I remember back in the early days of Belt asking an editor, who had far more experience in publishing than I did, why ebooks were priced so high. I wanted to price Belt’s books at $2.99 or $4.99, but similar ebooks were usually priced between $9.99 and $16.99. He explained that lowering the price of ebooks would diminish the value of the print versions of the book. I didn’t think that made sense.
A few weeks ago, I chatted with a senior marketing exec at a Big 5 publisher, and made the same comment: ebook prices are too high. “They have to be,” she told me, “because what if it flipped, and ebooks started outselling print books?” I didn’t think that made sense.
There are lawsuits and all sorts of reasons why ebook pricing is as it is. This explainer, from back when the “agency model” controversy was hot, is very good (and funny), as is this more recent write-up. For this newsletter, though, I’m going to skip over all that, because while I think these arguments for higher ebook prices are important and sanguine, I also think they assume a certain logic, and looking at the issue from a wholly different perspective is useful, and explain I find the standard publishing reason for ebook prices doesn’t make sense. Perhaps it is because I read ebooks almost exclusively.
Here is what never made sense to me: the concept that undergirds the rationale for high ebook prices depends on a scenario in which people go to, say, Amazon, and peruse format options (ebook, hardcover, paperback, audio) and then, based upon price, decide which to buy.
I have never done this (well, except maybe when I’m buying very old, often oop books for a research project). I go to, say, Amazon already knowing which format I will buy. I expect most of you are the same? If price figures into my buying decisions, it will be between different titles, not different formats (i.e. I’m gonna pass on that $24.99 paperback I heard good things about because this $9.99 paperback looks good too).
Not only do, I argue, most people already know which format they want before they see the prices, but, more often than not, some books will either always sell better as ebooks and others will always sell better in print. I looked up the bestselling print and ebooks on Amazon today, to compare, and, given the season, the contrast is hilarious. Here are the top print book sellers:
(Babies, so dumb, always overpaying for print books!)
And here are the kindle bestsellers
At this point I should really wade into the now-voluminous data we have on self-publishing, ebooks, and sales (tl;dr many people are making a living self-publishing $1.99 ebooks; it’s a healthy ecosystem). But I will instead defer to the years of research that Jane Friedman has put into this, and helped us all understand with her Hot Sheet. She has just launched an absolutely fascinating new set of bestseller lists.
The “Hidden Gems” list excludes major publishers (Big Five and very large independents such as Norton and Scholastic) and is batshit fascinating. It’s extraordinary how different publishing looks when you get a (too rare) chance to see if from different angles.
And that’s why, in part, I want to hold on to my anecdotal, felt sense that pricing ebooks lower would only be a boon. People who go looking for an ebook make decisions based on comparative prices of different ebooks, not ebook vs print prices, and if more traditional publishers were competing with self-published and mass market books at $0.99-$2.99, more people would read their books, and tell their friends about the ones they liked, and some of those friends will be “print only” readers, and thus increase sales of hardbacks and paperbacks, too. (And then, I would argue, those publishers could then publish even higher priced, “special editions” for the most fervent fans, as some already do). I have definitely seen this happen, when Belt participated in short term ebook sales with Bookbub or Kindle Deals, and saw the numbers of ebooks sold shoot up a thousandfold (seriously), with smaller but measurable increases in print copies to follow. And, while the margins aren’t great, the costs to us are as close to zero as one could get.
For a decade I’ve been told by people in publishing this is not the way to think about it, and maybe they are right—but also, it’s been a decade. It seems that conventional wisdom on digital consumer goods should at least change over the course of ten years, a large percentage of the digital age itself thus far, and I should be hearing new reasons, at least, to keep ebook prices so high.
I am sure many of you will disagree with my perhaps counterintuitively self-defeating logic (and indie booksellers, I hear you), but debate is fun, so sound off in the comments.