Yesterday I sketched a model of pricing in the traditional book industry. The question I’d like to address now is what this model implies for the future of the eBook industry.
My argument leans heavily on the proposition that the price of content tends not to vary with the quality of that content. So before I get into my predictions, it’s worth commenting on how universal this “law of one price” seems to be. The price of content varies by medium (hardcover fetches more than paperback) and timeliness (first-run movie theaters charge more than second-run movie theaters). But in virtually every competitive market for mass-market content, prices tend not to vary with the quality of the content itself. New music CDs are almost always priced at $10-15, new movies at $15-20. Magazines sell for $3-$5 a copy at the newsstand. Movie theaters charge the same price for tickets whether the movie is a $200 million blockbuster or a $2 million indy movie. There’s every reason to think that the mature eBook industry will conform to the same pattern: a “standard” price will emerge, and publishers won’t deviate from it very much.
What will that price be? The obvious point is that the marginal cost of “producing” and distributing a new copy of an eBook is very close to zero. So assuming a competitive market, we should expect prices to be pushed down to zero.
There are two factors that will push the prices of eBooks down to zero. First, the supply of eBooks is likely to expand dramatically, as publishers will have every incentive to publish a lot of books that they would have judged to be not good enough for paper printing. This increased competition will put downward pressure on prices. Second, the market for eBooks has no natural floor. Almost any price—$10, $5, even $1—is still well above marginal cost. And so once eBook publishers start cutting prices to build market share, there’s no obvious stopping point.
This is a fairly simple—some would say simplistic—argument. And it’s an argument that tends to trigger strong disagreement. Matt Yglesias, for example made a version of this argument about music earlier today, and got a lot of comments like this:
Making a song requires time from a songwriter, skill from a performer to learn the parts, and the expertise of a recordist and the use of the recordist’s highly specialized equipment.
The distribution ought to be slightly higher than the cost of distribution, which via the internet is close to zero. But you are forgetting the costs to make the song in the first place.
Of course, Matt was not “forgetting” the cost of making the song. Rather, he understands that prices in a competitive mrket tend toward marginal cost (the cost of the last unit), not average cost.
Still, it’s not crazy to think that in a market where books cost $0, so few authors will be willing to write new books that consumers will be willing to start paying again. But I do think it’s misguided. There are a lot of people who will happily write books (and songs) for very little money. Publishers routinely reject manuscripts that represent hundreds of hours of an aspiring author’s work. Most of these manuscripts are terrible, of course, but a significant number are not—the publisher simply judged them insufficiently good to recoup the cost of printing on paper. That calculus will change dramatically when publishing costs next to nothing. It will be worth taking a chance on even books that have a very modest chance of success. And some of those, will, in fact be popular with readers.
And this, in turn, means that the John Grishams and Agatha Christies of the world will have a lot more competition. Thousands of talented writers who failed to persuade a publisher to print their books on dead trees will now have the opportunity to publish directly to peoples’ Kindles. Some fraction of them will catch the imagination of readers and find a large audience. And that puts downward pressure on Grisham’s book advances in two distinct ways: because publishers are cutting their prices to compete with other publishers publishers, and because publishers have many more popular writers from whom to choose.
And as we’ve seen earlier, the price of content almost never varies by quality. Avatar cost $200 million to make and has been widely hailed by critics, yet tickets cost roughly the same as tickets to Jennifer’s Body, which cost $16 million to make and was widely panned. So it’s hard to imagine a stable equilibrium where new authors’ eBooks go for $1 but John Grisham’s eBooks go for $10, because content consumers tend to be price-sensitive.
If that sounds like hand-wavy theorizing to you, consider that it perfectly describes today’s blogosphere. There are millions of blogs in the world. The overwhelming majority of them are not very good, but even the top 1 percent still represents vastly more content than any one person can read. And the competition has made it virtually impossible for bloggers to charge for copies of their work. Even the most popular blogs are available for free online. Every “A-list” blogger understands that that he’d lose 90 percent of his readers overnight if he tried to charge a subscription fee.
Notice that this is true even though some of the top bloggers are extremely talented and have large and growing audiences. The zero price of blog content isn’t a negative judgment about blog quality. It’s simply a reflection of supply and demand. Even at a price of zero, the supply of high-quality content exceeds the attention span of the average reader by a huge margin. Which means that the equilibrium price is zero. There’s no reason to think the economics of eBooks will be any different.
In my final post in this series, I’ll look at what this analysis implies for content creators. The short version: we’re not all going to starve to death.
Update: One point that I should have made explicitly is that this argument has absolutely nothing to do with illegal file sharing. Obviously, illicit file sharing has accelerated the decline of the recording industry, and may very well have the same effect on the eBook market. But prices would continue trending downward even if the recording industry figured out a way to completely stop illicit file-sharing, because lower prices are what you always get when barriers to entry fall and competition increases.