27th January, 2011

Yesterday fantasy author Joe Abercrombie‘s new book Heroes came out in the UK, and being the popular author he is there was much chatter about it. His books are published currently by Gollancz, which means a nice hardcover release followed by a paperback in a few months (not sure what format as I think Gollancz shift their paperbacks around a little – possibly a trade, or at least a B-format). A Kindle edition was also made available on the day of release.

However, looking at the Amazon listings, the hardcover was discounted to £6.74 (down from £14.99; 55% off), the pre-order for the paperback was £5.99 (down from £7.99; 25% off), and the Kindle edition was… £7.99? According to the page for the Kindle edition, “this price was set by the publisher”.

Now, the ebook pricing debate is complex, and I’m not qualified or knowledgeable enough to dive into it. But as a consumer who buys both paper and electronic books, the above example shows there is something wrong.

As was pointed out here the other day, book pricing is not so much about actual costs as perception of costs by consumers. A hardback is expensive, a paperback is cheap, and in third place comes ebooks. The actual cost of an ebook is not much different from a printed book, because the majority of costs are editorial and the printing, shipping, distribution and warehousing are actually a relatively small percentage. The problem is that everybody assumes it is the other way around, that if you don’t have to print physical books, there is hardly any cost at all.

So while you can stick to your guns and try and explain this, people won’t listen. Of the three general formats – hardcover, paperback, ebook – electronic formats are perceived to be the cheapest, and if that’s what people expect, that’s what they need to get. If a customer sees an ebook for more than a printed copy, they just automatically assume the publisher had no clue what they are doing.

Actually, that example of Heroes is nothing like as bad as another one I saw recently – an old Stephen King novel, widely available in paperback for £4.99, had a Kindle edition listed for £19.99. That £19.99 was the RRP of the hardback edition, but of course the hardback edition has been out of print for thirty years.

When I mentioned the issue of Heroes pricing on Twitter, someone pointed out to me that the publisher can’t be blamed for Amazon putting such a huge discount on the hardcover, and that is quite true. However the Kindle edition had fixed price of £7.99 (using the agency model, where the publisher sets the price and there is no retailer discounting), which is the same as the RRP of the forthcoming paperback (which Amazon then discounted anyway to £5.99). The fixed cost of the Kindle version, using the hardcover > paperback > ebook sequence, should have been less than £7.99.

Quite where you position the price of ebooks is the big question. Publishers are businesses and they need to make money, and importantly some of that money then pays the author. I’m certainly not arguing about that. But my personal view is that the ebook edition should be about half the price of the paperback, which itself tends to be half the price of the hardback. Additionally, I’d like to suggest that publishers start following the model introduced by the Blu-ray market, whereby if you buy the “top” edition of something, you get the Blu-ray, the DVD, and a code to download a digital version for free. If we say these “top” edition releases are the equivalent of a hardback, then a hardback book should come with a code inside to download the ebook for free. Why? Because as a buyer of both paper books and ebooks, I generally would like to have both in my collection. Paper books look great on the shelf and, as Tracy Hickman once said, are souveniers of past journeys, like postcards. The ebook version is handy for travelling, especially if it means I don’t need to cart a big hardback around when I can have everything on my iPad. Plus ebooks don’t have quite the same souvenier quality – while I can happily pin postcards to a wall and looks at photos in an album, I have thousands of images on my computer that I have never looked at again.

For publishers who do not release hardback editions, it’s probably a bit easier – paperback > ebook. Keep the ebook cheaper than the paperback.

And allow discounting – if Amazon could knock 55% off the hardback of Heroes and 25% off the paperback pre-order, why keep the Kindle edition fixed at £7.99? People will not pay more for something they cannot hold, they will pay less. It’s a pretty easy rule to follow.

Speaking of ebooks, ebook piracy is another complex issue, but yesterday SF writer Tobias Buckell put together his thoughts on the matter. It’s well worth checking out.

Not a single world written yesterday. Actually, that’s not true, because I am currently working on the second draft of The Wasp in the Lotus. But that counts as editing, not writing. The problem here is that I should have been able to hit 2k words on something and work on the editing. Need to pick my game up.

Project: <none selected>
Words today: 0
Total words for 2011: 45,701

I’m going to need to rethink the schedule for Seven Wonders again, but the top priority is to get The Wasp in the Lotus in good shape. The deadline is approaching and I have to allow for beta-reading and more redrafting later.

Books: some pages of Death’s Disciples by J. Robert King.
Comics: On hold until February.

  • Saw you chatting about this on Twitter and after reading your article I think I’m going to disagree (a bit).

    Here goes. I don’t think product price has much to do with production cost for, well, pretty much anything from cars to food to ebooks. There’s no such thing as an ‘acceptable mark-up’, manufacturers will price a product for whatever the market will support. So a product costing £1 could hit the market for £10 whereas another could cost £5 but be priced at £6.

    So, ebooks…I think there’s a premium for convenience. Look at online video streaming versus DVD rental. If I get my butt into gear I can pop down my not-so-local Blockbusters and pick up DVD rentals for a couple of quid, but the same film downloaded via Xbox or LoveFilm costs me twice as much.

    If ebooks become a mainstream product (and it’s still relatively early days) then they could end up more expensive than paper. Personally I love paper! I still don’t have a Kindle (not yet anyway).

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  • Chuck Wendig

    One factor missed:

    Many publishers are still not exactly pleased about the e-book revolution. They’re printing books and if they make the Kindle “too cheap,” they’ll sell a lot of those before they sell the things they printed and *need* to sell. Plus, the logic goes, if you had enough money to buy an e-reader *and* you do all your reading on one, you’ll pay whatever it takes to get the Kindle version.

    Not good either way, but I think those are two of the things behind why some publishers are not comfortable lowering e-book prices or allowing the discount.

    — c.