Safeguarding the future

In the wake of Penguin’s purchase of Authors Services Inc, last month's row in Harrogate over e-book prices and of course the most recent print charts, dominated at the top by former e-book hits, we might think that we are facing a moment of existential disquiet.

The ASI deal suggests that self-publishing has come of age, but does it lead to the conclusion that publishers will face an age of increasing obsolescence, as some now vigorously contest? The truth is more nuanced.

Sure, Penguin has bought ASI in order to benefit from a fast-growing standalone business, and as a hedge against any decline in its traditional operations, but it also wants to learn from ASI’s skills in “customer acquisition and data analytics”. In short, Penguin wants to gain from the talents of a non-traditional player in order to benefit its own authors. Penguin already runs online author-community Book Country, and if it can build on that emerging platform, and grow its services to authors, and more authors at that, then the two could become a significant competitor to Amazon. Penguin is leveraging its brand in the New World, but so are others. Last week the Association of American Publishers revealed that US houses make $1bn of their sales direct—a massive shift.

The price debate is more tricky. The Sony 20p promotion looked problematic when it first emerged, and remains so in a world where Amazon price matches so relentlessly. The agency model is one bulwark against 20p e-books, but under the revised agency terms in the US, discounting, even loss-leading on individual titles, would be allowed. And, in fact, discounting can work, as part of a wider strategy.

The real argument is not about price though, it is about value, namely the value the world places on editing and publishing. Here the challenge is palpable. Trade publishers need to make, and maintain, their arguments, as the Publishers Association did with the Finch Review. Most books sold in this country are not self-published, and most are sold at prices that sustain a sector not a cottage industry. Most books could never be self-published since their authors need the skills and commitment of a third party to take them to market. It is too easy to be distracted over price and forget to talk about the wider picture of publishers adapting and evolving on all fronts, as Penguin has just demonstrated.