The current ruckus between retail giant Amazon.com and publisher Hachette will have a huge impact on the publishing industry. Amazon already dominates the retail book business. There used to be numerous bookstores along Bloor Street over the 10 km between my house in the west end and Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. Now there is one.
To date, no one has given much consideration to authors, nor is that likely to change. A group of 900 authors took out a full-page ad last week in the New York Times to protest Amazon's monopoly power, but the public won't rally to the cause. They like the convenience of e-books online; lower prices are a bonus. The standard price for an ebook is $16.99. Amazon wants to sell at $9.99. If that happens, the outcome will be costly for authors and publishers who are, after all, two of the three legs in the book sales stool.
Readers have already been getting a good deal. Hard cover book prices haven't even kept pace with inflation. In the thirty years I've been writing books the retail price of a book has risen 50 per cent while inflation is up more than 100 per cent. As for income, royalties remain 10 per cent of list whether it's a hard cover or e-book. At $9.99, an author makes $1 versus $3 for a hardcover. As e-books increase as a proportion of sales, author incomes will fall. In times past, 25,000 hard cover books at $32.95 yielded $82,000; 25,000 e-books at $9.99 is $25,000, more than a two-thirds drop. There is no sign that a cheaper ebook version will sell more copies than a fully-priced hard cover did. Even as ebook sales have increased to one-fifth of sales, overall sales are flat.
So here's the bottom line. You can have lower prices if you want, but you'll have fewer authors and fewer books. Is that a worthy choice?