Is The Kindle a Swindle?

I love my Kindle.  I’ve reached the large print reading years and the Kindle is a wonderful aid to my eyes, but the prices of ebook editions have risen so much that I feel cheated by buying the Kindle edition.  The price of the Kindle edition is often very close to the hardback or trade paperback edition.  There is no reward for buying the ebook and saving the publisher the cost of printing, binding, boxing, shipping and distributing the the physical book.

For example, our book club is reading Destiny Disrupted by Tamin Ansary.  It’s $10.85 for the trade paper or $9.76 for the Kindle.  I’m looking at the new hardcover of The Genesis of Science by James Hannam – it’s $19.77 for the hardback (from Amazon of course) and $14.38.  Another book I was thinking about buying is The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick.  It’s $16.08 hardcover and $14.99 Kindle.  Or On the Grid by Scott Huler – buying the ebook version saves me 88 cents ($10.87 trade, $9.99 Kindle).  Next month’s book club selection, Empire of the Summer Moon S. C. Gwynne, it’s 39 cents cheaper to buy the trade edition instead of the Kindle Edition ($9.60 trade, $9.99 Kindle).

Of course, there is an illusion here.  I’m giving the Amazon price.  If I gave the publisher’s list price, things would appear better.  For example, The Information by James Gleick is $29.95 for the hardback list, $17.21 Amazon priced, but $14.99 for the Kindle.  But I’ve gotten used to Amazon’s prices, so the real buying decision is $17.21 v. $14.99.

Here’s how I feel about books versus ebooks.  When I buy the hardback I feel like I’m adding to my library.  It’s something I can save, or lend, or sell.  When I buy an ebook, it’s something I consume, like renting a DVD.  Now if my ebooks were added to a virtual library, and they were multimedia interactive, and I could enjoy collecting them,  virtually flipping through my collection from time to time, then it might be different.  In fact, books with maps, graphics, and photos just don’t work well on the Kindle.  Now that might change if I had a 10” tablet, but for now, the normal Kindle is all about text.

The psychology of all this is I seldom buy new books from brick and mortar bookstores anymore because of Amazon.  The discounts on hardbacks are just too great.  On the other hand, I hardly ever buy new books for my Kindle because the ebook prices seem too high.  So for now, the heavily discounted hardback wins out.

If all the books I mentioned above were $7.99 each for the Kindle, I would have gobbled them up without a thought.  $9.99 is as high as I’ll go, and since I’ve bought several ebooks at that price and ended up not reading them, I’ve become very careful about buying ebooks.  Buying a hardback and leaving it on the shelf for years doesn’t bother me, but buying an ebook and not reading it right away feels like I just threw my money away.

I know ebooks are all the rage right now, but will ebook sales always be shooting upwards?  I’m swinging away from ebooks, and I’m wondering if other people are feeling that way too?  Ebook prices have been growing and I’m sorry, that just feels like a swindle to me, because I don’t feel like I’m owning anything after giving Amazon my money.  The Kindle just feels like I’m renting books.

[By the way, I don’t feel the Kindle device is an actual swindle.  And when I say Kindle I mean all ebook readers, like the Nook and Sony readers.  I just think, and I’ve heard this from many other ebook owners, that since we don’t actual get a printed book when we buy an ebook, the price should be significantly cheaper.  I thought when I first bought my Kindle I’d be buying a lot of ebooks at lower prices and that just hasn’t turned out to be so.  Now, I’m wondering if I’m not the only one feeling different about ebook readers?]

JWH – 7/14/11

10 thoughts on “Is The Kindle a Swindle?”

  1. I don’t really pay attention to the price differences on Amazon as I don’t have an ebook reader and am currently not in the state of needing one, so the minor price differences from Amazon really surprise me.

    I too would feel quite cheated with the price differences being that minimal. On one hand yes, you could think about the original cover price vs. the ebook, but that would be a fallacy if the reality is that you can get the actual physical book from that same company for a minimal price increase.

    I guess I understand that with the upswing of ebooks authors, publishers, etc. want to make a similar amount to what they usually make, yet I would think the decrease in overhead would make ebooks less expensive to produce and thus a bigger discount would still net good profits.

    But what do I know?

    Only this–that I would feel cheated if I felt compelled to buy ebooks and I wasn’t saving any more money than this.

    1. I think another psychological side-effect of going digital is you don’t feel like you’re owning anything. When I buy a book, even if I don’t read it, I feel like I’ve got something of value. I can collect books even if I don’t read them and that’s fun. When I buy an ebook I need to read it immediately and enjoy it, otherwise I think my money is wasted. It’s more like going to the movies. You pay, and watch, and then it’s over and you walk away. How you feel about spending $10 is whether or not the movie was thrilling or a dud. Buying an ebook you don’t read right away feels like going to the theater, buying a ticket and then walking away, thinking that someday you’ll see the film – maybe.

      For hardcore bookworms that chain-read books, ebooks are probably wonderful. If you consume books like M&Ms, and don’t worry about owning them, then ebooks are fast and convenient. They are the fast food of reading.

      1. That is one of the many reasons that I am not leaning towards ebooks. It does feel wrong somehow to “buy” a book and not have that book in hand but instead to have the means to read that book in hand. If there were a Netflix-style subscription service that would give access to a reasonable selection of old and newly released books whenever one wanted them I think it would seem less like a property/ownership thing. I don’t mind watching movies/tv shows on Netflix vs. owning them, but it is also because I am saving a significant amount of money doing so. I watched 5 seasons of Dr. Who in a month for $10. I couldn’t have bought one season for that price.

        And then of course books are just these special, special objects whose wonder is not just the words but also the package those words come in. That may not be the case for those in this and the next generation who are raised on e-reading, but for us that is never going to change. Nothing will replace the feeling of holding, smelling, looking at a book and the emptiness of not having that experience is palpable, at least in my personal experience.

  2. I know how you feel about these ebook prices, and I too have the $10 limit on what I’ll spend on one.

    If you remember a while back, there was a big to-do about Amazon wanting to set all e-book prices at 9.99 or lower, and some publishers refusing to let them do this (and in turn Amazon stopped carrying all titles by some big name publishers for a period of time while they worked this out). In the end, Amazon bent to the publishers and some of those publisher-set ebook prices are higher than the prices for the trade paperback or mass market additions. The why is complicate and I’ve found this article by a former agent illuminating:

    Luckily, thus far, everything I’ve wanted to buy has been in my price range.

    1. I think part of the change in pricing came about because of Steve Jobs. When Apple created iBooks they wanted 30% and I think that forced publishers to charge more, which they wanted to do anyway. Amazon then had to give in on keeping prices low, but it also means Amazon makes more money on ebooks too.

      I have to wonder if publishers saw ebooks as a way to make more money and never considered passing on the savings to the readers.

      It reminds me of when music went from LP to CD. Publishers claimed the higher prices for the CDs was due to ramping up production and prices would eventually come down. That never happened. LPs were listing for $6.98 and $7.98 at the time, and CDs were $14.98-19.98. In the end, the music industry just jump the selling price of music 100% or more. Well, their greed got them bitten in the ass, didn’t it? I now listen to all the music I want for $4.99 a month from Rdio – all legal, and I have access to a million albums.

      I love the idea of digital books I can set the font size for my old eyes, but their pricing is starting to burn me.

  3. Jim, I think it’s more appropriate to compare ebook prices with the price of paperbacks, not hardcover books. Mass-market paperbacks are normally about $7.99 at Ebooks should be cheaper than that – considerably cheaper – because there are no printing and publishing costs, warehouse costs, shipping costs, etc.

    And I can sell a used paperback to recover some of the cost, if I want. Yes, I actually own something of value, when I buy a book. As you say, it’s not just pure consumption (just mostly so).

    Ebooks should be far cheaper than they are. But since I’d rather own a hardcover copy anyway, I guess I should be happy that ebooks are subsidizing the paper copies. The extra money digital users pay goes to keep my own costs down.

    That’s not so bad, at least for me.

    1. So far I’m not seeing ebooks priced like or less than mass market paperbacks. I can understand an ebook costing more than a paperback when the hardback has just been released because we’re paying for instant gratification, but it shouldn’t be priced so close to the hardback that I’d rather just get the hardback.

      Many of my friends with ebook readers, and when I talk about the Kindle, I’m using it as a generic example, like a Xerox machine for copier, buy these readers to read free books and short stories off the internet. Ebook readers make a great binder for public domain texts.

      I’m just not sure if ebook readers will be the success they appear to be at the moment.

  4. I paid $24 for “A Dance with Dragons” at Barnes and Noble the first day it was available. The e-book would have been $15 dollars. It still seems like somewhat of a deal to me.

    I would have bought the e-book version, but I was going on a camping trip so I wanted the physical book.

  5. The prices you quote for the e-books are what I would accept for an audio version of the book. After all they need to hire a narrator, secure studio time, have someone run the soundboard, an editor, maybe special effects. So an audio book for 80-90% of the hardcover book makes sense to me. But the e-book should go for 50% of the paperback cost. Am I crazy or could every single one of us ‘make an e-book’ by simply copy-and-pasting as we do a Word document? It’s nothing more than that, right? Author submits book to publisher electronically and all the publisher has to do is press CTRL+C and CTRL+V, boom e-book. Yes?

    The prices of e-books are wildly out of sort relative to their cost and other book formats. However, since it is a new technology and an oligopoly we should expect the price to be high.

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