Screen shot 2009-10-02 at 11.34.08 AM.pngEditor’s Note: This is reprinted, with permission, from L’Ombre del l’Olivier, The Shadow of the Olive Tree, being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Cote d’Azur. Paul Biba

Dear Publishers

Other than a select few (and you know who you are) that is,

As ebooks become more popular the question of ebook pricing is beginning to become more important. As more and more people get their Kindles and Sonys and the like the more they begin to notice that ebooks aren’t always cheap and that the price seems to vary in highly inconsistent ways.

The latest person to encounter this is Test Driver Liz over at SBTB:

During the media blitz for Tempt Me At Twilight the price of $14.99 was floated. This led to the very natural assumption that the book was probably going to be a trade paperback. Since Lisa Kleypas’s last two books were hardcover – a great deal right? Then, when the loyal reader of Ms. Kleypas is offered the e-book at $9.99 (or $12.99 depending on your e-tailer) it seems like something you can swallow. Sure, it’s more than a mass market, but it’s not as much as a hardcover and you won’t have to wait a year to read one of your favorite authors. Ok, let’s buy it!! So you do. And then you go to Target to buy some Cheerios. Cereal is cheaper there and we’re all watching our money these days.

Wait – why is Tempt Me At Twilight on the shelf as a mass market? With a list price of $7.99? And a sale sticker making it $5.99? What the (buy extra soap, here’s where you start needing it) um, heck is going on here? You might, if you bought it from Sony, rush home to find out why Sony was cheating you. You might find that all the e-tailers have this price listed. In any other world, you’d return the overpriced product and stop shopping at that store. But e-books cannot be returned. You realize that Ms. Kleypas is most likely not making an additional cent due to this pricing structure but the publisher will be earning an extra $4 to $7 per e-book due to a deliberate increase in price for the right to have a copy of the book that did not need to be bound, shipped, shelved or returned and that cannot be traded, loaned or donated. Sure, we could argue about if hardcovers cost the same as trades cost the same as paperbacks but it’s pretty hard to tell me that a highly restricted digital copy is worth twice as much as a traditional paper copy released on the same day. In short, the publisher has extended a finger one does not use in polite company to e-book readers and author loyalists.

Oh boy I understand Test Driver Liz’ pain here. In fact I wrote a rant about this 2 years ago and followed up last January. The rants were regarding Harper Collins and Lois M Bujold’s Sharing knife books (hence the titles Harper Collins are Clueless Morons and Harper Collins are STILL Clueless Morons), but I’m well aware that other publishers also fail to clue test in this regard – as Macmillan demonstrate here.

The point – dear publishers – is that you are selling your wares to literate (and numerate) folks who are able to do things like price comparisons. If we discover that a heap of (DRM crippled) electrons costs us more than a pile of cellulose we begin to smell a large rodent and to feel like someone is ripping us off. Humans have a fairly well developed sense of fairness – and, as the Music industry can tell anyone who asks, thanks to the Internet it is very easy for people to decide not to pay for content if they think they are being ripped off. Various publishers have claimed (at various times) that it costs a lot to make a book into an ebook and that it takes time – and hence the ebook comes after the printed one. The problems with these claims is that we don’t believe you. This lack of belief occurs for a couple of reasons

a) it seems pretty obvious that the print ready copy of the book must be available months before the book hits the shelves and that hence – using this thing called workign in parallel – some minion could take that copy and turn it into half a dozen ebook formats while the printers and shippers are doing their thing, it probably takes a week or so. Ditto with the price. One minion working for one week (ok I’ll be generous 2 weeks) can almost certainly turn any print ready document into an ebook. This is going to cost maybe $2000 ($50000 annual salary, 2 weeks vacation –> $1000 per work week). OK add in benefits and office space rent etc. and maybe we’re looking at $3000. If the same stage of work (typesetting and printing the print run) costs less than $3000 for the real book I’d be amazed. Hence unless there is some problem which is not immediately apparent (and yanno if that’s the case explain it somewhere) the claims that ebooks are bound to be later and cost more looks about as believable as Obama’s healthcare claims

ii) backing up a) we have the example of Baen Books where lo and behold ebooks arrive on the website a few weeks before the treeware ones arrive pn Amazon and in bookstores and where they cost $4-$6 which is less than the cost of the tree version.

Now I am sure that Amazon and DRM peddlers and others take large chunks of the retail selling price. It is possible that these chunks are why ebooks are expensive (amazon and others frequently discount treeware books for bulk sales but don’t seem to do this so much for electrons), but if that is the case then I suggest you have a page somewhere where you explain these costs. Your readership is (duh) able to read. So if you say something like “a $9.99 ebook at amazon nets us the publisher $3.99 because amazon grabs 60% of the sticker price and $3.99 is less than we get from a $8.99 paperback then we’ll understand it – and expect that other ebook retailers might offer your book for less – but if you don’t disclose these details (or if the Amazon price turns out to be the cheapest one) then it looks like entity doing the profiteering is you – the publisher.

Oh and if I’ve got your attention, may I suggest that you explain how much the authors get. It doesn’t have to be accurate to the cent but roughly and compare print with ebook. Something like:
eBook costs $9.99, amazon gets $6, author gets $1.20.
HC costs $25, amazon (or B&N..) gets $12.50, author gets $2.
TPB costs $12.99, amazon gets $6.50, author gets $1.20
MMPB costs $7.99, amazon gets $4, author gets $1

You see there bit of the book chain we readers care about is the author. The rest of the chain is less important. We might accept a higher price if more of the money went to the poor sucker who wrote the book. We won’t accept a higher price if the sucker doesn’t get any more.

Yours Sincerely

A Reader


  1. There is nothing in this article that I can challenge… save this:

    …some minion could take that copy and turn it into half a dozen ebook formats while the printers and shippers are doing their thing, it probably takes a week or so.

    When I take a new novel (assuming an already-proofed and cleaned electronic file) and turn it into a half-dozen e-book formats, it takes me an afternoon. If something about a book’s format doesn’t sit right with me, I may need to devote a second afternoon to getting the formatting right by massaging the files.

    Any publisher that tries to convince its consumers that it takes an extra week or two to create e-book conversions… well, I’m telling you, don’t believe that, either.

  2. It takes me about a week to do a conversion – to both mobi and epub becuase I use the same source files for both – but that’s because the conversion from pdf itself causes formatting problems that I then have to find and fix. That involves reading the whole book to find the problems.

    It can take me several days to just prepare the html/css, depending on what I’ve got to work with. Steve, you can do it so quickly because you have good source files to begin with. Once my source files are ready, it takes a few minutes to create an epub and mobi from them.

    Good article though. I’ve been saying for a long time there’s no way ebooks cost more, or even the same, as pbooks to provide to the public. Publishers are resisting change, which is human nature I suppose, but I think eventually they’re going to realize that they can sell ebooks for as much as pbooks, while it costs them much less to house and distribute, no returns (as the article points out), etc., and the day may come when paper books are hard to find. No reason to go to all the expense if they don’t have to. What we can do is refuse to pay the same high prices, refuse to be ripped off. As long as we will pay it, they’re going to charge it.

  3. it doesn’t take two weeks to format a document once it’s proofread. (and technically proofing/editing had to happen before the document went to the printer)

    If the publishers aren’t using the same electronic document that they send to the printers, then they are a bunch of idiots.

  4. I normally spend a full day per book doing formatting. This includes seven eBook formats (HTML, Adobe PDF, eReader, Mobipcoket, Microsoft, Sony, and ePub) plus the paper format (a different PDF).

    The more fundamental issue is that publishers don’t control when retailers choose to make our books loss-leaders. Sure, a book listed at $15.99 can be sold at $5.99. But most likely the retailer is paying $7.50. Similarly, when Amazon sells my Kindle books for a discount, they still pay full royalty on the list price. It’s up to the retailer to decide what margin (or negative margin) he/she needs. In some cases, they may sell for less than their costs (best-sellers on Kindle on Amazon, anyone) because it brings people to the store in the first place. This has nothing to do with whether books are electronic or paper. It’s all about the business model.

    Rob Preece

  5. When I see large discrepancies like those described here, with the e-editions being more expensive than printat in any form, I don’t buy it. I add that title to my list of books to check out of the library. I’ve already got more titles on my Kindle than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime; so whatever power publishers may think they have over the reader is pretty imaginary. I agree that the author is the very most important piece of the equation. Second is the editor — a figure whom I value more, the more I read.

    Maybe we’ll ultimately see some diminishing of the numbers of clueless middle-people who feel they have to touch an author’s work, and be able to have a more direct financial relationship with our authors.

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