It should come as no surprise that a group of enterprising Amazon customers have joined together to boycott Kindle books priced about $9.99. I’ve been holding my own private boycott for months now, for reasons stated at great length (sorry, Christopher Moore, you were an unwitting catalyst and victim, though another author was a winner). It’s curious that it has taken so long for this protest to form; then again, it seems to a lot of us that Kindle edition prices are creeping up.
Boycotters are buying books from your competitors while leaving yours in the virtual shopping cart.
Maybe Amazon is tired of subsidizing your business development?
Let’s lay out the basics again. First, a digital book is different than a print book. Fewer bells and whistles (nifty color cover? gone). Fewer associated rights (portablity, limited; sharing? ha!). Production problems (can you say double-spaced paragraphs?). I’ve noted previously that everyone who buys into the digital book market right now is essentially funding your research and development.
While we’re examining this issue, let us ponder the idea of tying the current digital price to the current print price, or, ahem, pricing the d-book higher than the print?. How can you, with a straight face, justify this approach? Do the people who purchase d-books at the $26.99 digital list price get more book than those who get the $7.99 list book? Truly, this practice defies logic, and makes it clear that someone in these meetings doesn’t get it.
Consumer dissatisfaction — your customers really get the differences between d-books and print books — is fomenting. While I’d like to say that we’ll rebel by going back to print books (take that!), the real destination is far scarier. I thought this comment from Electronic Cottage was telling, particularly because the dissatisfaction is spreading beyond the inside publishing beltway to “real” readers” (via the Tools of Change blog):
Boy, if I were a publisher or author, I sure wouldn’t want to see my books listed at the top of the tag’s “Popular Products” under the boycott tag.
(Amen! I’m not planning to join in the tagging. Just seeing it makes me hurt.)
This past weekend, Martyn Daniels, arguing that this boycott should be aimed at publishers rather than retailers (though, given how books are sold, the boycott must necessarily be at the retail level), noted that the current business practices as they relate to d-books do not “endear customer loyalty”.
I’d be more blunt: treating customers with blatant disrespect is a the path to rampant piracy.
In the past weeks, we’ve seen a rush of activity on the hardware front. If a company is capable of developing an e-reader, they’ve actively doing so. It’s a bit like books are the last frontier, a literary dot-com rush. You know it’s trendy when AT&T and Verizon start talking e-readers (this was not, apparently, an April Fool’s prank). We’re seeing a burst of innovation that can only be good for publishers/authors (not necessarily separate entities anymore), books, and readers.
We’re also seeing a slippery, rocky slope that can shatter the business at hand. While devices don’t necessarily engender proprietary DRM, entities who see protection schemes as a way to lock-in customers will certainly do so. Who wins? I’d say nobody. Who loses? Every customer who is seduced into purchasing (or acquiring) one of these devices.
Close your eyes and imagine a not-too-distant future: a future where you’re doing tech support for your mother because she can’t share a book with your father because one is a Kindle user and the other prefers the free Verizon reader that came with lots of incentives. Do you really want to have that conversation with your parents?
Here’s the funny thing: even though I won’t currently pay more than $9.99 for a d-book, I can see a future where going above that threshold makes perfect sense. Probably not for fiction, unless that fiction came with amazing bells and whistles, making it worth the price. Then, well, see above about tying price to print version. Smart publishers will rethink editions and versions. They won’t punish early purchasers with arbitrary price changes.
But I can see situations and reasons for paying high prices for digital books. But the technology simply isn’t there yet for this kind of consumer investment. Or maybe the technology is there, but publishers simply haven’t found a way to make their books worthy of the prices they want to charge.
Even as we see exponential growth of ebook sales, most publishers see this market as a 1% blip on the P&L. Nice-to-have money but not really impacting the bonus pool. What is missing from this equation is the competition: the digital publishers who are building brand and customer loyalty by offering readers what they want, by listening, by reacting quickly.
Customer voices are growing louder. Maybe once upon a time, you could pretend you knew best for us, but that time is long gone. Think about it: there’s a public tag Amazon telling uninitiated customers that your books are being boycotted. In the meantime, those who are engaged in the boycott are doing something equally evil: they’re buying books from your competitors while leaving yours in the virtual shopping cart.
As with DRM, right now is the time to get it right. A year from now will be too late.