Over the past few months I’ve been watching my expenditure on digital content - film/TV, games, audio and audiobooks - rise and rise. I am consuming more, enjoying more, and engaging more deeply across more platforms at more regular intervals than ever before. If the traditional narrative around digital content is that it reduces in value towards zero over time, then someone needs to tell the businesses behind this, and quickly.
Here’s how it works: I am being up-sold all of the time. I pay extra for HD, I pay to add credits to my Audible subscription; I pay a fee to Microsoft for Xbox Gold that my 10-year-old - one of three digital natives whose habits I support - assures me is good value; and I have even spent hard cash on those delectable green gems available in app Clash of Clans (yes, I know). I have digital subscriptions to various content companies, and I pay additional fees for individual items. I’ve now bought four different versions of the game Minecraft (not for me, you understand). If it feels like digital media companies are filching small but significant sums from my actual wallet at regular opportunities, then it is true, they are. And good luck to them. In the real world this happens every day too. According to Juniper Research, the value of the global digital content market will be $154bn by 2019, up 60% on 2014.
And what about books? Some time ago I began writing a piece how the e-book market was not a book market at all, it was a digital market, and those who had expected it to behave like a book market were wrong. This explained a lot - why the books that topped the Kindle charts were not the same books that sold well in high-street stores, and why prices were going south. From the app store, to newspapers charging for digital content, it is tough: today I can buy the entire Kindle top 20 for less than £15. But I was wrong: the e-book market does not behave like a digital market: it’s an outlier trapped in a dated mindset that consumers won’ t - and can’t be persuaded to - pay more.
It is easy to blame Amazon for this. It has long incentivised publishers and authors to sell within its mandated price limits, has priced out competitors such as Nook, stopped innovation, and failed to develop a healthy marketplace, as it has, for example, in its film and audiobook businesses - where its emphasis is on both quality and value. But big publishers are equally culpable: in twisting Amazon’s arm over agency the first time around, they boxed the retailer into a corner when they ought to have been focused on driving reader interest in value-added digital content.
With the Apple e-book case over, now is a good moment for Amazon and publishing to withdraw from what has been a tiresome duel. Neither side is winning.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.