I’m one frustrated ebooker! I recently purchased several books in hardcover (The Eichmann Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt and Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg), which is (supposedly) what the publishers prefer I do. But although I bought hardcover versions for my library, I would like to do the actual reading on my Sony Reader.

I already own (and read years ago) Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book on the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and I would like to read it again but this time as an ebook. I am particularly interested in comparing the Arendt’s contemporaneous account (who also attended the trial) with Lipstadt’s hindsight account. The reviews of Lipstadt’s book indicate she comes to a conclusion opposite from Arendt regarding Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust.

All three books are available as ebooks. One would think, then that the problem is solved. Just buy the ebooks. Alas, it isn’t solved because of the exorbitant ebook pricing.

I purchased The Eichmann Trial for $16.20; the ebook costs $12.99. I purchased Bismarck: A Life for $21.25; the ebook costs $14.97. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was originally published in hardcover in 1963 (I own a first edition of the book). In 2006, Penguin released a paperback version. I can buy the paperback today for $10.98, but the ebook costs $12.99. Based on the ebook price, one would think Arendt’s book had been released for the first time yesterday, not that it is nearly 50 years since its publication!

The publishers of these books are playing a dangerous game. It is readers like me, that is, readers who want both hardcover and ebook versions of a book, that publishers and authors should be trying to find ways to accommodate. We are interested in buying a book twice.

Alas, it appears that neither the publishers nor the authors are able to wrap their heads around the concept of a decent package price. It is certainly obvious that publishers are fixated on a single remedy to cure all ills, with that remedy being high ebook pricing — even on a book first published 48 years ago. What happened to the promise of lower prices the further away from the initial hardcover release we are? How much farther away than 48 years do we need to be?

As it stands now, the ebook pricing scheme is forcing me to consider the darknet route for the ebooks. Truthfully, I’m not sure that I’d even consider, in this instance, darknetting as piracy, as I bought the version the publishers wanted me to buy — the hardcover version; after all, preserving hardcover sales was/is the rationale for high ebook pricing.

What the publishers should be doing is thinking up schemes to entice me to buy both the hardcover and ebook versions. The first step to accomplishing this is to come up with a realistic ebook price when the hardcover has already been purchased or as a package price at the time of the hardcover purchase. This latter approach would work easily.

Give me the option to buy the hardcover alone, the ebook alone, or the hardcover-plus-ebook combination. In the combination package, charge me $5 more than the hardcover alone. Because I value having hardcovers in my permanent collection but want the pleasure and ease of reading the book on my Sony Reader, I, for one, would readily pay a $5 premium for the package. Publishers should learn from the movie companies, which increasingly are offering DVDs in two packages: DVD alone and a combination of DVD plus Blu-Ray, with the combination package costing only a few dollars more.

With all their complaints about piracy and the threat the darknet raises to their existence, the reality is that publishers are their own worst enemy because they refuse to address honestly what the marketplace wants. Instead of complaining about their problems and doing nothing productive to solve them, publishers should be devising creative solutions to those problems — and packaging the hardcover and the ebook together, although not a final solution, is one interim solution that would increase sales and revenues yet preserve the hardcover that publishers seem to be focused on preserving.

If publishers do not take such steps, they will have met their own Rubicon. They will turn ebookers like me into darknetters, the opposite of what publishers want and need to happen. It is time for publishers to meet head on the challenges of the eBook Age and not continue to try to hide them beneath the carpet.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog


  1. Are there really that many customers that are interested in buying the same book twice? As in wanting both an ebook and physical copy for some dollars extra? There are rumours that B&N tried a test combo that went nowhere.

    As justification for piracy this really seems a stretch. Then again since you’ve already bought the book you might as well download a copy given you’ve already threatened to do so.

  2. If I bought the hard back I would consider myself as having paid for the right to read it how I chose.

    “As it stands now, the ebook pricing scheme is forcing me to consider the darknet route for the ebooks.”

    You have paid the royalty already. You should simply torrent it if possible. That is not pirating. Otherwise I can only suggest scanning it. The result is the same. It’s multiple copies for personal/fair use.

  3. What Steven is trying to tell us is that the book itself is not important, it’s the format that matters. If you buy an ebook for a Kindle, you really need to buy the book again if you want to read that book on your Kobo. And again if you want to sync and read it on your smartphone. Etc.

    I just want to be able to buy a book and read it, what the heck does the format matter!

  4. I agree with you that the current situation is inconsistent and frustrating, both in terms of pricing and in terms of device portability.

    While the mass market publishers are still in the stone age, with smaller publishers, esp. technical publishers, the trend is towards bundling. For example, O’Reilly Media (disclosure; I don’t work for O’Reilly, but I have collaborated on a book published by them) offers bundles that include print along with three ebook formats (ePub, mobi (kindle), and pdf, all non-DRM) for one price. Prices vary, but a typical bundle is $3 or $4 more than the print book by itself.

    Some, though not all, of the problem is that it is hard to distribute a bundle through retailers like Amazon. You can buy the O’Reilly bundles direct from O’Reilly, but on Amazon, there’s a print book and a separate Kindle book, and that’s all. The editions are linked, but I’ve never seen an offer to buy a bundle.

  5. There must be another Steven in this room…

    What I’m saying is, as long as there is a darknet, there will be people who can devise a reason for using it and getting books for free. Even people you wouldn’t suspect of supporting illegal filesharing. People can always devise an excuse for doing what they want… it’s an essential of human nature that ultimately usurps every “honor system” that has no social monitoring as an honesty backup.

    It’s not the format that’s important… it’s the book! Once I have the book, in any format… I have the book! And I decide in advance whether I want it for one use or another, if that will dictate which format I’ll choose to buy… and then I buy that one format. No others.

    Rich, the thing I would’ve done in your situation would have been to consider your two priorities… then simply pick one. Being upset about not getting an ebook with your hardback is, to me, a lot like buying a BMW sedan and being mad at BMW because they won’t throw in one of their motorcycles for an additional $100… and now I want to steal one.

    That’s not to say I don’t see the value in package deals. DVDs often come with “digital copies” (funny when you think about it) that can be loaded on your PC. You don’t usually pay more for that, but it’s the same thing… an extra to go with the DVD. That, to me, is the best solution: A complimentary digital file to go with your hardback (and probably limited to 1 or 2 downloads only). Maybe someday, books will often be sold like that.

  6. take this to a logical conclusion: books should be published in format bundles for a given base price. forget about retailing paper or screen formats separately or do so at a premium. Enclaves of publishers will stay all-paper or all-screen, so what? The base price of books from major publishers will provide both paper and screen display.

  7. Buying one format and then downloading another format off the internet strikes me as wanting to format shift but not wanting to take the time or effort to do the shifting yourself.

    If I buy a hardback for my book collection, maybe I’d prefer to read a version that has larger print. If the publishers don’t offer a bundle of hardback and larger print, because not enough people want the bundle, I could always photocopy it myself, scaled to get larger print. Should I instead expect someone else to offer photocopies of the book on the internet for free so I don’t have to do the format shifting myself?

  8. It’s amazing. As long as there is more money to be conned out of the public, there will always be some authors and some publishers who manage to find a way of corrupting and abusing the principles of copyright so that they can try to justify it.

  9. ” downloading another format off the Internet” should have read ” off the dark net”.

    You know, back when I was reading hardbacks, it would have been nice to get both hardback and paperback bundled. That way I would have the hardback for my keeper shelf and also the convenience of reading a lighter and more portable copy. But the publishers and authors expected me to pay full price for the second copy.  I didn’t want to pay full price for both, so I went with the one format and did without the second.  According to some people, the publishers were being greedy expecting me to pay full price for the second format. Maybe I should have bought the hardback and just swiped the paperback for free. I had already paid the royalty; It was just multiple copies for personal/fair use.

  10. Come to think of it, the booksellers were being greedy too. They could have bundled the hardback and paperback for just a buck more than the hardback price and still make a profit, so no need to feel guilty about takng the paperback from the bookseller without paying for it.

  11. It seems to me more of a system problem than a publisher or author problem.

    Like when I had to buy DVD versions of my favorite videos because everything went to DVD. In this case, the ‘retailers” like SONY, Amazon and other e-publishers take a chunk of the price for themselves, leaving publishers with less, and authors (unless they self-publish) with even less of the profit.

    But in the case of the Hannah Arendt book, you have to take one of the books, physically cut it up, and feed it a page at a time into a scanner, or pay someone to type it in. I typed in a 300 page book that a writer had no digital version of (it was done on a typewriter), and it took me more than a week to do it. Don’t know how much it would have cost to pay someone to type it in. Then it had to be proofed for spelling and mistakes, then coded, etc. to put on Kindle’s format. There are companies that do this for each different format — all that adds to the cost. And then the booksellers themselves (Amazon, etc) It’s not a simple process, because each format has a different set of technical issues.

    So one day, perhaps, as the e-book market becomes more formalized and synchronized, all this will take less time and money to produce various versions of the book.

  12. gee, you know, Baen occasionally binds in CDs with their hardbacks, usually containing all or most of a series’ backlist in multiple formats. They regularly do this for the Honor Harrington books,by David Weber, for example, and in Lois Bujold’s latest, Cryoburn.

    If it works for Baen, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for other publishers.

  13. I do not plan to go to the darknet to obtain the ebook copies. I plan to read the hardcover copies I own. I am not an ebooker who refuses to read pbooks.

    What I am saying, however, is that publishers scream piracy over and over (the Chicken Little Business Defense), but fail to recognize that by their refusal to act reasonably in the market they are encouraging readers who otherwise would not consider the darknet as a source to now consider it as a source — and perhaps go there.

    Publishers apparently are unable to keep their stories straight. First it was devaluing of books. Then it was phased-in lower prices. Now it is never changing pricing to raise the money to combat piracy. What will next week’s rationale be for charging hardcover price for an ebook that is out in paperback?

    Consider the simplicity of the combination model. Currently, the publisher makes 1 sale at best; with the combination model, it makes 2 sales. No matter how the combination is priced, the publisher is adding to its revenues on the sale.

    Implementation of the combination purchase is easy. There are several alternatives, but one can be as easy as this: buy the hardcover and on your purchase receipt you will receive a one-use discount coupon for the ebook version. Go buy the ebook version and enter the discount code. Other alternatives are equally easy to implement. I suspect that Amazon’s database managers would have little trouble in making the combination happen; collecting sales tax is more complex and they manage to do it.

    Even if only 1 of 500 persons would be interested in the combination package, it is still “found” money for the publisher and author — it is a second sale that would not otherwise occur.

    I also am cognizant that buying a hardcover version does not entitle me to a free ebook version. I don’t think I ever claimed I was so entitled. But I do think I should get a combination price that discounts the ebook significantly — I am not entitled to it but I deserve it. Publishers can choose to lose the second-sale opportunity that combination pricing could provide and I can choose to not buy a second copy. The publisher and author lose more than I do, because I can still read the material I bought but they lose the additional revenue.

  14. “If it works for Baen, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for other publishers.”

    Keep in mind Baen is a niche publisher with a pretty small number of books released each month. Maybe it would work for bigger pubs, maybe not. It would be nice to see a bigger publisher try though.

  15. Rich is right on with this article. I have never pirated a book, but I can tell you that the current ebook pricing schemes cause me to believe not a word out of publishers mouths. There are several books I am currently purchasing in paper. I would hxave good use for the electronic versions and would be willing to pay for them, but not at extortionary rates. I would be a happier customer, and the publihers would be (slightly) richer. Good will and more money seems to me to be a reasonable business strategy. Instead, publishers settle for ill-will and less money. Souns nuts to me.

  16. @Steve Lyle Jordan —

    Steve, I deserve it because I am willing to pay for it. I am not asking for something for free. I am asking for what every consumer asks for — and today expects — that is, a discount when buying multiples concurrently.

    Your cable company gives you package discounts; pay for a service a year in advance and get a discount; and publishers have permitted and encouraged pbook discounting. Consequently, consumers expect to be able to buy package deals at a discount.

    I see nothing wrong with saying — and believing — that I should get a discount for buying a combination pbook + ebook package. More importantly, I see no reason why I shouldn’t counter the publishers demand that I pay full price with my demand that I pay a discounted price.

    The real bugaboo here is that publishers aren’t packaging pbooks and ebooks so they are not maximizing either sales or profits for them and their authors, nor are they satisfying a need in the marketplace.

  17. Watching this thread, it seems clear there are two distinct bottlenecks: publishers who haven’t figured out how to price and sell books and ebooks, and distributors who are not flexible enough to allow publishers to bundle print and ebook.

    The first problem will work its way out over time. As noted by Dudley, there’s an opportunity for publishers to make some money, and eventually, publishers will figure that out (with the help of the market:-).

    The second problem may need to be solved before the first one can be.

    As a small publisher, I would be very happy to offer a bundle, but I have no way of doing so with the distribution channels we use. We can’t do it through Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and in our case we can’t do it direct (we use Print on Demand through a distributor, which means we carry no inventory and don’t have direct access to print distribution). I can produce print and eBooks of anything we publish, and we sell both, but I have no practical way of distributing a bundle.

    The big guys can get around this when they sell direct (e.g., O’Reilly Media), but I haven’t seen anyone (including them) do it through the major online retailers. Might be a business opportunity for a book retailer like Barnes and Noble. It wouldn’t be hard to set up, and it would provide a clear competitive advantage over Amazon.

  18. Richard I do not accept what you about bundling. The cost of selling a digital copy with a paper book would be very small. A simple one-use download code printed on a slip inside the book or printed in the forward would entitle the owner to download an eBook version one time. A simple and cheap thing to set up and implement.

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