Coming Soon (Finally): A Critical Mass of eBook Content

A commenter on a recent post takes publishers to task on suspicion that they “really don’t want eBooks to succeed, and may very well be deliberately pricing them just above what a thriving or even sustainable market will bear.”
Well, I feel that eBook pricing at close to parity with print editions has been understandable given the very small sales volumes, which have led to eBooks being treated by publishers as just another niche revenue “adder” along the lines of a large-print edition. Rights-clearing hassles and high creation and support costs of creating digital editions for the plethora of eBook content formats and DRM systems haven’t helped the case for lower prices either. No publisher conspiracy theory needed. But, “Andre” makes an excellent point in noting that:

Even if publishers preserve their margins and authors their royalties with half-price books carrying virtually no overhead, what really terrifies them is the perception of value being lost. If E Ink devices succeed beyond expectations, then deep discounts would erode the public’s willingness to pay $30 for the next Harry Potter hardcover.

You bet this possibility terrifies publishers! In the hierarchy of text-based content, books are at the top, in terms of carrying a “premium” value, undiluted with advertising. The costs of book creation, in authorial time, editorial attention and marketing are correspondingly higher (as are the risks of print runs – but that doesn’t apply to eBooks, and less so overall given print-on-demand). Disintermediation – authors going direct to consumers – is a related fear, as is the concept of any kind of national or universal digital library.
While I agree that lower eBook prices are both feasible and would stimulate adoption, which publishers may not have been overly eager to have happen, I believe the key way publishers have hamstrung eBook adoption is by limiting supply. Any new format needs a critical mass of content to succeed, and that’s not a paltry 5% of annual new titles. Certainly during the last eBook hype boom (circa 1998-2002) publishers weren’t rushing to make all their content available.
However, a sea-change is clearly under way. Google and Amazon are scanning books and making page-images available. Pirate eBooks are circulating, sometimes within hours of being published in print form. A new “digital generation” is clearly going to expect the option to read on screens. Other parts of the print publishing industry have moved more rapidly: Elsevier now makes over 50% of their academic journal revenue from digital subscriptions, and the trend to what they call “E-Only” subscriptions is growing sharply, and in the tech sphere O’Reilly Safari appears to be doing quite well. Libraries are also acting as change agents, since digital distribution yields immense gains in efficiency and patron access; publishers realize that it’s unreasonable to expect to hold libraries back from going digital.
As a result book publishers – across all segments – feel their hands are being forced and are preparing to make all of their content available digitally. They are absolutely afraid that their business models, indeed the whole industry, may well change in fundamentally disruptive ways, but it’s clear that the book business, like Hollywood, has collectively decided not to sit on the sidelines while Amazon, Google, piracy, and the Web do the disrupting. Their intentions are laid out in recent initiatives announced by Random House and HarperCollins, among others.
Sure, there are still barriers. I believe other industry participants, including Adobe, need to step up to the challenge of delivering technologies, tools, and compelling services that will enable this to happen cost-effectively and with high user satisfaction. We still need better devices for e-Reading. And, yes, I believe eBook prices need to come down. But, regardless, the floodgates of book content in digital form are opening and I believe this will itself be a key part of stimulating all of the above.