such evidence. The standard response is that it’s hard to know anything about pricing because “every book is different.” Every title is a unique good, and every customer values each book a little differently. So you might as well trust your gut.