The Turbulence of eBook Pricing

Mill Stream

I’ve owned a Kindle for a good while now and it’s become my preferred way to read most books. I’m reading more than at any time of my life, and buying more. Note to publishers: “buying more.”

What I don’t get are the crazy prices some publishers charge for e-books. Admittedly I got used to the introductory Kindle $9.95 price which many publishers claim make them sell books at a loss. I must admit I’m among those who are skeptical about this. It really takes very little work to prep a novel or nonfiction book that is mainly text for e-book publication. I’ve done it myself with Recreational Writing.

Nonetheless I’m willing to bend a little on this and will pay up to $11.99 for an e-book if I think it’s warranted. Bear in mind that I’m on a retirement budget and I’m not willing to pay more for an e-book than for a paperback version of a book. So I looked at the possible purchase of some books that interested me recently and what I found was some outlandish grasping by certain publishers.


A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates: Hardcover, $11.06, Ebook, $16.96. HarperCollins.

11/22/63 by Stephen King: Hardcover, $19.25, Ebook, $26.48. Simon & Schuster.

Under the Dome, by Stephen King: Hardcover, $22.39, Paperback, $11.43, Ebook, $16.12. Simon & Schuster.

Admittedly these are star authors and the publishers like to make their maximum profit from them, but this kind of pricing is short-sighted. Many of us who buy the e-book edition don’t buy it instead of the hardcover edition. In truth we wouldn’t buy the book at all in hardcover edition.

Publishers are having a hard time of it, and I have some compassion for them. But I think their approach to e-book pricing nothing short of hostile toward the format that may save them from extinction.

Flip this around and look at what else is happening.

The Forever War
, by Joe Haldeman: Paperback, $10.17, Ebook, $4.95. Ridan Publishing.

Playing for Keeps, by Mur Lafferty: Paperback (Swarm Press), $14.95, Ebook: $4.99.

These two titles are published by an Indie press in the case of Haldeman, and by the author (for the e-book) in the case of Lafferty. The Forever War is a Sci-Fi classic, and Playing for Keeps is a good SF novel by a popular up-and-coming author.

Then there are the authors who publish their works for free, for $0.99, or for $1.99-$2.99. Yes, some of them are first authors and not all these works are good, but publishers don’t kid yourselves. There’s some real talent coming through who are picking up a serious following among readers.

The issues may be complicated, but what I’m basically saying to the big publishing houses is this: “Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.” Bring down those inflated prices of e-books. Because if you don’t, readers will take other options and they won’t be contributing to your bottom line at all.

Note: The prices quoted above are subject to change at any time.

10 thoughts on “The Turbulence of eBook Pricing

  1. I agree with all you’ve written. It’s a mysterious business model that charges people more for a digital copy than a print copy. The additional savings are not inconsiderable for the publisher and for the retail store. Savings on transportation, inventory management, re ordering, returns, damage, shelving the product, storage space for titles… the list goes on.

    Someone at the top of these retail chains and publishing houses must believe they are capable of thinking and the customer can’t think. I call for “A Wallet Strike” or “AWS” for the 99%! Don’t buy until the price is acceptable

  2. I agree with you as well. Being an author, I cannot justify charging more than a few dollars for an ebook. I do not appreciate having to pay higher-than-print prices for ebooks, so do not expect my customers to do so. I find books priced such as yours (Recreational Writing) are often more educational than the $30.00 ebook. I am self-published so have complete control over my pricing.

    Thank you for such an informative book – I have only read a few pages so far but am very pleased. Have a great day!


  3. Dunno how many characters this window allows me . . . but even so late, I have to comment!

    While working for the Publications branch of the Ontario Geological Survey in a former era, my boss was asked the cost of printing a book-length report. She provided the correct numbers, and was horrified to see them quoted in a memo as the cost of _publishing_ a book!

    Editors have always made their input “transparent”, as if a book’s audience is reading the author’s printed words and nothing more. But it’s the cost of many human hours put into making a book more readable that can really hike the price of a publication. That’s why paperbacks have traditionally been so cheap; if publishers make their costs back and some additional profit on the hardcover, they can publish a paperback for only a little more than the mere cost of printing and make extra profit on a much cheaper edition.

    If electronic editions become the main sales medium in terms of numbers, then yes, I’m afraid the ebook will have to become the pricier version. Editing and marketing costs still exist, even if printing and distribution costs dwindle to nought. _Any_ publication benefits from a second set of eyes — we’re genetically programmed to overlook our own mistakes and shortcomings, and to see what we expect to see, which is what we _intended_ to write — and the more professional the second pair of eyeballs, the more the document will profit. Better for an editor to catch your errors, inconsistencies and gaps of meaning than the reading public! But an edit takes many hours; the shortcuts are few, and were discovered and incorporated into the profession long ago. Editing is a time-consuming and therefore expensive process, and it can’t be delegated (at least not yet) to a machine or a third-world country.

    As print-publishing continues to take a beating from online publication and regular publishers follow regular bookstores in disappearing down history’s path, more and more editors are working for authors instead of publishers — which means that authors have to gamble their own money (or else their putative reputations) on e-publishing their creations. That’s quite a change from sending a manuscript (or sample chapter) to a publisher and hoping for acceptance and a monetary advance!!

    I agree, it seems squirrelly to pay more for an ebook than a paper edition. I mean, you can’t even loan an ebook to a friend like you can a hard-copy edition. But at least you don’t have to physically lug a tome such as Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” onto the bus with you!

    Cheers, Gene. Happy New Year! And thank you for your science-oriented “newspaper” — it’s a great time-saver!

  4. PS, I forgot to mention: Your examples of ebooks being sold at less than even paperback prices are both classics whose publishing costs were covered years ago. My pontifications on the costs of publication in any medium, including the electronic, are meant to apply to new books.

  5. PPS: OK, not _both_ classics; I was thinking of R. A. Lafferty, who, like Haldeman, is a writer of SF classics. Mur Lafferty is free to gamble as he or she chooses, and I’ll be among those who snap up a good book at an inexpensive price!

    Whether music, movies or literature, established owners of copyright do seem more obsessed with keeping their “precioussss” out of the hands of potential pirates or even microscale home copiers than they are interested in getting good product into the hands of potentially enthusiastic fans who will spread the good word. For an interesting approach, check out the publishing philosophy of the Baen Free Library at

  6. Hi Linda,

    Good to hear from you and to get a different perspective on ebook pricing.

    I agree that publishers have hidden costs, and staff costs, but I’ve seen instances where the publisher is charging more for an ebook than the price of the hardcover edition, e.g., 11/22/63 by Stephen King. When I see something like that I think a reality check is in order, and that that check will come from customers voting with their … I almost said wallets, but I should probably say efunds.

    I think publishers who survive the next decade will have to become more ebook savvy and readjust their marketing models. Bookstores can survive too, but not simply as warehouses for best sellers. They will need to offer something to the community, such as events that draw in customers.

    Epublishing is a world changer, for sure. There will likely be a Darwinian shakeout for the industry as new authors step up to the plate and decide whether to pursue traditional paths to publishing, or to go it on their own. Many are already choosing to self publish.

    I foresee a lot of opportunity for freelance editors.


    1. Oh, I don’t disagree with you at all, Gene!

      Since I prefer to have a trophy version of any book I really value, I’d certainly buy the hardcover of any book that was more expensive in its ebook edition! (—even as I mourn the storage burden =). I’m just saying that the medium that sells best is likely to remain the most expensive version, for business-economic reasons.

      At least, that’s the old model. (It’s always surprising to me to meet gross conservatism in places where creativity and a bit of risk-taking would clearly pay off best. Examples in my experience include not only business and “entrepreneurialism”, but also research and education—areas where you’d think that “pushing the envelope” would persist as a matter of course.)

      If I were pursuing popularity first and overhead costs and profit second (and let’s face it, the first tends to lead to the last anyway), I’d make the most popular medium the cheapest version, to encourage both buyers and word-of-mouth recommendations.

      Can you imagine the world today, if Apple’s products had always been the least instead of the most expensive computers? =D

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