Amazon will still allow customers to buy Macmillan titles from used book resellers as part of their partners program, but no longer displays the “Ships from and Sold by Amazon.com” text. The biggest impact is the elimination of royalty generating sales for authors on the web’s largest book retailer. The New York Times reports that the reason is the ongoing dispute between Amazon which wants to drive down the cost of e-books to $9.99, and publishers who want to hold up the price.
Technically Amazon is justified: book prices have risen due to increasing costs of manufacture and transport to place physical books on display in local bookstores. Ebooks have no cost of production, delivery or (shudder) returns. So ebooks don’t “need” to cost as much as paper books. Publishers, of course, don’t want to see revenues drop and want to continue the business-fiction that books are valued by the “format” of the book, rather than by the content. They are historically justified, because a hardcover costs more to produce than a paperback. But when there’s no physical object involved, the argument collapses. Alas, while my sensibility as an agent, makes me want to see strong, healthy publishers, there’s no good guy in this battle. And the only loser is the author.
Facilitators of delivery like Amazon and Apple don’t need the same margins as brick and mortar bookstores because they have no fixed costs for stores (not that Amazon doesn’t spend a lot of IT dollars on their computers). That’s why Apple’s iTunes and App stores have always passed 70% of the consumer price on to the rights holder. Amazon used to require 65% of the take for ebooks sold for the Kindle, but scared purple by the iPad, they dropped their share to match the Apple business model.
This fight, and the pulling of the Macmillan titles, is over the list price of the e-book. Publishers have been demanding agents and authors accept 15% of the ebook list price or sometimes a larger percent of the “Net receipts.” Our agency has been fighting the unfairness of publishers holding high percentages of e-book revenues for years. The problem is that 15% of the list price is not profitable for authors if business partners (say, Amazon and Macmillan) decide to price the e-book at $2.99. Likewise, the apparent niftiness of a 25% net receipts royalty is a bad deal if the delivery facilitator decides to collect 65% of the sale price, which Amazon used to do. Too many contracts have authors incomes tied to the publisher’s ability to artificially inflate the price of e-books; a fight I don’t think they can win.
It’s time to rethink the business model for publishing. Print runs are falling, even NYTimes bestsellers are being stocked in big chain bookstores in smaller quantities, and consumer spending is falling. Arguing over the wrong things for the wrong reasons and arguing against technological reality is not the way to improve the world. I’m concerned, but not worried; I love all the editors we work with and want them to have long careers, but my fiscal duty is to the cash flow of our authors. I think I’m the only literary agent who is also a computer software guy; someone who can edit books and refactor software. (They are very similar activities). I was in the BBN network control center the night the Internet, then called ARPAnet was first turned on. I’m pretty sure I’m the only agent with the iPad development system running on my laptop. All this e-book and web stuff is fun and it is not going away. So to Amazon and the Publishers, I want to say: stop fighting kids. The author, and agent–at least this one, is your friend. You can’t fool me; but you don’t have to.