Should An Ebook Ever Cost More Than A Print Book?

I’m in the middle of reading the final volume in Lev Grossman’s excellent Magicians Trilogy, The Magician’s Land.  I love it.  The trilogy as a whole has been enjoyable from start to finish, so much so that I wanted to share it with others.  I was in the midst of getting the Amazon link to the first book to share it with a Facebook group I run when I noticed this:

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Yes, you read that right: the ebook is over two dollars more expensive than the paperback version.

Now, there’s been a lot of discussion about the price of ebooks: how much they should be, what the basis of said pricing scheme is, and whether publishers were justified in charging as much as a print book.  Just google “ebook pricing” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  It’s pretty much the hot-button issue in the publishing industry right now.

I follow this stuff fairly closely, and I also buy a lot of ebooks.  I’m more than familiar with the complaints most readers have about publishers pricing ebooks too high.  Being a reader myself, I too question the motives and business acumen of publishers who often seem engaged in an experiment to see how much money readers will pay for an electronic book.

It’s obviously been a while since I’ve purchased a paper book, because after seeing the above I did a little searching around Amazon and discovered that it’s a fairly common practice, particularly when mass market paperbacks are involved.  James Patterson and Stephen King, for instance, both have multiple paperbacks on Amazon selling for less than their ebook equivalents.

Traditionally, a large publisher would release at least two main editions of a selling book: the first edition hardcover, which they would price at a premium and push for a year or so, before reprinting the book as a mass market paperback (the roughly pocket-sized, softcover books that take up most of the shelf space at your average Barnes and Noble).  Mass market paperbacks are smaller, printed on much cheaper paper (it’s not far off from newsprint), and bound with glue and cardstock.  They’re basically designed to be disposable, which is why they fall apart if you love them too hard.

This is no secret.  It’s also no secret that ebook prices have risen in step with the medium’s popularity.  But this is the first time I ever noticed an ebook priced higher than a print book.

What I find strangest about this phenomenon is the seeming inconsistency of it: traditionally, mass market paperbacks were priced lower because the cost to produce them was much lower.  The cost to produce ebooks being lower still, how and why is this happening?

The debate about the cost analysis of ebook pricing is ongoing.  Readers and skeptics argue that the production of an ebook involves far less overhead than printing a physical book, and thus publishers are unjustified in charging as much (or more) for them.  Publishers respond by claiming that ebook costs are non-trivial, and (essentially), that they’re trying to turn a profit and get off their backs already: Daddy’s gotta make that paper (pun intended).

In this context, it seems somewhat brazen for publishers to price ebooks higher than mass market paperbacks–almost as if they’re rubbing it in readers’ faces.  You wanna see overhead?  We’ll show you overhead.  Better just buy that paperback.

I’m sure that some of the pricing margin in these cases, on Amazon at least, has to do with Amazon’s discounting system and the fact that they make more from selling a Kindle ebook than a paperback they didn’t print.

But even so, it seems to me that if you’re releasing a cheap paperback version, it’s time to drop the ebook price down to at least match it.  Even for someone who reads almost entirely digitally these days, paying more for an intangible digital file than for an actual physical object containing the exact same information seems illogical.

But what do you think?  Do you agree, disagree?  What am I missing?

A Lesson in Propaganda

You might have read an article in the New York Times recently, reporting both a decline in ebook sales and a resurgence of consumer interest in print books.  The article, written by Alexandra Alter, bases its conclusions primarily on data presented by the American Association of Publishers:

Now, there are signs that some e-book adopters are returning to print, or becoming hybrid readers, who juggle devices and paper. E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.

E-books’ declining popularity may signal that publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media, like music and television.

Alter then goes on to note that “e-book subscription services [like Kindle Unlimited]…have struggled to convert book lovers into digital binge readers,” and that “sales of dedicated e-reading devices have plunged as consumers migrated to tablets and smartphones.”

Without citing sources for these statements, she then uses them to support the argument that “the surprising resilience of print has provided a lift to many [traditional] booksellers,” and goes on to discuss the ways in which major publishing corporations such as Hachette and Penguin Random House have invested in expanding their print operations.

The founding assumptions of this article seem so specious that they call into question whether it ought to have been printed at all.

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