14 June 2011

Making Changes: On Deodorant, Cola and Ebook Prices

We’re not surprised when writers of all sorts talk, and write, about politics, money, alcohol, love, sex or, in my case, about coffee. I feel the need, though, to ask your indulgence before I go on about... deodorant.

Deodorant formulations and formats seem to have nothing to do with ebooks, but there are surprising parallels in the marketplace.

I must first disclose that I’m part of a disgruntled minority of U.S. consumers. We grew up using one formulation and format of underarm deodorant and are frustrated that we are no longer able to buy it. The product in question is Old Spice round stick in the original Old Spice scent. The manufacturer, now Procter & Gamble, has discontinued the product, which had a large following, and now offers only an oval stick labelled ‘original round-stick formula’ but which hordes of consumers, including me, contend does not really smell the same as the discontinued round stick. (Die-hards also prefer the very shape of the round stick: if they wanted a ‘speed’ [i.e., oval] stick [like Mennen], they’d buy one.) The Internet can be an angry place: on some boards my cohorts go so far as to invoke the example of ‘new’ versus ‘classic’ Coca-Cola. Spokespersons for P&G are polite and articulate but have not explained the elimination of the round stick.

Those who post on these boards generally reveal the action they’ve taken in the face of this frustration. Surprisingly often, they’ve done exactly what Procter & Gamble would have them do: buy some other P&G product instead of the product they really want—want so much that they’re posting about their frustration. It would seem more logical—that is, more likely to sway Procter & Gamble to make the desired product available again—to substitute a different manufacturer’s deodorant, or do without deodorant altogether (and inform P&G of the reasons for one’s action); Classic Coke was not restored without a struggle.

Readers of ebooks seem to me every bit as displeased about changes in ebook prices that began last year. Until then, the norm in the U.S. had been one established by Amazon when it introduced the original Kindle in 2007: with very few exceptions, when a book appeared in hardback, the corresponding ebook cost US $9.99 (or less) at Amazon, even if the publisher had assigned the ebook a higher list price; books available in trade paperback sold typically for $7.99 as ebooks, others for even less. But all that changed with the advent of Apple’s iPad and iBooks. Apple was not willing to compete with Amazon’s aggressive discounting and entered into ‘agency model’ pricing agreements with (five, then all six, of) the largest publishing conglomerates: the publishers would have access to the huge customer base correctly anticipated for the iPad, and in return the publishers would assure that uniform prices, set by the publisher, were imposed on all U.S. ebook retailers (now understood to be ‘agents’ of the major publishers) and their customers. Today, if a book is on the New York Times hardback bestseller list, the corresponding ebook typically costs $12.99. But the ebook of Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants has been priced at $19.99 since it appeared last September; that ebook price will fall by only one dollar when the book appears in paperback in August. And the next Stephen King will cost $16.99 in eformat when it’s released in November.

The debate over whether the new prices are justifiable is complicated, and I make no pretense of exploring it today. But I believe that not only readers but also authors—and perhaps even publishers and estores—would be better served by much lower prices. (These matters are frequently discussed on the blogs listed in the column to the right.) Many readers object to higher ebook prices, including hundreds of visitors to Amazon’s product pages who not only tag an ebook as overpriced but also give it a one-star (i.e., the lowest possible) rating (with explanation) if they believe the publisher is engaging in price-gouging. Some decry this (one-star) practice, but as far as I can tell it does work initially as intended: the resultant lowered average rating (shared by print and electronic formats) spells lower-than-expected sales.

It seems obvious to me that readers who are unhappy with the price of an ebook should not buy it. Paying $12.99 or $16.99 or more for an ordinary ebook, is voting for continued pricing in that range. And so-called ebook ‘piracy’ is not the only alternative. Prices generally come down in time; rare is the book that must be read immediately; and public libraries and estore-based lending systems are becoming more and more viable sources for ebooks. And don’t forget the hundreds of thousands of ebooks available for $9.99, or $2.99, or $0.99, or free of charge, from any ebook store. It’s your wallet. How will you vote with it?

And how will I vote—not as a reader, today, but as a blogger who profits when a reader clicks on a link and makes a purchase?

I already have voted: last month I silently removed from this blog the last display ad for an ebook priced in the ‘gouge zone’, and I adopted the following policy: no more display advertisements here for ordinary U.S. ebooks priced higher than $9.99. (I reserve judgment on ‘bundled’ ebooks and their equivalent, like Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy or the collected novels of José Saramago, and on ebooks as published overseas, where different market conditions may justify slightly higher prices.) I may mention or discuss in a post an ebook from the gouge zone, and I intend in such cases to continue to provide text links to pages where readers can get more information and decide for themselves whether to buy. The distinction between posts and display ads—I see the former as predominantly altruistic and the latter as predominantly for profit (if not downright venal)—is admittedly slippery. Here, as elsewhere, I welcome feedback.


Jim Carpenter said...

I think I'd like to looking into finding an alternative to purchasing any ebook over 9.99. Maybe the library will be the solution?
Loved this post...

James Hulbert said...

Thank you to the master painter at carppaints! Library lending has long been an option via nook and has been promised for Kindle later this year. For now see http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/blogs/gear-up/rent-ebooks-digitally-with-amazons-new-library-lending-service-20110505 including comments. Best to all.