If e-books are the new paperbacks, why are they so expensive?

By John Yunker on

John Yunker

Playwright, author of the environmental novel The Tourist Trail and co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.

I’m not the only one who’s been saying that paperbacks are the new hardcovers, and e-books are the new paperbacks.

Paperbacks are getting more expensive as publishers go with smaller print runs or print-on-demand (like us).

And e-books are generally priced under $10, due in part to Amazon’s revenue-share incentives, but also due to the fact that people expect e-books to cost less than print books.

Yet not all ebooks are priced lower than their print counterparts.

This article in The Wall Street Journal focuses on a number of books that are more expensive as e-books than hardcovers. The articles notes:

Take Ken Follett’s massive novel “Fall of Giants,” for example, which costs $18.99 as an e-book. On Wednesday it was selling for $16.50 as a paperback on Amazon.

Now, this is just plain crazy, and, I suspect, an anomaly.

Major publishers want (need) e-books to be priced over $10. Author contracts assume books will be priced a certain way, and a great deal of marketing/editing/sales costs are all built upon the idea of a book being priced a certain way. But book buyers expect e-books to be priced under $10.

Yet the good news for small publishers, as well as self-published writers, is that “the little guys” are more open to pricing books aggressively in order to find new readers willing to take a chance on new authors.

However, should a book — a labor of love that took years to create, many months to edit, and weeks to design — cost a mere $2.99, or 99 cents? I don’t think these prices are sustainable either, unless we live in a world of only bestsellers. But I do think e-books can cost somewhere between $3 and $10 and support a healthy publishing ecosystem.

It’s more of a problem when e-books are priced too high; the major publishers have been battling with libraries over the pricing and management of e-books, as I discussed in this post. As I mentioned there, the e-book of Fifty Shades of Grey sells on Amazon for $9.99, while libraries pay $47.85 per copy. Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is $12.00 on Amazon, but it’s $81.00 for libraries on 3M and OverDrive.

As for Ashland Creek Press, our e-books are the same price for libraries as they are for readers — and our e-book pricing comes in at roughly half of the print book pricing.

And it looks as though libraries are paying attention to these lower-priced books; as Publishers Weekly reports, the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado announced recently that they will nearly double the number of e-books available to patrons via a roughly $40,0000 deal to acquire 10,000 e-book titles from independent and self-publishing service provider Smashwords.

It’s clear that print books aren’t going away, but it’s also clear that e-books aren’t either. Publishers need to find their sweet spot in pricing so that they keep their readers (and libraries).

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