Has Hachette Forgotten How to Publish?

Posted Thursday, September 13, 2012 - 18:08

Hachette will increase backlist ebook prices by an average of 220% starting next month, according to an email from OverDrive released by Gary Price at InfoDocket (and subsequently reported here). I cannot help but ask the same question of Hachette that I asked of Random House when it increased prices over 300% this past spring: And what?

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.

As a school librarian, I do quite a bit of K–12 nonfiction purchasing from Rosen Publishing, and also sometimes provide feedback as part of its unpaid school library advisory board. In the course of conversations with Roger Rosen, president of Rosen Publishing, I have watched his understanding of the role of publishers in the digital age grow and mature. To paraphrase Rosen, he maintains a focus on publishing the best possible content each year because then school libraries will buy new content each year.

In other words, publishers publish content and libraries buy content. We aren’t asking for a handout from publishers; rather libraries seek mutually beneficial terms that allow both of our fields to thrive. Given this, instead of increasing backlist prices for libraries, it seems to me that lowering prices on older books could help build additional readership for authors and thereby increase profits for publishers. At the same time, libraries win by providing more books for readers.

Baen Publishing saw this when it started giving away backlist ebooks for free on its website. As author and “Baen Librarian” Eric Flint noted: “It seems blindingly obvious to me that it was the fact that An Oblique Approach went into the library [for free] in the fall of 2000 that explains most of that increase. It would certainly be absurd to claim that being available for free somehow hurt the novel’s sales! I can guarantee you that most authors would be delighted to see a two-year-old title suddenly showing a spurt of new sales.”

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.

Any way you slice this, Hachette comes out looking bad.