This 2017 installment of my annual predictions for the book publishing is a few days late due to ongoing ill health, which is a good metaphor for the current state of the book publishing industry. As more people discover the advantages of ebook purchases the publishing and bookshop trades continue to suffer in relation to hardbacks and paperbacks and this has led the publishing trade to return to their former practice of selling ebooks at a much higher price and often selling the paperback cheaper than the ebook. My major prediction for 2017 is that this pricing model will continue. Many in the ebook dominated indie end of publishing have criticised the trade publishers for shooting themselves in the foot, but instead they have cleverly disrupted Amazon, the major disrupter in the US and UK markets.
The main publishing industry event of 2014 was Amazon's failure to prevent the major publishers returning to agency pricing, i.e., the publisher and not Amazon sets the price at which the book is sold. When in 2015 most major publishers raised their ebook prices and saw ebook sales drop indie publishers interpreted this as the trade publishers being punished for pricing too high. This missed the true aim of the trade publishers, which was to reorient the market towards print books. This lessens the hold of Amazon, who in the US and UK sell most ebooks, but have less control over the print book trade. In turn that offers the chance for bookshops to be more competitive, as they can provide a better shopping experience for those looking for print books. The pricing of ebooks at near or above the price of a paperback helps the bookshop trade in terms of showrooming: the practice of browsing books in a bookshop and then buying it online because it is cheaper. If the showroomer goes to Amazon and finds that the paperback is cheaper than the ebook then they are more likely to buy the paperback in the bookshop, even if it is slightly cheaper on Amazon, because a print book takes a few days to arrive by post and may involve a postage charge. I do not expect the ebook pricing policies of the major publishers to change in 2017 as it is serving their purposes in reorienting sales back towards print books.
The higher price of trade published ebooks has helped indie publishers by making their price differential look better, but it also gives them the opportunity to edge up their own prices. So my second 2017 prediction is that I expect there to be a greater move among indie publishers to pricing higher and reserving low prices for special promotions. If all books by indie publisher are priced at £1.99 it marks them out as bargain basement and may make a reader with a past negative experience of a cheap ebook to look for better value in higher priced books or those priced at £1.99 in a temporary promotion. So many indie publishers are playing the price it low game that it no longer gains any discoverability and readers who have been burnt by poorly written cheap books will think twice about purchasing from a publisher who only prices low. On the other hand an indie publisher with prices closer to £3.99 will rest in a similar price range to trade books that are past their initial flush of success. I doubt that the days of pricing everything at £1.99 are gone, but I suspect that indie publishers who have not already done so will move towards higher levels of normal pricing, especially as it will still look a bargain compared to newly released trade ebooks.
In early 2016 the Oyster ebook subscription library was closed down after the company was bought out by Google, who also hired its lead technicians. This led to an expectation that Google would enter the ebook subscription market, but that ignored the praise that Oyster received for the quality of the reading experience and that is likely to have been the inspiration for Google's takeover of Oyster. So one of my 2017 predictions is that Google Play Books will continue to stay away from offering a subscription service. Scribd had launched its subscription ebook library in the same year as Oyster, 2013, but continues in existence, albeit on a much reduced offering of three ebooks and one audiobook per month rather than the original unlimited books and intially unlimited audiobooks. I predict that Scribd's subscription service will survive, as it serves a particular market looking for higher priced trade ebooks to read, but Scribd will struggle to retain a large number of subscribers due to the limited offering.
The main reason for the troubled histories of Oyster and Scribd is that Amazon launched a United States only subscription service in July 2014 that by mid 2016 had been rolled out to most of the Amazon stores around the globe. The one million ebooks in this library, Kindle Unlimited, are primarily indie published and because Amazon requires exclusivity this has deprived other retailers of those books. In terms of market share and keeping the public's eyes on Amazon's websites the subscription service has been a success, but behind the scenes it is causing increased tension between Amazon and the indie publishers it has signed to exclusive contracts. After rumours since July 2016 that there was a major change in earnings from Kindle Unlimited Amazon revealed that the Page Flip navigation device was deliberately designed not to count pages, which is the basis on which indie publishers are paid for books borrowed from Kindle Unlimited. Many indie publishers have quit Kindle Unlimited as a result, which has meant a boost for the catalogues of rival retailers as those books are no longer tied to exclusive contracts. To deal with this problem I expect Amazon to launch a more reliable way of calculating earnings, whether that is returning to the original idea of payment per download or introducing lower and upper limits to page reads coupled with counting page reads in Page Flip. Before that happens it is likely that a lot more indie publishers will leave Kindle Unlimited due to reduced earnings making exclusivity to Amazon no longer worthwhile.
2017 is likely to see success for some indie publishers, but most will be lost in the vast sea of ebooks available. It will become harder for new authors to be discovered by readers and advertising is showing diminishing returns. Discounting is likely to become the major path of visibility, but with trade publishers following that method as well it will be harder for new authors to gain that visibility through either lower or discounted pricing.
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