By Francis Hamit: Because I am a Lightning Source vendor for e-books I have received information on the Expresso Book Machine, their new “gee whiz” device for delivering print on demand (POD) books in retail shops and other venues. Not surprisingly, the vendor pricing per book and the discounts (55%) from retail are exactly the same. The EBM is really just a specialized copy and binding machine and the operations manual they sent makes that plain. It also looks to be a high service, high maintenance, device. The advantage is the very wide range of books that can be delivered, but what is really being sold here is convenience. You are more likely to see these things at 7/11 stores than regular bookstores and there it would make sense, as it would in airport bookstores with their limited space. Usually those store stock about a hundred titles. This would expand their choice to thousands of titles and give them the same margins. Actually better margins than the books on the shelves since they don’t pay shipping.
Why? Because the prices will be a lot higher. The POD books will be trade paperbacks while those on the shelf will be mostly new hardbounds. More customer choices should mean higher sales and those sales are not price sensitive. They are based on convenience. The EBM takes about ten minutes to produce a book. Ideally it looks like one off the shelf. Color cover, good binding and produced from the same digital files. But it will cost a lot more.
As an example, my novel The Shenandoah Spy has a list price of $18.95. The discount is 55%; 40% to the bookstore and 15% to the distributor. To get the same actual payment with a POD version the price will have to go up to $24.95….and that’s about the same money to me that I get from the Kindle version which I price at $12.95 and Amazon.com sells for $9.99. But Amazon deals direct with publishers and customers. There is no one between in the distribution chain that has to get paid.
Based on my experience with e-books in the bookstore system, I don’t think that price is really something that motivates buyers, and the buyers that do consider it go for used copies that are long our of the publishers’ control. But books are not a fungible commodity. Each is unique. People pay extra, especially in the absence of alternative choices like used copies of the same book. Amazon.com offers those copies along with new ones, something for which they have been roundly criticized, but here’s the truth about their sales. They do two things very well: They harvest the low hanging fruit and they exploit the long tail. Current best sellers they move in volume feeding off the hype in the mainstream media. They are, after all, the only bookstore readily available for Rural America and the only retailer that also stocks all those low-velocity items that you can no longer find at the local drug or hardware store. They sell millions of books, but those best sellers aside, what they sell of any one title is a small fraction of what can be moved in the conventional brick and mortar spaces simply by placing the books on those shelves where people looking for new books can find it. Little wonder, then, that big publishers pay money to get on the best shelves.
Will the EBM level the playing field here? Perhaps. The ten minute waiting time is enough to kill the impulse buys. You really have to place the book in the customers’ hands to do that. But in limited choice environments it may work. Will it be a bonanza for any one title? Probably not, because the selection is no longer that limited and the customer base will divide its selections among many more choices, with current best-sellers being favored because they are on people’s individual “to read” lists.
In other words, you might as well charge the higher price because you will have a channel much like Amazon.com, with great internal promotion, but no real external marketing power. Your book will be bought by people who don’t care about the price and you might as well get your usual royalty and publisher’s profit. Leave the discounting to the retailer who has a lot more margin to work with.
[Note: This letter also was sent to Chaos Manor.]
Update 05/30/2009: Corrected “its” per Joe Christopher’s comment.