A couple of weeks ago, HarperCollins rolled out a new website in the US that allows customers to buy ebooks direct from the publisher, and will follow with a new UK site next month. It is, of course, citing it as a community-building exercise (which means brand-building), and a way of ensuring that its authors’ books are always available to the public. In truth, HarperCollins is currently locked in a pricing dispute with Amazon, as are several other publishers. Amazon recently started blocking pre-orders and delaying shipments on certain Hachette titles as part of a move to remand a higher cut of the retail price.
As Amazon currently has some 60% of the global ebook market, it is difficult to argue with. But few publishers have built viable alternative infrastructures for selling ebooks – Hachette’s website just directs visitors to Amazon and iBooks, while Penguin’s requires the reader to have Adobe Digital Editions installed, a whole other round of trouble.
HarperCollins isn’t the first to do its own direct sales. Verso, for example, sells ebooks directly, many at a great discount, and also offers a free ebook download when customers buy a printed copy. The problem is, HarperCollins is not a Verso: a small, focused, recognisable brand with a loyal audience. Instead, it’s a behemoth with more than 30 imprints and the fact remains that most general readers neither know nor care who publishes their favourite authors: they go to a general bookshop, online or off, to purchase them.
Unlike in France, Italy or Germany, where publishers banded together to create options to Amazon, British and American publishers still seem bent on competing with one another, even as Amazon eats into their finances. HarperCollins is making a bold move, but it seems unlikely readers will buck the universal trend of convergence seen in everything from supermarkets to app stores and start shopping around for their books.