Are book prices behind the times?: A #FutureChat recap

Are book prices behind the times?: A #FutureChat recap

Not that it's a new topic. "Half of all book buyers expect to pay less for ebooks," The Bookseller reported in March 2011.

And as my colleague Philip Jones who wrote that article on then-new research from 2010 by Mintel joined us Friday for #FutureChat, you could still see the same factors being debated among some participants. The lack of some physical costs (paper, warehousing, transport) prompts logical expectations of sharply lower prices for ebooks. Perhaps what's less logical is that we still must see these litanies recited in full, after so many years of reiteration.

Frequent #FutureChat-er Chris Meadows, in fact, who had to miss our chat last Friday, wrote up his thoughts at TeleRead in Are ebook prices too low? No, but they used to be too high, taking up the long-running ebook pricing liturgy deftly:

Customers aren’t stupid. They know with e-books they’re paying for pixels, not solid atoms. There are no physical printing and shipping costs, and no need for returns. The reason Amazon’s $9.99 e-books went over so well was that they played to e-book readers’ pre-existing prejudice. And I’m certainly not going to argue against the idea that a medium with lower physical costs should cost less. That’s just part of how the business works.

Meadows' piece on the issues of the chat is most welcome, of course, and in terms of the ebook portion of the question — he sets aside other formats' issues in his write — can be heard echoed in the new essay for us here at The FutureBook from Enders' Douglas McCabe:

If publishers can’t remain competitive at these lower prices (especially with even-lower-priced indies breathing down their necks), they’ll either go out of business or they’ll figure out a way to get competitive. Or maybe some will do the former and some the latter. 

Join us every Friday for #FutureChat live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

McCabe, in Books and the second disruptive wave, however, is looking at a far wider patch of beach than the ebook. Indeed, this is his point: ebooks are not the "final disruptor," if you will, and in fact have "not been as destructive as many feared." No, the real danger, McCabe argues, is that:

Books are now less immune to broader social, technology and consumption trends than in the past. The content economy has turned from a push to a pull structure, and it is impossible to envisage that books will not suffer in this process.

As quoted by my associate Sarah Shaffi in her write-up on the Enders report, itself:

The biggest challenge for publishers could be the cost of the underlying infrastructure as they embrace new business models. Such moves cannot simply be seen as a shift in format. The economics of content online are different, and more challenging: low barriers to entry and zero marginal distribution costs mean many services emerge, usually chasing huge scale on low ARPU [average revenue per user]. This in turn means users are unwilling to pay for content (they can get it for free elsewhere) and just getting discovered is a huge part of the competitive challenge.

What McCabe is seeing as the real wave of disruption building just offshore is this:

Consumers are being distracted by a wide variety of activities delivered on mobile devices, eating into classic book reading time.

And where we had begun our #FutureChat exchanges wasn't, in fact, on the ebook plain, specifically, but in books overall. Jones' initial concern as Go Set a Watchman rolled out was that here was a book with a massive, waiting audience (the title has held its UK market dominance for the two weeks since it launched) and yet the initial pricing of the book and retailer action had led to its introduction to the market under deep discounting.

In fact, we see pressures in both directions. As McCabe looks to the competitive onslaught of other entertainment — in any medium or media because it's the loss of reading time that worries him, not head-to-head electronics — Jones looks to the sluggish evolution of pricing patterns in books of all formats. 

And maybe it's time we (all of us, this is aimed at no one in particular) could give it a rest about ebooks needing no paper and no warehouses. We get that.

The pricing dilemma isn't solely about ebooks and their dynamic has a life of its own that long ago moved past the physical-materials issue.

Why are book prices, overall, what they are? We didn't get that answer in #FutureChat. But we had a lively discussion, as ever, and appreciate all who joined in, including a first visit from Peter Snell of Barton's Bookshop in Leatherhead — it would be great to have more bookshop folks come along.

Here are some selected moments from our chat, which had begun, of course, with the question of whether Watchman's launch had been priced as robustly as it might have been. I especially liked the part about Harper Lee action figures.

See you Friday for another #FutureChat.

Join us every Friday for #FutureChat live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

Main image - Pixabay: PixelAnarchy