The Battle For a Digital Pricing Model That Works. Part One: Pub Wars!

By Rebekah Hunt
In March of 2011, Jon Bon Jovi famously accused Steve Jobs of being “personally responsible for killing the music business,” in an interview with the London based Sunday Times. “Kids today,” the aging rocker said (probably after chasing some off his lawn), “have missed the whole experience of… taking your allowance money and making a decision based on the jacket, not knowing what the record sounded like, and looking at a couple of still pictures and imagining it.”
In his defense, he did acknowledge that this made him sound like an old man, but the self-awareness stopped there. Mr. Jovi failed to grasp the crux of the issue, which is the other part of the experience kids these days are missing: the experience of getting price-gouged by a greedy record company for a record that included a bunch of filler, propped up by one or two listenable songs and a ruthlessly promoted single, only to feel let down and cheated after being forced to buy it “not knowing what the record sounded like” and then being stuck with it. And it is this experience, not Steve Jobs, that really killed the music industry.
What does this have to do with the publishing industry? Everything. One of my major motivating interests in the publishing industry, specifically at this point in history, is the monumental evolution the market is undergoing. In the wake of the Napster/iTunes revolution and its palpable effects on the music industry, current developments in software, hardware, and online accessibility; other industries are quickly moving to follow suit.
Despite criticism of its bite-sized, carte-blanche style of selling media to consumers, iTunes has set the bar for consumer expectations of the availability and ease of consumption of media. Sites like Netflix and Hulu are leading the way in on-demand digital sales of television and films, even partially contributing to the Writers’ Guild strike of 2007-08 over residual payments based upon digital media downloads and online streaming content. The one industry that appears to be foundering in the current market’s sea change is the publishing industry.
This brings me to the ultimate question for the publishing industry: how is the publishing industry going to evolve to stay relevant in the current economic and technological climate? The obvious answer for now seems to be the migration of the written word away from paper and toward digital media, but the struggle over pricing and distribution of books and other publications in digital formats has been confusing at best, chaotic at worst. In order to find a solution, we first need to isolate the problem by examining the traditional publishing model and trying to assess the major factors contributing to its decline.
Stay tuned for next week’s blog, the Fall of the Old Republic (the decline of the publishing industry); and the week after that, for the Dark Side of the Force (digital piracy) and A New Hope (the publishing market evolves); and the week after that for the Return of the Jedi (an ebook pricing strategy that works).