The Love-Hate Relationship between Publishers and Online Book Sales
On March 31st, the Dutch book world was shocked when online sales giant Bol.com removed all of publishing house Das Mag’s books from its website. The reason, according to Das Mag, is that the publisher refused Bol.com’s new “collaboration contract”, which states that the popular webshop was to receive an even higher discount (47% instead of 37%) on its Das Mag stock. Das Mag co-founder Daniël van der Meer claimed: “Bol wanted to earn an extra 10% on our books, but we would get nothing in return”.1 The publishing house had been warned that not agreeing to the terms would have “serious repercussions”. Shortly after, Bol.com removed all Das Mag books from its website.
The Das Mag conflict is a prime example of what publishers feared would be the result of eBooks and online book selling. In many ways, Bol.com is comparable to Amazon, which had a similar, albeit more consequential, discord with America’s “Big Six” publishers.2 In 2007, Amazon launched the Kindle, its first-generation eReader that sold out within six hours. The main reason why the Kindle was such an enormous success was because Amazon has a price monopoly on its online book sales. From the beginning, Amazon has sold its eBooks with a fixed price of $9,99 per book. This price is so low that Amazon actually loses money on its book sales, and thus purely serves to strengthen the company’s position in the market. In the first three years, American publishers profited from Amazon’s online sales, as the company was responsible for one third of total books sales in the US.
Despite the profit margins, however, the Big Six smelled danger. They feared that the customer would get used to paying $9,99 for a book, and be unwilling to pay a higher price for a paper copy from a physical bookstore. To fight Amazon’s monopoly, all but Random House closed a deal with Apple. In turn, they were accused of forming a cartel and sentenced to pay millions in fines.
Keeping this Cartelgate in mind, it is no wonder that publishers feel hesitant towards digital bookselling. Moreover, monopolies by mail order companies are not the only threat to the publishing business. Illegal downloading, lower prices, the disappearance of the paper book and the physical bookstore, and the difficulty for unknown authors to gain recognition – all of these are worrisome developments for traditional publishers. But there is hope. In the past ten years, there has been a great amount of research into the actual effects of digitalisation on book sales. Many researchers have found that online sales are not substitutional, but additional to physical sales. Laing and Royle (2013), for example, found that 97% of online shoppers buy books in physical stores too.3 Furthermore, online platforms such as Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, Mofibo and Elly’s Choice form a legal alternative to online downloading. These initiatives support lesser-known authors by including their books in deals and offering them visibility and an honest salary.
Online book sales thus bring both threats and opportunities to the traditional book market. When certain players become (too) big, they tend to misuse their influential position to maximize profits. Bol.com is the leading platform for online book sales in the Netherlands, and therefore feels entitled to certain privileges and certain actions when these privileges are not granted. Bol.com spokesperson Marjolein Verkerk admitted that removing all Das Mag’s books was a bit of an “intense reaction” and “possibly not the best thing to do”. “But”, Verkerk added, “our intense reaction was a response to their intense reaction”1.
If this finger-pointing strikes you as more childlike than businesslike, you will be happy to know that there are plenty of alternatives. Bol.com represents less than three percent of overall Das Mag sales. Their books are still available through numerous online platforms, including Das Mag’s own webshop and the aforementioned Kindle Unlimited.
If all else fails, you can always find their books at the nearest physical bookstore. After all, the only person who decides how the book market develops, is the reader.
2Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Penguin and Random House.
3Laing, Audrey and Royle, Jo. “Bookselling Online: An Examination of Consumer Behaviour Patterns.” Publishing Research Quarterly 29.2 (2013): 110-127. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.