Hachette Hits Libraries With 220% Price Increase On Its Ebooks
from the we-sell-books-for-a-living!-please-buy-fewer-titles-from-us! dept
Publishers are at it again, levying what amount to economic sanctions against that infamous freeloader hangout, The Library. In a move that will endear it to exactly no one, Hachette is increasing its back catalog prices 220% for ebooks, sticking it to the cherished public institutions whose shelves (including the digital ones) are lined with nothing but Lost Sales (apparently).
Hachette has been hard at work dragging its reputation through the mud. You may remember it from a few weeks ago, when it greeted Tor's announcement that it was going DRM-free with “HAHAHA but no, seriously, there will be DRM.” This move seems ill-advised at best, what with some authors banding together to offer their titles to libraries for $dirt cheap, a price that falls more in line with the economic realities of the average library.
Hachette isn't the only publishing fish in the sea (and not even the only fish to jack up its prices — Random House dialed its prices up 300% in March). Hachette is one of several publishers, many of whom haven't increased prices (or at least, not as severely). Of course, other publishers have gone other routes, including limiting the number of lends on their ebooks, making their digital offerings the equivalent of poorly manufactured physical books (Falls Apart After 26 Uses!). As a whole, the Big Six treat libraries like an intrusive vagrant.
So the current state of the library ebook market is this:
- 2 major publishers which charge high prices (Hachette, Random House)
- 2 major publishers which won’t sell at all (Macmillan, Simon & Schuster)
- Penguin, which is only selling ebooks to libraries grudgingly and with support for the Kindle explicitly blocked
- HarperCollins, which imposed a 26 checkout limit for library ebooks
I realize the publishers are running businesses, not charities, but those on the end of these price hikes are running something much closer to a charity than a business, relying on late fees, used book sales and donations to keep their shelves stocked. Considering many potential customers use libraries as tools for discovery, it would seem to be in their best interest to get as many of their titles in front of readers as possible, rather than price themselves out of a well-respected lending system.
Hachette's pricing “strategy” is doubly disappointing, considering it was once one of the “good guys:”
Hachette used to be one of the bright lights in library ebooks because they charged the regular retail price for their ebooks. And even though they wouldn’t sell their front list titles to libraries, at least we knew the titles would eventually be available. Only now those titles will be terribly expensive.
Christopher Harris, writing for the American Library Association, wonders if Hachette has forgotten how to publish.
Hachette is increasing backlist prices by 220% and … what? And we get ownership? And we get increased simultaneous lending? And we get anything other than another price gouge from a publisher that seems to not comprehend the basic fundamentals of publishing?
Let’s make this really easy to understand. Publishers publish content. Libraries buy content. As long as publishers keep publishing content, libraries will keep buying content. Why? Because libraries buy content. Only we buy it from a relatively fixed budget.
By drastically increasing the price of backlist titles, all Hachette is doing is reducing the funding that can go towards purchasing its new titles.
Harris points out that libraries aren't looking for handouts. They're looking for a mutually beneficial relationship, one that rewards publishers, readers and writers. But trying to turn a back catalog into a cash cow on the back of the library system helps no one.
That is why I cannot begin to comprehend this move by Hachette. Increasing backlist prices must either reduce the available budget for new titles or reduce acquisition of backlist titles—lost sales for Hachette either way. Furthermore, it reveals a lack of focus on the part of Hachette; instead of building profits on releasing the best possible titles every year, the company is stuck looking backwards. Finally, it shows a lack of understanding about the benefit of having more open access to backlist titles as additional entry points into new book purchases.
This short-sightedness seems to be more and more commonplace, especially in industries affected by digital disruption. The focus has shifted from building a sustainable business to concentrating on quarterly reports. Concentrating on immediate results tends to lead toward efforts that do far more long-term damage than any short-term gains can hope to balance out.