ebook-priceThe perception and reality of e-book prices have been a matter of strong consumer opinions ever since Amazon first hit it big with its $9.99 bestseller titles and then publishers implemented agency pricing over the “devaluing” of e-books. Both sides seem to like to accuse each other of “entitlement”, and some folks can get quite impassioned about it.

With the Department of Justice agency pricing lawsuit, these opinions have been making themselves known again—or perhaps it’s just that people are finding an excuse to notice. Digital Book World has a piece discussing how e-book pricing makes consumers “upset and confused”. The consumers make the point that e-books cost almost the same as print books but don’t have all the physical printing, shipping, and storing costs associated with print books.

“With today’s pricing, the profit in e-books is crazy,” said Greg Harris, 49, who lives in San Carlos, Calif., and is a vice president of sales and marketing for an electronics company. “Without the need to stock inventory and move paper all around the country, there should be a significant discount in the pricing model.”

“When I saw how much these e-books cost, I was amazed,” said Heidi Barron, 48, a public relations professional from Atlanta. “There is no printing, no shipping, no warehousing, no retailer. There is simply the transmission of the content through the Internet. Someone is making a ton of money.”

These consumers are all too ready to believe that the publishers did collude in price-fixing. But publishers push back that the physical costs are the smallest part of all the work that goes into making a manuscript ready for publication, and that e-books only cost “10% less” than print books to produce. (I already mentioned Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s disdain for Penguin global digital director Molly Barton’s claim that the largest part of the expense is author payment.)

The DBW piece also notes that the salaries of the workers who edit and manage book creation add to the costs, as do e-book distributors, but doesn’t really come to any solid conclusions about who is right.

In a sense, it doesn’t really matter who is right. What matters is that publishers have given consumers every possible reason they could to believe the publishers are price-gouging them, and have often been remarkably tone-deaf in the way they respond to complaints or address themselves only at others in their industry as if consumers aren’t reading what they’re writing also.  (Probably not that much of a surprise when you think about it. Until the Internet era, they didn’t have to worry about looking good to consumers, since the bookstores were the ones who directly sold the books.)

So even if we grant that publishers are right about what e-books cost, they should fire their PR departments because they’ve done a terrible job convincing consumers of that. Small wonder e-book piracy is becoming such a problem—or that consumers have been cheering about the DoJ suit enough to make John Scalzi grumpy.