July 30, 2013 Last Updated 7:20 am

Depressed digital pricing has many publishers depressed

Ask any book publisher about Amazon or Apple and you’ll generally get silence first, then maybe later a politically correct answer that talks about profits and losses, pricing and discounts. Despite how the press portrays publishers, the professionals I talk to understand that the consumer likes a discounted book or magazine, so do they. But most publishers see the traditional business model blowing up in their faces – and that isn’t what is killing them – it’s that the major digital newsstands are not replacing that model with something they think will work for them.

A quick search of any of the online newsstands and bookstores shows the story. A book, like this one, is listed at $29.99, but online is discounted to $19.99. OK, most publishers can live with that (though most small bookstores can not). But a look at the digital edition shows something far more depressing – it’s priced at $3.99.

Sometimes book pricing can get a little strange, ask any self-publisher using one of the print-on-demand services. If you build your book digitally first, you find you can price the resulting eBook at just about any level you want – you can experiment, discount, go for the moon.

But a print-on-demand book, which allows the author or publisher to avoid any upfront print charges, presents the seller with a small window if they want to see any profit. A relatively thin books may have to be priced at $19.99 just to see any reasonable return at all. Large publishers, who must print at least a thousand copies to begin with, have similar problems, but on a larger scale.

So why are digital books and magazines so discounted if the print versions must maintain a certain level of pricing? That’s where there is a divergence of opinion.

Some put the blame squarely on the publishers themselves.

Molto-cookbook-iPad-lg“I really blame magazine publishers for contributing to the idea that interactive content on the iPad is free,” a designer and app developer in both the book and magazine field said recently. “Some publishers chose to give away their content to help support their print subscriptions, and in doing so it really made it very difficult to start charging for some content when such a vast array of high quality applications were available for free for what you are already paying for.”

In other words, if an enhanced edition is superior to the original print product, why is it being discounted? Shouldn’t it be more valuable, and hence more expensive than the original non-interactive edition?

Another publishing executive thinks the problem is simply that the new digital newsstands/bookstores are terrible marketplaces.

“If you look in the Newsstand, if you look amongst the hundreds of publications, the thousands of publications now, they have absolute crap there, and its published along with everything else, take your pick,” this frustrated executive told me.

His experience is that there is seems to be too much junk available, and without a promotion push from Apple or Amazon a publisher doesn’t stand a chance.

“Honestly, the people who make these decisions (about what to promote inside the online stores) are technicians. They’re Silicon Valley guys. That’s not a knock, that’s just a fact. They’re not content people, they’re not thinking about content.”

Both executives have come to believe that the clutter of the online stores is too much of a hassle for a new digital publisher to break through and that the solution is to try and work with established brands that may be able to overcome this through their own promotion and brand recognition.

Even one, more optimistic digital publisher who said his clients were doing well, pointed to the fact that he was working with established brands. This publishing pro believed the main problem with tablet publishing was simply that there still were not enough tablets out there – if everyone owned an iPad the situation would better.

For others, however, the issue remains discoverability. In a newsstand or e-bookstore where the seller determines who gets promoted, getting your new digital publication found by buyers is near impossible.

As a result, a book, originally priced at $29.99, that can be found in an “enhanced edition” for $3.99 is not unusual – in fact, it is the norm. Does this reflect the lack of demand caused by the discoverability issue, or does it reflect what the modern digital publications buyer sees as a fair price?

Even some publishers with definitely opinions based on their experiences are a bit torn on this issue. Said one publisher “if no one can find you, how can they buy you? But then again, everyone today seems to like free, so who is to say that when they find you they will want to pay a fair price to buy the damn thing.”

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