With hardback and paperback sales sliding down the charts while ebook sales rising, it appears the new paperback book is the ebook. Unlike the past, where readers had to wait months or years for the paperback edition to come out, the ebook and hardback are now published simultaneously. This is great news for readers until you realize what has happened is the price of a paperback has been increased. You get to read it sooner, but it costs more – but the whole point of mass market paperbacks was to read books for less.
It used to be a book would come out in hardback, say for $25.99, and then months later, a $14.99 trade edition would come out, and finally after sales for the trade edition tanked, the $7.99 mass market edition would appear. The cost of reading a book depended on how soon you wanted to read it after first publication. Now we’re seeing $9.99-$12.99 or more for the ebook, but we get to buy it right away. On one hand this seems like a very fair price, because it’s such a savings off the hardback cost, but on the other hand, you get nothing but electrons for your money.
When you buy a hardback you have something physical that will last, that’s collectable, or nice to look at on a shelf, and makes a great gift, or is wonderful to lend to your friends, or even sell. Even if you didn’t read the book, you had something when you bought a book.
Most people only read a book once, and if you’re buying ebooks, all you’re really getting is to read it. An ebook will last, but if you only read a book once, it’s more like renting the book.
By the way, from now on when I mention pricing, I’m going to use Amazon’s for sale pricing and not list.
You’d think pricing would be based on what you get for your money. The ebook would be the cheapest, then mass market paperback, then trade paperback and then hardback, because of the production costs and materials that go into creating the book. And sometimes this happens. For example The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is $6.35 ebook, and $7.99 mass market paperback. But Isaac Newton by James Gleick is $11.99 ebook and $10.20 trade paperback – WTF? Does that mean a mass market paperback only costs $1.64 to produce and the ebook costs $1.79 more than a trade paperback to create? I don’t think so.
James Gleick’s newest book, The Information is $17.21 for the hardback and $12.99 for the ebook. What Amazon is asking the reader, are you willing to pay $4.22 more to have a hardback copy, or would you just prefer to read it on your Kindle for $12.99.
The list price of The Information is $29.95, which is probably what you’d pay at a brick and mortar store. So the publisher probably thinks $12.99 is a great bargain for the reader, with $16.96 savings. The author is probably thinking, at what price and royalty rate do I earn the most money. The pricing of a book is a really hard math problem, isn’t it?
Me, I’m thinking something different. I’m thinking: What does it cost to read a book? Once we enter into the world of ebooks, I’m essentially paying to read the book. I don’t own anything. I can’t sell my copy when I’m done with it. I can’t lend it to a friend (even though they are working on that, but it’s not like owning a real book which I could lend over and over again). I can’t put it on the shelf for others to admire my large library of great books. I read the book, and more than likely, I’ll move it to archive on the Kindle, or even delete it so I have less cluttered interface to deal with.
You’d also think ebooks would be priced by the word, to take into account the cost of writing and editing the book, so that a 100,000 word book would cost twice as much as a 50,000 word book. That doesn’t happen either. Basically publishers are charging whatever they can get, and each has their own system for pricing. With ebooks I think they are guessing what the demand will be, and if they think it’s high, they will raise the price accordingly – so a new ebook off the press might be priced $12.99. But if they think they can sell more copies at the $9.99 price they sell it for that. When demand goes way down, they will think about lowering the price. That’s all understandable.
But ebooks is changing the habits of bookworms. I’ve always bought lots of hardbacks, and never read many of them because I sit them on my shelf thinking one day I’ll find time to read them when I retire. I’m just not going to do that with ebooks. I’m going to buy just before I start reading. I’m not even sure I could save an ebook for twenty years before I got around to reading it, but there’s just no pleasure in owning a bunch of books I can’t see.
And since I don’t feel “buying” an ebook is like “owning” a book, when I see the price at Amazon for the Kindle edition, I’m going to check the library first to see if there is a copy I can “borrow” because reading a book on the Kindle feels a whole lot like borrowing a library book – I’ll only see it as I read it.
Recently Amazon announced that they were selling more ebooks than hardback and paperback books combined. I’m not sure the world is really ready for the implications of this. Essentially bookstores, both news and used, are the side effect of bookworms, and not book collectors. Real, hardcore book collectors are rare compared to the ordinary everyday bookworm that consumes books. If we bookworms can get our reading electronically, what happens to the bookstore? And once bookworms realize they are only paying to read a book, and get past the illusion of owning books, how they judge what a fair price is for a book will change. I’m not sure if publishers are ready for this.
Finally, the move to ebooks is changing me in other ways. When I shop for books now I realize I was fooling myself. I’m not going to read all those books I bought. I don’t really need my shelves of books because I’ve learned I’m a consumer of words, and not a collector of books. Several times lately I went to buy a book and stopped myself, because I knew if I didn’t read the book right away there is little chance I’d read it at all. I can’t plan for future reading because I read by what I’m hungry for at the moment. This is also why I don’t buy ebooks when I see one I want to read. That impulse is different from the impulse for picking a book to read right now. With a Kindle, you can finish a book and download another and start reading immediately, and since finding books electronically is so easy, why not wait until it’s time to read the next book.
The future price of a book won’t be based on what the publisher thinks the book is worth, but on the price readers are willing to pay to read it next.
JWH – 5/24/11