ebook-priceThe perception and reality of e-book prices have been a matter of strong consumer opinions ever since Amazon first hit it big with its $9.99 bestseller titles and then publishers implemented agency pricing over the “devaluing” of e-books. Both sides seem to like to accuse each other of “entitlement”, and some folks can get quite impassioned about it.

With the Department of Justice agency pricing lawsuit, these opinions have been making themselves known again—or perhaps it’s just that people are finding an excuse to notice. Digital Book World has a piece discussing how e-book pricing makes consumers “upset and confused”. The consumers make the point that e-books cost almost the same as print books but don’t have all the physical printing, shipping, and storing costs associated with print books.

“With today’s pricing, the profit in e-books is crazy,” said Greg Harris, 49, who lives in San Carlos, Calif., and is a vice president of sales and marketing for an electronics company. “Without the need to stock inventory and move paper all around the country, there should be a significant discount in the pricing model.”

“When I saw how much these e-books cost, I was amazed,” said Heidi Barron, 48, a public relations professional from Atlanta. “There is no printing, no shipping, no warehousing, no retailer. There is simply the transmission of the content through the Internet. Someone is making a ton of money.”

These consumers are all too ready to believe that the publishers did collude in price-fixing. But publishers push back that the physical costs are the smallest part of all the work that goes into making a manuscript ready for publication, and that e-books only cost “10% less” than print books to produce. (I already mentioned Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s disdain for Penguin global digital director Molly Barton’s claim that the largest part of the expense is author payment.)

The DBW piece also notes that the salaries of the workers who edit and manage book creation add to the costs, as do e-book distributors, but doesn’t really come to any solid conclusions about who is right.

In a sense, it doesn’t really matter who is right. What matters is that publishers have given consumers every possible reason they could to believe the publishers are price-gouging them, and have often been remarkably tone-deaf in the way they respond to complaints or address themselves only at others in their industry as if consumers aren’t reading what they’re writing also.  (Probably not that much of a surprise when you think about it. Until the Internet era, they didn’t have to worry about looking good to consumers, since the bookstores were the ones who directly sold the books.)

So even if we grant that publishers are right about what e-books cost, they should fire their PR departments because they’ve done a terrible job convincing consumers of that. Small wonder e-book piracy is becoming such a problem—or that consumers have been cheering about the DoJ suit enough to make John Scalzi grumpy.


  1. I’m almost willing to believe the publishers that it costs them almost as much to produce an ebook as it does a paper book. However, that just tells me that they have an outdated and inefficient business model. Ebook distributor? Why are you giving someone a percentage of the gross to act as a middle man for your file?

  2. Experience tells us that if money is lying around in an industry, people will find some good reasons to claim some of it. It’s only in a free market with serious genuine competition that you learn which of your workers are genuinely productive and which ones are just fiddling with the trimmings. Publishing is not there yet, but they’re close enough to see it coming.

  3. I would happily pay full price if it could assure me of a quality product. But $14.99 for a book I have to decrypt so I can fix the errors that a simple proof-read by a high school kid would ave caught? They just will not be able to convince me that it costs more to produce a shoddy ebook than it does to produce a physical paper one.

  4. People are too hung up on the costs of production. eBooks should cost less, because they are an inferior product in key ways. Publishers have gotten around the doctrine of first sale by creative licensing. I, as a consumer, have no ability to sell second hand books, nor can I lend them out beyond the two week window “granted” by the publishers. With pbooks, I could buy a book, read it and decide whether it was a “keeper”. If not, I could recover a significant percentage of my purchase price selling it second hand on Amazon or trading it in at a used book shop. Additionally I could lend out books that I really enjoyed to friends and family as long as necessary. For these reasons alone, ebooks should cost 1/3 less at a minimum. Ironically I am an avid ebook reader, because I don’t want to store and frequently move stacks of books. I just wish that ebooks more closely resembled the product that they are replacing. As an aside, the publishers might want to take a play from Google’s playbook and reward readers for submitting errors in their electronic editions. Understandably there is some cost in converting their back lists to a new format. Seemingly they have been unwilling to spend much if anything to address this issue. Crowd sourcing with more frequent free updates would make this issue less irritating to consumers who have already overpaid for an inferior product.

  5. I used to be quite willing to part with $20 or $25 bucks for a physical book. But an ebook that I can’t share, sell, or donate is worth far less, why should I pay the same?

    It doesn’t matter to me now. When the agency model was first introduced, the prices of most of my wishlist (hundreds of titles) went up, some significantly. That led me to find alternatives in indies, sales, free, and affordable backlist titles. I now have over 6500 ebooks in my Amazon library, plus hundreds more from other sources. I will never go back to traditionally published books, I have more than enough reading material to last me the rest of my life. If there is some bestselling author I must read, I’ll check it out from the library.

    So even if Amazon is allowed to price ebooks again, I won’t be buying them. Why get one book for $10 when I can get at least three?

  6. “What matters is that publishers have given consumers every possible reason they could to believe the publishers are price-gouging them”

    I think this every time I see an eBook that I can’t purchase from a UK site that is priced at £4.99 and the only edition I can purchase is from Kobo’s New Zealand site for the equivalent of £15. This is when I request the book from the library and shop elsewhere for other authors whose eBooks are reasonably priced.

  7. @Sherri

    Ebook distributor? Why are you giving someone a percentage of the gross to act as a middle man for your file?

    <-This. A thousand times this.

    Ebook prices will go down when Amazon and Apple are disinter-mediated, and Barnes and Noble is making a profit on hardware alone. Nothing else will work.

  8. It would be easier to believe that “e-books only cost ‘10% less’ than print books to produce” if we hadn’t heard over the years that:
    –The cost of the paper to print on had risen, so the price of the printed book had to rise to compensate.
    —-The cost of the ink used to print had risen, so the price of the printed book had to rise to compensate.
    –The cost of gas to ship the books had gone up, so the price of the printed book had to rise to compensate.
    –Wages for proofreaders (HA!), printers, etc, had risen …

    On and on went the excuses. Now they say that it cost almost as much to publish an ebook? Based on what? No paper. No shipping costs. No ink. And obviously proofreaders are few and far between.

    Like many others, I simply refuse to pay the exorbitant prices and I’m doing grand. The big agencies can all sit and wonder, and I’ll save my money.

  9. If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times: quality control issues aside, $12.99 to $14.99 is not an unreasonable price for new books. However, a book with OCR and formatting issues isn’t worth a dime and should be neither bought nor read. A book with errors not OK if it costs less, it is not acceptable even if offered for free. Reject and refuse those books.

  10. People need to learn to reject anything with a publisher involved.

    In the age of the internet, publishers are unnecessary middleman clinging to an outdated business model. They are greedy, corrupt, price-fixing slime that screw content CREATORS out of their fair share of the profits derived from their work.

  11. This is a lot like complaining about elected officials by people who didn’t vote. We encourage exploitation by accepting shoddy goods under what should be unacceptable terms. Then, we bitch and moan. As Pogo said so long ago, “We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us.”
    Perhaps the government will intervene and make things fairer by fiat but I wouldn’t want to hold my breath until then. Every book, whether eBook or pBook, is a vote for what you can tolerate. Vote carefully and often.

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