Which is the right ebook pricing trend?

Two contrasting data points on ebook pricing this week point up the question of what the right price points are for ebooks. In the blue corner, we have the Digital Book World Ebook Best-Seller List, which after all is followed by Huffington Post and other outlets in the U.S., and therefore carries some authority. And its latest March post found that, “after weeks of slowly ticking up, getting more than halfway to the $7.00 mark, the average price of a best-selling ebook jumped this week to $7.49. At the end of January, the average price of a best-selling ebook was $5.36, just $0.09 off an all-time low, recorded in December 2013. Since then, it’s been steadily ticking up.”

And interestingly, “there are no self-published titles on the list this week. Even though the rate of self-published titles hitting the best-seller list has slowed considerably since last year when big-publisher titles started being priced lower, most weeks at least one or two self-published titles make the list, usually priced at $3.99 or below.”

DBW highlights the position of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series in the Best-Seller List, and sure enough, ebook price movements show quite a bit of divergence in the UK – at least according to the Nielsen Books & Consumers survey for 2013, over in the red corner. And according to its findings, “the lower value than volume share for self-publishing reflected the low prices paid for these titles, with self-published fiction e-books most commonly bought for under £2, whereas mainstream Fiction e-books typically cost £3-4.99. The rise of self-publishing meant that in 2013, the average price paid for Fiction e-books dropped to around 60% of that paid for Fiction paperbacks.”

So which is the representative trend? Do ebooks as a whole have an upward momentum that will eventually lift the price of self-published ebooks too? Or will self-published titles continue to drag the whole market down whenever they appear? And of course, there’s an argument that both forces are in play, and will pull against each other until or unless some kind of equilibrium is established.

My suspicion is that the growing maturity of the ebook market is going to pull all average prices up, and that ebooks from trade publishers are going to be seen as the premium end of the market, with periodic self-published breakthroughs into that tier – like a small independent fashion house suddenly getting its big break into the major brand stratosphere. As the traditional publishers penetrate the ebook market more and more, they’re going to try to pull prices up to the levels they’re comfortable with, whatever pressures Amazon and the self-published competition confront them with. But that’s conjecture for now, and I’d welcome other opinions on this.

8 Comments on Which is the right ebook pricing trend?

  1. Joanna Cabot // March 21, 2014 at 7:10 pm //

    Paul, your conclusion presupposes that there are two sides (the big pubs and the seld pubs) one of whom has it right and one of whom has it wrong, and that the right one will prevail and force the other one into compliance.

    I don’t think that is a true conclusion. I think that, especially as a relation to the paper price which people still compare to, most ebooks from big publishers are priced absurdly high. And I simultaneously think that many quality indie books (not the junk onslaught but the ones which truly do get polished and edited, as Konrath and Crouch and some others do) could support a higher price.

    It’s not that indies are too cheap and must also be $14.99 and it’s not that big pun books are too expensive and must be 99 cents. It’s that everyone would probably do fine at a middle ground between $3.99 for the newbie indie release (going up to 5 and change for more established indie authors) and up to $7.99 for big pub.

  2. Joanna, that’s not exactly how I see it. I do believe the two ends of the market are complementary. Rather than everyone converging on a middle ground, I think we’ll see a sliding scale, where majors set generally higher prices, both because they have to (with authors selected accordingly) and because they’re able to (via promotion, international distribution, etc), while self-pub authors will price low for the same reasons (most won’t command high prices without a strong presence, but they also don’t need to make much to derive significant income). This looks to me like a structure that will work well for everyone. But once again, happy to hear other views.

  3. Kathryn Rusch, who is a well-respected and savvy author/publisher/editor, has a really interesting take on ebook prices in this blog article.


    For those too lazy to read it, she says that pricing really low as a strategy for new/unknown writers is a poor strategy.

  4. Anyone who knows about the concept of “progress” would be aware that for human civilization to advance the cost of goods and servies should fall over time. Technology improves producitvity which in turn lowers cost which in turn means that 97% of the ppulation can enjoy a refrigerator instead of 1%.

    The advent of E-Books and related technologies means that the cost of making a book should be reastically reduced and therefore so should the price to consumers. Music has already experianced these efficiencies and for most people music is now effectivly free (not counting the cost of ad consumption), however books continue to lag behing with prices in the range of $3-$9 even thought the cost of duplication is zero. Ironically the leader in this arena is cable television that, while maintaining a horrible monopily and relentlessly raising the costs of its bundled subscription, has reduced the cost per channel per month to only a few cents. To back 30…40…50 years and the cost to product one hour of television was astronomical compared to what can be done today.

    When goods and services follow the model of food and socks human civilization is improved. Trying to keep costs high, as with medcal care and education, only causes unsustainable situations.

  5. The problem with that theory, Sturmovik, is that books, since the advent of the American popular press and the Ivy League rich folks owned all the major publishing companies, has always been artificially low and has only grown with the cost of production and inflation. Most of the cost that hasn’t been paid for by cover price has been forced upon the authors.

    From my own time period in publishing, I recall a huge increase in paper prices that the big publishers insisted must be shared with authors with a “temporary” cut in royalty percentages. When the price of paper went down, the royalties never came back up. By factoring in inflation, authors now make less than authors did in the 1920s.

    Music and musicians have the advantage of public performance as well as the enormous popularity of music which publishing and authors do not.

    And, frankly, buying a book for what most cost these days isn’t f-ing much for the amount of entertainment it provides, and the hours of enjoyment make it pretty dang cheap in comparison to the cost per hour of movies, concerts, etc.

  6. Saying that books provide more hours of entertainment than a movie or concert is looking at things the wrong way. If I am paying for a Story (or an Experience) then having something is more succinct can be considered an advantage. A person’s time is around $10/hr minimum so if a book takes 10 hours to read the reader is paying $100 of their time to experience the story. Films can often deliver that same story in only 2 hours which then saves the viewer $80 in opportunity costs.

    It is because that the highest cost in enjoying media comes from one’s own time spent to enjoy it that I feel offended by content creators who feel they are entitled to high levels of per instance compensation, especially in advance of consumption.

    Anyway, just because authors cannot perform like musicians does not mean that they cannot engage with their readers in a way that can generate additional revenue.

  7. @Sturmovik, your argument confuses me. I’m not looking at entertainment as an opportunity cost. Ideally, I’d like to be entertained for the longest possible time at the shortest possible cost. For me, that’s a book, which is why I read well over 100 books a year and watch only 3-5 movies in the theater. Books are a much better value for what I’m looking for in entertainment.

    And even though a $12.99 book can be a good value, considering the amount of time I will derive enjoyment from it, I don’t have any problems with looking for 4 $2.99 books I might enjoy just as much, if not more. I look for bargains for the majority of my reading so I can afford to indulge in the occasional “must have” that’s more expensive.

  8. Sturmovik said, “Anyway, just because authors cannot perform like musicians does not mean that they cannot engage with their readers in a way that can generate additional revenue.”

    If you know of a way that authors can make money “engaging” with their readers, let all of us writers/novelists know how because no one has figured this out yet, and we writers are creative thinkers.

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