john-sargent.jpgThe head of one of the big book publishers, Macmillan CEO John Sargent Jr., is out with an “open” letter about his dispute with Amazon over the pricing and timing of electronic books. It’s telling that this “open” ebook letter wasn’t released publicly and isn’t directed towards readers, book lovers and customers. It was placed as an ad in a small publishing industry trade rag and the message is for publishing industry insiders. Sargent’s message, despite a bunch of misleading surrounding verbiage, is simple: let’s strangle the growth of ebooks.

If you want to understand where Sargent and other major book publishers are coming from, I strongly recommend watching this online footage from a conference New York University hosted last September. Here you can see Sargent and a couple of fellow old media dinosaurs whine and complain about the digital world, dismiss Facebook, Craig’s List and Twitter as irrelevant non-businesses that will never make money and generally explain their plans to charge everyone for everything at every opportunity.

The real critical portions come towards the very end, in part three, as Sargent grows more animated about his opposition to giving away ebooks for free, even for promotional purposes. Despite being in charge of one of the largest publishing conglomerates in the world, he’s pretty pessimistic about the future of books. Challenged by Wired editor Chris Anderson to use digital distribution and new business models to attract new readers and expand the book market, Sargent is in full rejection mode:

“As the Internet grows, as all the other types of entertainment grow, it’s hard to imagine sitting here how we are going to convince everybody in this room to spend an extra six hours every week to consume another book. So in a way, if you look at the overall demand for books, it’s pretty hard to make that grow. We’ve tried. A whole bunch of people worked very hard to try and grow that. It’s pretty hard if you look at the demographics, how people read, to actually convince yourself that we have a growth business in books.”

In other words, what we have in books is a dying audience, a shrinking audience. And the way you extract the most revenue and profit from a shrinking audience isn’t with creative promotions and new ideas. It’s with ever higher prices. As Sargent says at a another point, in a barely veiled swipe at Amazon’s $9.99 ebook price:

“What we need is variable pricing. I think you guys would agree with this, variable pricing for content. You want a range of price points. You want to find a place — what you don’t want to do is give the consumer something for less than what they’re willing to pay for it in the rush to a new business model. Because once you get it out there it’s dangerous and hard to go back.”

Again, challenged to charge less because producing ebooks cost less, Sargent obfuscates, fixating on just one bit of savings, the printing costs of books (ignoring distribution, returns, overage, lost sales from out of print etc):

“Guys I can walk you through this. How much do you think a hardcover book costs us? A buck sixty. What are we saving? Not enough for the price point to drop from $22.50 down to $8.”

Amazon has been saying that its Kindle customers buy more total books – electronic and print – than they bought previously. It’s certainly been true in our household. I don’t have the figures at my finger tips, but I’d imagine that the whole creation and growth of has enlarged the book market, as well. But that’s not really happening in John Sargent’s world of mega-best sellers.

So keep in mind what Sargent was saying a few months ago when you read passages like this in his letter:

“In the ink-on-paper world we sell books to retailers far and wide on a business model that provides a level playing field, and allows all retailers the possibility of selling books profitably. Looking to the future and to a growing digital business, we need to establish the same sort of business model, one that encourages new devices and new stores. One that encourages healthy competition. One that is stable and rational. It also needs to insure that intellectual property can be widely available digitally at a price that is both fair to the consumer and allows those who create it and publish it to be fairly compensated.”

Leave aside for a moment the completely dishonest portrait Sargent paints of the old print book-selling world, and remember that he doesn’t believe the there will be any growth in book sales in the future. He’s not interested in a fair price for anybody — he’s interested in making sure that he never gives the consumer something for less than what they’re willing to pay for it. He wants to extract the big bucks from the big sellers and move on.

The great danger to Macmillan is that it’s the authors of those big best-sellers who are becoming increasingly able to cut him out. If ebooks really take off, an author like Stephen King or Nora Roberts can sell a lot more of their books direct to their audience with no publisher at all. And that’s why Sargent’s real goal here is not to increase competition or create a level playing field. It’s to squeeze as much profit out of a dying industry as quickly as he can and hold off the digital future for as long as possible.

UPDATE: Henry Blodget also really gets it in his post today called “Hey, John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Books, Screw You!” An excerpt:

Did Steve Jobs seduce you with that temporary “charge-whatever-you-want” speech? Well, Steve has been known to seduce people from time to time. Just imagine what will happen once Steve has put the Kindle out of business and Steve owns the ebook platform instead of Jeff Bezos. That’s right: You’ll get held up even worse than Jeff’s holding you up today. Just ask the music industry. Careful what you wish for. So, bottom line, John, take your $15 ebooks and shove them. We’re with Amazon on this one.

Editor’s Note: This is taken, with permission, from Aaron Pressman’s Gravitational Pull blog. One thing is becoming increasingly clear to me as I follow the news and attend various conferences, such as Digital Book World. Publishers do not like ebooks, do not want ebooks and wish that ebooks would just go away. If the presentation by an author’s agent at DBW is typical, then the same can be said for agents as well. It’s going to take a long time for this to shake out, because the only real supporters of ebooks are consumers, and the industry doesn’t care much about them. Many authors, too, are not too fond of ebooks and so you won’t get a lot of pressure from them, at least not yet. PB

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