images.jpgA common conversation point in recent months in discussions about the merits and demerits of ebooks has been “ebooks are a bargain.” Are they really?

I grant that my reading habits are probably atypical. It has been at least a dozen years since I read a book from the top 10 general fiction bestseller lists. (I have no idea whether any of the science fiction or fantasy books I have read were on bestseller lists in their categories.) So when the pricing wars were on and bestsellers were selling for $9.99, my response was a decided ho-hum.

Besides, what makes a bestseller? It’s the number of copies wholesaled to bookstores, not the actual number of copies sold to consumers. Granted that sometimes there is a correlation between the two, which becomes evident when you can’t buy a first printing copy and need to settle for a 13th printing edition. But most books don’t get out of the first printing — bestsellers or otherwise — and the bestseller lists are momentary lists, that is, they don’t reflect the fact that many of the books printed end up on the bargain/remainder tables within a couple of months of release.

I, for one, would be much more impressed with bestseller status if I knew that the status reflected consumer buys and not bookstore borrows. And my time is coming because of ebooks.

eBooks don’t require print runs. A single digital file given to Amazon substitutes for the 5,000 print copies. Consequently, one day bestseller lists will be more meaningful because they will reflect sales to consumers.

This has been a roundabout way of getting to the question at hand: Are ebooks a bargain? Like what is really a bestseller, ebooks equaling a bargain is a complex question. The answer is a resounding maybe. Let’s set aside all the limitations of ebooks that do not encumber pbooks, such as first sale impossibilities, DRM, the inability to share with acquaintances, lack of permanence — all attributes pbooks have over ebooks — and concentrate on the price question.

Dollarwise, ebooks that are not published by the upper tier traditional publishing houses can be significant bargains. I don’t see it as a bargain if a book published by Del Rey or Bantam sells for $8.99 as a pbook and $7.99 as an ebook. On the other hand, when I buy a book at Smashwords for $2.99, I view that as a bargain if the book is readable. And that is a key consideration — readability. I assume, and not always correctly, that a Bantam book is at least readable. I might not like the book, but the book is readable. I don’t have to recognize that the author meant “there” not “their” each time “their” appears in the text. That is, I don’t have to act as interpreter.

Increasingly, that is becoming less of a problem with the ebooks I find at Smashwords. It’s not that the problem has disappeared — it hasn’t — just that it is less. Of course, when I spend only $2.99 for an ebook, I have to be prepared to do a little of the work myself. It is the tradeoff. I suspect that the quality of less expensive ebooks will continue to rise (certainly, they cannot decline very far) as readers turn away from the expensive to the inexpensive ebooks.

I expect to see a dichotomy in the publishing world. I expect to see fewer fiction pbooks published in coming years, with the concentration for fiction being in ebooks. I also think that nonfiction books will be the primary pbooks, at least for the next decade, until the devices used for ereading are capable of handling the demands of more than text. I am aware that ereading-capable devices like the iPad may be suitable for nonfiction, but are these the devices that serious readers who sustain the nonfiction market will want to lug around? I think devices capable of straddling the needs of readers and nonfiction books are still in the planning stages.

With that shift of fiction to ebooks and away from pbooks, ebooks will become bargains. But until that shift occurs, the bargain ebooks are ebooks not published by traditional publishers; they are the ebooks published by authors directly to consumers and by small ebook-dedicated publishers.

It is possible to spend a lifetime reading ebooks that cost less than $2.99; in fact, it is possible to spend a lifetime reading ebooks that are available free. All you have to do is not want to read either pbook ”bestsellers” in ebook form or not read ebooks by the traditional top-tier publishers. From experience, I can tell you that it is easy to avoid those high-priced ebooks; I rarely spend more than $2.99 for an ebook and have been quite pleased, overall, with what I have purchased.

To answer my question, yes, ebooks are a bargain if you buy smart.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog


  1. The concept of ‘bargain’ is dependent on ‘value’. Buying books according to price alone is not going to lead to satisfaction or value imho.
    I agree with most of what you say about pricing, Rich, and personally I will not pay more than 7 -9 dollars or so for a big name book, or 5 dollars for a back list book. I find it is hard to explore totally unknown writers sold on ebook stores because so much time is needed to invest in finding out if the writing is any good. I look forward to better eRetailer sites with more social and recommendation structures.

    My own grasp on recent discussions on the web about eBooks is one mainly of loud complaints about the excessive over pricing. Though prices have improved recently and I expect it will continue in 2011.

  2. it is possible to spend a lifetime reading ebooks that are available free

    So true and that’s what makes ereaders (rather than ebooks) a bargain. With the tens (or hundreds?) of thousands of free public domain ebooks at project gutenberg,, mobileread, and similar sites, I have no need to pay for pleasure reading material. I do buy ebooks sometimes for specific topics such as politics, recent history, and such, but I have a surfeit of free ebooks for sitting down and enjoying a good story. From classics like Twain and Dickens to sci-fi (Verne and pulp fiction of the 30’s-50’s), there’s something for just about everyone at no cost. That’s a bargain!

  3. From an economic POV I’m not sure how we can value ebooks by comparing costs with print books. Consumers usually buy on price compared to perceived value. So the cost of digital distribution is not really relevant. An ebook should be qualitatively different than a print book just like a new release 3D film in a theater is a different product than a free TV sitcom.
    My only conclusion is that some ebooks are worth considerably more than print books and some are worth less, if not zero. The only way to judge is for a vibrant community of readers to buy and review ebooks.

  4. I’m not clear what your point is, actually.

    Currently, e-books are usually cheaper than p-books or hard covers, time and time and time again, as compared to the same titles by the same publishers at bricks and mortar stores.

    Penguin Canada sells Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for $13.50 at Chapters/Indigo in Canada — that’s the flimsy mass market edition, not some souped up trade edition; the Penguin Canada e-book at is $7.99 or for Canadians at, $7.65.

    Or take back catalogue. Like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe titles. Black Orchids is $10.99 from Random House Canada in mass p-book; at Kobobooks Random House charges $5.09; and the same $5.09 at

    Or what about Ken Follett’s World Without End> New American Library mass p-book is $12.50 and a whopping $24.00 in Trade; it’s $8.19 at kobobooks and $5.92 at amazon.

    E-books are a bargain and easily pay for the cost of the e-reader after a dozen or so books, depending on what you read (and without counting free classics which in p-book can be remarkably outrageous).

    It is a complete fiction that, on balance e-books are “expensive” relative to real world purchases at bricks and mortar stores. they are resoundingly a bargain.

  5. In other cases the ebook is quite a bit more expensive than the pbook…

    Naamah’s Kiss by Jacqueline Carey is $7.99 as a pbook, but $12.99 as an ebook and there are other titles with similar pricing.

    On the whole I don’t have a huge beef with most ebook prices although Agency pricing has brought about a lot more issues for me. When a new hardcover comes out now, often times it’s the same price of slightly cheaper discounted than the ebook version (which gets no discount).

  6. I would quantify “eBooks are cheaper” this way: ‘indie’ eBooks are cheaper. Publishers are clearly trying to rake in some of their lost paper book profit by sending their eBook prices soaring–and will subsequently they’ll sell less e-titles because of it–but many indie writers have quietly lowered their prices to entice disenfranchised readers to try new authors and explore unfamiliar ground with their spandy-new eReaders. Do I spent less as an ePublisher? Absolutely! I pass that savings on my readers who like laying less than $7 to read a full-length novel. An avid and grateful customer in hand is worth 1,00 undecided possibles in the shrubbery, because that one customer in hand tweets “OMG you have to read this book!” to their 140 followers and then to their 400 friends on Facebook, and also to the 1400 folks worldwide that read their blog each week, and so on and so on down the virtual line.

    Reasonably-priced eBooks are indeed a good deal, and thus have every chance of being ‘successful’. eBook writers should take note: even well-known authors are losing their fans due to overpricing; recently, I read a blog linked from this website whereon the blogger stated that he was going to wait to read his favorite author’s new book until the price was reduced, or go get it free at the library in old fashioned “page format”. Price to books, in a bad economy, is like location to real estate.

  7. The whole idea that ebooks are priced too high and therefore frowned upon, seems like an irrelevant thing to me.
    If the pbook is cheaper, then buy that. What are everyone complaining about?
    Oh, you WANT the ebook? Well, then. Cough up the money.
    What’s that you say? Quite a few ARE actually cheaper than the pbook. Well, then. There you go.
    No? They’re more expensive? £20 for Folletts new book in hardback or £20 for the ebook. Bad ebook price? Then don’t buy it. You can always read the classics for free.
    What’s that you say?
    You want to read something new? You want to read Folletts new book?
    Well, you could wait for the paperback.
    Oh, you want it now? And you want it as an ebook?
    Well, then, luckily for you, there’s a solution. $19.99 or £20 will get it for you.
    Expensive? Please, don’t make me laugh.
    Are you buyng a price or a story from your favourite author?

    Or if you’re in the market for Nuclear Energy by Landolt Börnstein there’s a $620.90 reduction on Amazon. Now only $7169.10.
    As an ebook.
    The hardcover is still $7790.

    The prices of books differ since Gutenberg and still do. All depending on the book.

    So talking about the prices of ebooks as outrageous is futile. Some are a bit more expensive than the pbook, some are cheaper.
    But the price is peanuts. (Except perhaps Nuclear Energy)

    What’s bugging everybody is that because ebooks are files and some files on the net are available for free, the idea that all the ebooks are not, then at least they should be dirt cheap.

    But if you want thousands and thousands of pbooks, it’s going to set you back quite a bit.
    So will ebooks. Perhaps a bit more, perhaps a bit less …

  8. For (some) new books, e-books are the cheaper option, and for public domain books they’re not just cheaper – they’re free. It’s the books in the middle that are where e-books are the more expensive option; for example the Kindle version of the Da Vinci code currently costs $6.78 and yes, that’s cheaper than even the paperback version, but I can go into my local second-hand bookshop confident that they have a bucket full of copies of this execrable novel at €1 each. I’ve also seen new copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin for €2 (Kindle price $7.71). The thing is that sometimes I can get p-books at unexpectedly good prices – either new or used – but I can never get e-books at those prices, at least not legally.

  9. I am sorry Magnus but I don’t buy into a single one of your arguments. You may think that the public’s assessment of eBook prices is irrelevant, but the direction of publishing is moving inexorably to epublishing and publishers was to sell books and ebooks. The idea that people can just buy the paper book if they want is not an answer. Publishers make much higher profits on ebooks and the public know it. People who read on eReaders read and buy more books, and the publishers know it.
    Your assessment of the public’s perception as futile is as maybe. But the public spend their money according to their perception and if publishers want to sell and make profits then they need to take a much more informed view of the public’s perceptions.
    Torrent sites are expanding fast, driven by the high ebook prices and if the publishing business decides to ignore the public then the public can ignore the publishers and get almost any nook from torrent sites in a couple of minutes. This is the reality of life.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail