That Whole Hachette eBook Price Increase Thing

The big news at the end of last week was Hachette, a publisher dipping its toe back in the library eBook market, announcing that it was going to raise prices on its current library eBook catalog by an average of 220%. Here’s a quote provided by Infodocket from an email that Overdrive sent out notifying their customers of the change.

Hachette will be raising its eBook prices on October 1, 2012 on their currently available eBook catalog (~3,500 eBook titles with release dates of April 2010 and earlier). On average prices will increase 220%.

Here’s a post from the Overdrive corporate blog regarding the price increase:

As announced yesterday, Hachette Digital is raising prices on its currently available library eBook catalog (roughly 3,500 titles with release dates of April 2010 and earlier) effective Oct. 1, 2012. Examples of the new pricing include: “Breaking Dawn” by Stephenie Meyer will increase from $22.99 to $34.99; “4th of July” by James Patterson will go from $13.99  to $20.99; and David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day” will go from $14.99 to $37.99.

[..]

We understand that any cost increase comes as unwelcome news at a time when library budgets are tight, but we’re encouraged that Hachette has opted to continue participating in library lending.

Let me pull out my nitpicker for this one. In the first paragraph, they picked out three popular authors to give for the price change example. They represent a price increase of 152%, 150%, and 253%, respectively. Since the average was 220%, there have to be at least price increases of 290% to balance out those 150%’s. Even then, that’s assuming that 150% is the low end of price increases. For every step below 150%, there would have to be a corresponding step above 290% to make it average out to 220%. This does not bode well for collection development librarians across the country.

In the second paragraph, it embodies an aspect of the librarian debate over eBooks that I really, really hate: people arguing that continued participation is some sort of magical mitigating factor for bad behavior. It’s not. The idea that librarians should be happy, nay, grateful that publishers are still allowing library eBook lending and that it should negate some really shitty actions and attitudes is absolute insanity. If you went to friend looking for relationship advice and their first response was that you should consider yourself lucky that someone is willing to date you, you’d kick that friend’s ass. It’s a worse argument than saying that libraries should provide to every member’s needs, costs and contracts be damned. And that’s saying a lot.

I do have to admit that I liked the ALA response if nothing more than setting the tone for future action. Pull quote:

After these tentative steps forward, we were stunned to learn that Hachette plans to more than double triple its prices starting October 1. Now we must ask, “With friends like these …’

“We are weary of faltering half steps and even more so of publishers that refuse to sell ebook titles to libraries at all. Today I have asked the ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group to develop more aggressive strategies and approaches for the nation’s library community to meet these challenges.

I’ll be interested to see what sort of follow-up comes out of it, but I am left hopeful. For a refresher of the previous ALA/Hachette meeting, here’s the ALA statement about meeting with Hachette back in May of this year:

We had a very promising meeting at Hachette. As you may know, Hachette discontinued offering their new ebook titles to libraries as of April 2010, though Hachette continues to sell its backlist (i.e., titles with publication dates prior to April 2010). Going in to this meeting, we were hoping to establish a relationship with Hachette and to persuade them to give serious consideration to providing libraries with access to its newer titles.

It quickly became obvious that Hachette Book Group executives and digital strategists have spent considerable time thinking about the library ebook market. Hachette sees libraries as strong partners because of our benefits as direct customers and marketers of their titles, and they recognize libraries’ place as an integral institution in communities that must be supported.

More specifically, we were pleased to learn that starting this spring, Hachette is conducting a pilot with two ebook distributors for libraries, which will bring a selection of HBG’s recent bestselling ebooks to 7 million library patrons. These pilot programs will help HBG learn more about library patrons’ interests, usage, and expectations, and help the publisher devise the best strategy to reach the widest audience of ebook readers in libraries.

My, how times flies.

The esteemed eBook guru and Douglas County, CO director Jamie Larue has the best take on the price increase I’ve seen so far. Money quote:

“When publishers shoot themselves in the foot, why do they keep looking for a bigger gun? Here’s the deal: the job of the library is to gather, organize, and make publicly available the intellectual content of our culture. By pricing themselves exorbitantly, a publisher will lose library sales, and lose the exposure their authors might otherwise have experienced. Nobody wins, everybody loses.”

He makes the same basic case that has been made before with the Random House 300% price increase and the HarperCollins limited checkout. Libraries are deep into the reader market. If it doesn’t reach our shelves (real or virtual), it won’t be something that can be passed onto the market share that comes to our locations. Libraries will still support authors and readers, but that support will be found elsewhere with the materials that can be reasonably purchased.

Game, set, match.

Jamie is a hard act to follow, so I won’t go on and repeat the same arguments for affordable eBook pricing and liberal eBook lending policies. I will add something else to the mix that I noticed.

I have yet to see anyone write or report about it, but the date that Hachette stopped selling eBooks to libraries (April 2010) really stuck out in my head. Then I found an article that made the connection:

On September 6, U.S. District Judge Denise Cote approved a $69 million settlement to be awarded to consumers who purchased agency-priced ebooks between April 2010 and May 2012, as part of a state antitrust suit filed against HarperCollins, Hachette SA, and Simon & Schuster. [Emphasis mine]

There couldn’t possibly be a coincidence between the date they stopped library eBook sales and the adoption of agency-model pricing, right? In taking away the library eBook option away from the consumer, they would have no other choice but to purchase the artificially inflated agency priced eBook. Considering how publishers get a higher royalty per eBook while authors lose out, it makes sense that the better royalty (eBook) be subject to more controls in regard to distribution and pricing. This could also explain why Hachette insists that authors who publish the same title in different markets with Tor Books (a ‘no DRM’ publisher) to have DRM reinstated on their Tor books. Finally, this library eBook price increase nicely dovetails with the multi-million dollar settlement they just signed. “With friends like these…”, indeed.

If this is how they plan on nurturing and growing the eBook market, then we (libraries, consumers, readers) are in for a bumpy and vastly uncomfortable ride. And if your library isn’t looking for alternatives to this arrangement, now is the time to do so.

5 thoughts on “That Whole Hachette eBook Price Increase Thing

  1. Hey, I love my ebooks. But you’re right. If they aren’t available in libraries for me to try before I buy, I won’t know they exist. Congrats, idiot publishers; you’ve found the best possible model to discourage libraries from buying your books … and letting the book-buying public know about them. Is it possible to choke on 0s and 1s?

  2. Pingback: That Whole Hachette eBook Price Increase Thing « Agnostic, Maybe | Ebook Publishing Resource at ReadVillage | Scoop.it

  3. It would be interesting to see a handful of major metropolitan library systems start boycotting those publishers altogether. I don’t think it would take much–say NY, LA, Miami, Chicago, Dallas?– for the publishers to decide that they do want the library market after all.

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  5. Every time price hikes for ebooks are justified by the notion that they are worth more because of their digital format reminds me how quickly that is undone by piracy. Which is funny to me, because instead of getting ebooks for “free” at the library where the publishers are paid, by pricing out libraries out, the very act publishers claim to be a problem becomes incentivized. Or at least that is how I see it. :)

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