One of the more curious things about the market today is the 99p e-book and the industry’s love-hate relationship with the price. So let me clarify one thing: 99p for a work of fiction (and it is mainly digital fiction) is a troubling figure. It’s less than the worth of the work, and lower than its price in other formats. It takes high street bookshops out of the game and plays directly into Amazon’s hands. It shows that despite fighting an expensive battle for the right to price e-books, the industry lost the war.
Of course, as a price point 99p also works. As I write this, the number one Kindle title is He Said/She Said by Hodder writer Erin Kelly, priced by the publisher at 99p, having enjoyed solid sales in hardback since April. Hodder has nine months to grow Kelly’s brand before the paperback edition is out, something it can use smart e-book pricing to do. Digital specialists such as Bookouture and Head of Zeus have built businesses using low price-points to gain visibility for authors from Mel Sherratt to Nadine Dorries, as did self-published writers such as Stephen Leather (also traditionally published by Hodder) and Kerry Wilkinson before them. We should not quibble at authors building their own careers, or publishers using price promotions strategically. Neither should we assume higher prices are always a good thing: Amazon has argued that low pricing grows the customer base, something it has also tried to drive through Kindle Unlimited and Prime. Yet no one should be easy about 99p. One chief executive told me - in response to the Bookouture acquisition by Hachette - that he could not see how 99p could sustain the infrastructure of his business. Extrapolate that out to the sector and one wonders if we should look at 99p as some do the subscription model, streaming or special sales: with channel-specific rather than content-specific prices.
Publishers have become more sophisticated over Recommended Retail Prices (r.r.p.), latterly lowering the price of hardbacks in order to lower the visibility of discount. But the debate over the discounting of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage (with an r.r.p. of £20 and retailing at £10) suggests that contradictions remain. The internet introduces a new quandary too: prompted by the recent furore over Amazon listing special sales titles in preference to new books, the Society of Authors has asked publishers to ensure those cheap editions do not leak onto the traditional market, but there is no such dark net for e-book editions.
The half-year review shows the importance of value at a time when bestsellers are shifting fewer copies - but what’s happening in the sectors we do not have data for might tell a different story. It might tell us that volume now comes at a price - and a cost.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.