The eBook Price War!

When the Kindle first came out a lot of people bought one thinking the price of books would go down.  Amazon advertised that most ebooks would be $9.99 or less.  When the average price of a hardback was inching closer to the $25-30 range, and mass market paperbacks disappearing in favor of $12.95-14.95 trade paperbacks this seemed like a wonderful gadget for bookworms.

Then Apple entered the ebook business with the iPad and iBooks, and the prices of ebooks shot up.  Now at Amazon I can sometimes get physical books cheaper than the ethereal ebook, and often get physical books within a couple dollars of the ebook price.  Following that, publishers started making plans to reprint their backlist titles, books you used to buy as cheap paperbacks, for $9.99.  It started looking like the book industry was going to put the squeeze on all us folks buying ebook readers figuring it was a fad that was going to lead to a new gold rush in publishing.

Now all of this is cool – I want the book publishing business to thrive.  But for hardcore bookworms, who consume books, rising prices have always been a problem.  We tend to get books from the library or used bookstores to help us keep the cost of our word habit within reason.

But another trend developed concurrently with ebooks – new authors are seeing ebooks as a way to break into publishing by side-stepping the traditional route of finding an agent and selling their book to traditional publishers.  To grab the attention of readers they started selling their ebooks cheaper and cheaper, with prices like $2.99, $1,99, 99 cents and even free.  Then established writers started jumping ship from their regular publishers to go the ebook route thinking that getting 70% of a smaller list price with more sales was better than getting 12% of $25.95 and smaller sales.  Even big name authors started using free ebooks as promotions.  All of this is pushing the average price of an ebook down again.

To further complicate the issue of calculating the average price of an ebook is the fact that there are thousands, if not millions of free ebooks.  It used to be just old classics, but look at this 1966 Doubleday edition of John W. Campbell’s Collected Editorials from Analog.  It’s elegantly reproduced for reading on the web, or available for download in a variety of formats.  Not only does the Internet offer more and more free books, becoming the Library of the World, but old fashion local libraries are offering free ebooks through OverDrive and NetLibrary, and Amazon, being the pesky disruptive influence that it is, is offering to lend ebooks to its Amazon Prime members.

Bookworms are taking notice.  Look at this discussion thread over at Amazon called “What are you willing to pay for an eBook?”  The consensus seems to be people are willing to pay a fair amount $9.99-$14.99 for a new ebook if they are really anxious to read it, but for the average backlist title they want it to be as cheap as possible, and $2.99-4.99 seems to be a commonly mentioned price range. 

Many people leaving comments state they can’t afford to buy many books so they go after the cheap ebooks, or free ones, but a common response is 99 cents is too expensive for a crappy book.  So they want good books priced low.  They expect old books like Agatha Christie and Rex Stout reprints to be cheap – but understands why the latest John Grisham is $12.99.

I discovered this thread while reading Amazon’s 100 Kindle Books for $3.99 or Less ad.  Nothing struck me as something I had to buy, but the prices were very tempting.  But my Kindle is already jammed with more unread books than I can read in years – some I paid top prices for and others I got for low prices or free.  Writer’s Digest gave away 7 books about writing novels during NaNoWriMo – a very kindly gesture I thought.  Over at SFSignal I often find free SF/F novels to add to my collection because authors are using them as promotions.  Getting the new Greg Egan was impressive.  I’ve bought several of his books in hardback.  What I’d like is some of his out-of-print titles reprinted as reasonably priced ebooks.  I assume his publisher is trying to get more SF fans to become Greg Egan fans, and I hope they succeed.

If you look at Amazon’s Best Sellers in the Kindle Store you’ll see a dual column of the two top 100 book lists, on the left, the most popular Kindle ebooks people buy versus on the free ones on right.  You can see 99 cent bestsellers competing with the full price books, such as Stephen King’s new 11/22/63 for $14.99.

Over at Ebook Friendly I found “Kindle Ebooks by Price: More than 100,000 Cost $0.99” which shows a pie chart that says 30.9% of Kindle ebooks sell for $0-0.99.

On my daily reading of Zite on my iPad I constantly read essays and blogs that mention free ebooks.  There are even blogs now that track ebook deals.  If you have a book-a-day reading habit, it’s gotten a whole lot cheaper to be a book addict.

This does not mean I’ve stopped buying paper editions of books.  Eva over at A Striped Armchair reviewed The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson so positively that I had go out and buy it.  My choice was $9.87 for the Kindle edition or $12.20 for the trade paper, so I picked the paper edition.  I figured the deluxe New York Review Books Classics trade edition was worth $2.43 more.  If the Kindle edition had been $4.99 – $5.99, I would have picked it.

What this means, and I have no idea if I’m typical, is when I spend more than $9.99 I’m more likely to buy the hardback or trade edition.  And to be honest, I’d rather buy a $4-8 used hardback than pay $7.99-8.99 for an ebook.  Some people on the forum also mentioned that.  Like I said, I don’t know if I’m typical, but that means I’m most likely to buy an ebook is it’s $0.00 – $4.99.  So in the war for ebook pricing, I tend to think the average price will be coming down.

The question is, how many people aren’t like me?  How many bookworms would rather buy a slightly cheaper ebook than the hardback?  If there are lots of those people, it will push the average price of an ebook up.  And how many people will pay $9.99 for a reprint of an old book as an ebook edition, books that people used to get as a mass market paperback?

I don’t think ebooks will kill off the book, at least not the hardback, and probably not the trade paper, but I bet it kills off the mass market paperback, which is averaging about $7.99 now.  I don’t like saving paperbacks, and the convenience of an ebook outweighs the value of a mass market paperback.

So in the ebook price war, I would guess ebooks are the new mass market paperback and have to be cheap.  For a certain percentage of readers they will pay $9.99-$14.99 for an ebook edition if it’s a hot new bestseller.  I predict lots of free ebooks, especially older out of copyright books naturally, but also new books being given away for promotional reasons, and older midlist books that help promote authors newer books, like those found at the Baen free library, or books that have little chance of making sales, but would be valuable to rare readers, like the John W. Campbell book I mention above.

There’s no reason why any book should be out of print anymore.  As books lose their popularity they can be priced lower and lower, even priced free.  What will be really fascinating is forgotten classics that start regaining popularity and maybe even reigniting sales.

Guides to Free Kindle Books

JWH – 12/11/12

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