Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Why are ebooks so expensive?

Did you know that the first typeface looked like italics? The first printed pages were made to look just like handwriting. Like calling a car a horseless carriage, innovation seems to start out like an emulation of the past. So when I tried to figure out why ebooks are so expensive, I first thought that publishers were treating them just the same as print books. That they were unable to let the buggy whip factory close. Are publishers just not getting it?

In favor of That Argument
Often ebooks are priced the same as their print counterparts. Yet with ebooks there are no printing costs, or shipping, so what's the deal? Well, it could be they don't want competition with their real business: dead tree byproducts. Certainly their copy protection schemes suggest just that. While I can pass around my copy of The Hobbit like a shared tankard at the Ivy Bush inn, I can't email a friend an ebook. Or print it out in some cases. My own paid-for copy! It's like publishers are crippling their own products. Have you noticed when you read ebook offerings online that about one in ten is missing an uploaded book cover? Call me skeptical, but ebooks seem to be the unwanted stepchild of the publishing world.

Against That Argument

Take Sarah Palin's book Going Rogue. It's only available as a hardcover, not as an ebook. At first this seems like another point in favor of cluelessness. However, consider the margins: Rogue is selling for thirty dollars (list); if at a fifty percent discount, minus, say, a hypothetical $5 print cost, HarperCollins could be looking at ten dollars of profit a book. Using Amazon as a measure, ebooks' price point appears to be ten dollars. Then, isn't it reasonable to assume that the money HC makes would be less that that? Perhaps half?

My question is: Would you sell dead trees over ones and zeros at twice the gain? You betcha'. What I believe is that publishers are pushing print books because they can make a tidier profit out of them.

How do I Feel About This?
As a reader, I feel taken advantage of. I could have many more books on my iPhone, just like I own plenty of apps. Most apps are free or a dollar; five bucks is the outlier, and what I receive from those is great utility or dozens of hours of entertainment. Somebody is making money off of apps, you can count on it. Don't tell me that software writing is less work than book writing. I don't buy it.

As a writer, do I think making more royalties on a print book are a good thing? Sure, but according to my partner pub contract, the ebook edition will be forty percent off of the print price — yet the royalty to me is higher! Why? No printing and transportation costs. Would I rather sell fewer books at a higher margin? Not really. I want my book in more hands not fewer. Whose interests does this serve? The publisher, not the author. Rooted to an old model.

What this whole argument presupposes is that there has to be a good reason for pricing. Clearly, Houghton Mifflin can charge whatever they want for Lord of the Rings, for example. Then again, nobody has to buy it. What this topic does remind me of is what the record industry went through with Napster. Record execs arbitrarily set a price for music, and consumers had to buy it bundled (a whole CD) instead of getting only what they wanted (a single). And the music became copy protected. Stealing music became easier than buying it. And we all know what happened to the record industry since then.

So my conclusion is not that publishers 'aren't getting it', but that they are trying to preserve their historical margins. If so, all I have to ask them is this: Can Bookster be far behind?

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