I’m right on the edge of shifting to ebooks. Well, that’s misleading. I should say adding ebooks to my reading. I have no intention of abandoning my hundreds, if not thousands, of paper books in my posession. But ebooks are becoming respectable. There are authors now making a living selling almost entirely ebooks. New authors mostly, a fact which will become important later. There are reports Amazon is selling more ebooks to Kindles than sending real books in the post. Even up against Amazon’s Kindle, I see Sony having trouble keeping it’s flagship ereader in stock and, due to the open formats, many small players have surfaced. No doubt about it, readers are embracing ebooks.
But I think publishers are seriously struggling to grasp this change in the marketplace.
How much do you normally pay for a paperback in your local bookstore? This will vary across the world, but I’ve watched the prices rise considerably over the decades here in Australia. A typical mass-market fantasy paperback now retails north of AU$20, sometimes as high as AU$35.
So, go for an ebook version instead, you say? Ebooks are supposed to be cheaper, you say? According to whom, pray?
I recently purchased “Rides a Dread Legion” by Raymond E Feist. He’s a good example for this because Feist is an established fantasy author who has been around for several decades. This particular title is barely two years old and there are two sequels already on the shelves. I paid AU$20.99 for a small paperback version in a chain bookstore. Although I usually like Feist’s writing, I think he’s been off his game in some recent works and I may find this to be another. I haven’t bought a book like that for months because I don’t like that risk at that price. But I have the earlier ones in that series. So.
I don’t have an ereader quite yet, so buying it as an ebook would mostly be just an intellectual exercise. But I was curious as to what it would cost as an ebook. So I went looking.
Angus & Robertson have it on their website for AU$30.95. Yes, that was the ebook version, complete with odious DRM. The very same website has four paperback versions, three of which were less than that (the fourth is bizarrely $71.95 – I joked on Twitter that it must be handwritten on parchment). The cheapest was $15.95. That’s right: half the ebook version.
Why? Ebooks do not have printing costs, nor delivery costs.
There are clues. The same book on Barnes & Noble is US$3.99 — but B&N proclaim an 85% discount right in the listing. Yes, the official publisher’s list price is US$27.99. That’s suspiciously close to actual Australian pricing.
A series of very interesting posts by Dean Wesley Smith about self-publishing (Think Like a Publisher and Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing) gives us a lot of other clues. It turns out that there are lot of funny numbers in setting book prices at the retailer. Publishers rarely expect to sell their books to the distributor or retailer at the list price. Instead, they give huge discounts for almost any reason, including returning unsolds. This means retailers can sell “below list price” which is about all the consumer really sees but doesn’t realize they never know why. I’m simplifying hugely, though it gives you a way to see why B&N can “discount” at 85% and still make money. Go read Dean’s writings: he is a successful self-published author and he used to run a publishing house so he definitely knows what he’s talking about.
Another clue is the fracas that blew up with Apple and ebook publishers and then with Amazon and pretty much the same publishers. It is difficult to follow the numbers the whys and wherefores, but there was an awful lot of percentages being thrown around and about who was getting what and for why. The details aren’t important for this discussion: what is becoming clear that publishing houses have been for a very very long time pocketing the majority of the price of a book. Even with all those byzantine discounts. People in that sort of position will charge as much as they think they can get away with (do I really need to list examples?). Clearly, they want to keep doing that for a title published as an ebook.
Truth be told, the actual printing and delivery is quite a small percentage. CreateSpace can print you one book (depending on the length) for $6.50 – and that’s a Print-On-Demand price. Imagine how cheap a 25,000 run could be at a more conventinal printhouse — I say imagine because these kinds of quotes are really quite difficult to get. This shows that ebooks probably should be priced only slightly less than paper.
What has been seen is publishers setting ebook prices between the hardback and the trade paperback version. That not only removes mass-market paperbacks from the picture, but also all the discounting that goes on. Clearly they are fighting to protect their income. And are using ebooks to do it. And I haven’t even mentioned author percentages yet. Or tilted contracts.
I titled this piece “Publishers don’t like ebooks” but now I’m suspect it’s more like “Publishers don’t like paperbacks”.
As readers, we have to do two three things:
- Don’t purchase ebooks at exorbitant prices. And I chose “exorbitant” deliberately.
- Complain directly to publishers — not to bookstores! — that ebook prices are too high. Sooner or later one publisher will buck the system and make a motza on volume instead of markup.
- Buy from new authors who are bypassing this system. The ebook prices are cheaper and the authors make more.
When I finally do get an ereader, my book choice is going to be driven by the above three points. I’m still going to be buying paper so long as authors I want to read are still publishing in the old system.