What's Coming In 2012: Book Publishing

This is the second in a series of posts over the next week that will highlight key people, companies and trends to watch in 2012 in the sectors we cover most, from publishing to legal, and from mobile to advertising.

2011 was a busy and eventful year in book publishing–but 2012 promises to be even more so, as various issues that started bubbling up in ’11 shift and mature. Here are three predictions.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble make a deal, sort of: As Amazon becomes a full-fledged publisher, it has not yet dealt with its bookstore distribution problem. For now, bricks-and-mortar bookstores are still an important place of discovery of new titles. While some have argued that Amazon will simply ignore these bookstores, that the company always takes a long-term strategy and that it won’t care if it misses some physical store sales, I think the company’s recent beefing-up of its force of sales reps suggests it does consider bricks-and-mortar stores at least somewhat significant for now. And with the company publishing books by more high-profile authors like Tim Ferriss and Penny Marshall, readers will be looking for those books in stores.

While a few indies have said they’ll be reluctant to carry Amazon books, Barnes & Noble has said straight out that it won’t carry Amazon titles in print in stores if it can’t also sell them as e-books. I predict that Amazon will offer a select number of new titles, in both print and digital formats, to Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS). The arrangement will probably be less than ideal for Barnes & Noble in some way, because I think Amazon will try to find a way to use Barnes & Noble stores as showrooms while still directing buyers to Amazon.com (NSDQ: AMZN). Maybe Amazon will set high list prices on all of its own new digital titles (it’s already done this with its upcoming Tim Ferriss book), while continuing to sell those books at major discounts in the Kindle store.

E-book pricing will shift to quality-focused debates: The e-book pricing debate up to now has generally focused on the idea that all e-books should cost the same and that all should be priced low. But why should a self-published or mass market thriller necessarily cost the same as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in e-book form? It doesn’t make sense to me to say that all e-books should cost $9.99 or less.

I am not the only one who thinks this, even though most commenters hated my $9.99 e-books post. Author John Scalzi recently announced that he’ll delete those comments on his blog “in which the focus…is how you don’t like the price of the e-book.” He writes:

I think it’s important to understand that eBooks are not special snowflakes; they’re just books in electronic form. As someone who prefers to read in eBook form, you are not substantially different from someone who prefers hardcovers, or trade paperbacks, or mass market paperbacks. If someone who preferred paperbacks (or at the very least paperback pricing) showed up on my site on a regular basis to whine and moan about how books should always be priced at that paperback level, on a comment thread that is meant to be on another subject entirely, I would find them tiresome too. Books: They have variable price points! Based on release dates, consumer interest and format, among many other factors!

I think and hope that we will start to see pricing based on whether or not a book has an obvious “substitute,” as Seth Godin recently and smartly put it (thereby avoiding the word “quality,” which I used above but which is troublesome because of its tones of elitism).

I hope we’ll see traditional publishers keep the prices of hot, new, conversation-changing, no-substitute e-books relatively high, but will experiment further with discounts or semi-permanently-low prices on books that have clear substitutes, that are old or that have become less obviously relevant for whatever reason. I hope we’ll see self-published authors experimenting with pricing as well, and pricing books higher in some cases. Ultimately, I’ll use the q-word here: I hope that readers will see the value of paying more for books of higher quality-books that are shaping the conversation, books that they want to read again and share with others-in digital formats. I hope that pricing will depend on the individual title, not on e-books as a whole-just the way you’d expect to pay more for a production of, say, South Pacific at Lincoln Center than at your local high school.

One big-six publisher will try a subscription scheme. I think we will see one big-six publisher test an e-book subscription program within one of its imprints or one of its categories. We could see this in, say, HarperCollins’ Avon romance imprint, or across mysteries at Macmillan. Some challenges for this system: It has to pay authors for their books’ inclusion, it has to offer a discount substantial enough for readers to sign up and it has to work from a technological standpoint across e-readers. But there are also huge benefits: Publishers build their brand, gain publicity and get more information about their most devoted readers. As Don Linn points out on his blog Bait ‘n’ Beer, “let’s not forget that we’ll need lots of new systems, software, infrastructure and yes (in many cases) people to make these things work properly.” Figuring out a subscription model isn’t easy, but it’s a good first step toward more ambitious initiatives like e-book rentals and streaming.

Read the rest of the posts in our Coming in 2012 archives.