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I just finished listening to an Sf Signal podcast on this topic. The 99¢ ebook is the lightning rod of the whole ebook pricing discussion. How much is a digital book worth?

On one level, it's really the same principle for print books. How much is a printed book worth? Pretty much everything manufactured is subject to the same law when it comes to pricing: something is worth what people will pay for it. If they won't pay enough for the manufacturer to make money, then the thing won't get made. But what about when the “manufacturer” is an artist or a writer? A lot of writers and artists will create their work no matter whether anyone buys it. Artists who make their living (or enhance their living) from their art, however, want to be paid for their work. And obviously, some books are “worth” more than others because people will pay more for a book by their favorite author than for one by an unknown writer.

With books, complications come in because the artist/writer relies on a publisher to “ manufacture” the books. Publishers decide how to create the book (hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, or ebook) and how much to charge for it. Of course, with printed books, the price the publisher sets is not even close to iron-clad. If a bookstore or an online retailer wants to discount it, they can, and Amazon certainly does that a lot.

Because of agency pricing, the price the manufacturer sets for an ebook is iron-clad. And to some extent, a lot of the angst of ebook pricing is publishers being hoist with their own petards. If you price books by format for decades, you really should not be surprised that people expect a non-physical format book to be cheaper than even a mass market paperback.

And since there are easy and cheap ebook self-publishing platforms, unknown writers (and in some cases, unprepared writers) can self-publish ebooks and set prices themselves. This is what has given rise to the popularity of the 99¢ ebook. These books are so cheap, some folks buy them without worrying that they might never finish them. The situation reminds me of my maternal grandmother, who loved a bargain so much, she once came home with a pair of ugly pink sandals in a size no one in the family wore; she bought them because they were only a dollar.

Another unique aspect to ebooks versus print books is piracy. In spite of the fact that publisher now poo-poo the cost of creating printed books, there is very little incentive to create pirated copies of printed books and sell them on street corners for less than a bookstore would. Aside from the risk of getting busted, it would be hard to turn out a decent-looking book for less than a bookstore charges unless you own your own press and bindery. But with ebooks, creating pirated copies is cheap and easy, whether there is an ebook version available to copy or not. The specter of piracy is what haunts publishers these days. Right now they're focused on fighting it with take-down notices and law suites rather than cheaper prices for their legal wares, but that could change in the future. The podcast contains an interesting comment to the effect that dirt cheap ebooks may well be the future for backlist books. It would be harder for pirates to compete.

Personally, I think publishers need to start thinking about ways to make technology work for them— not by creating more DRM but by making ebook pricing more fluid. When the price isn't printed on the cover, it's very easy to change it. Publishers should be experimenting a bit more with what sells best for their authors, over time, not just when the book comes out in hardcover or in paperback.

So, to find out what you think (at least those of you with LJ accounts), I've created a short poll on ebook pricing. Feel free to weigh in with a comment, too!

Poll #1736762 What do you think an ebook should cost?

For a book that is new & for sale in hardcover, what would you pay?

The same as the hardcover (as discounted on Amazon or in store)
A little less than the hardcover
about what I would for trade paper
about what I would for mass market
a little less than mass market
no more than $5.00. I can't sell or give it away
99¢ and not a penny more!

For a book that is not new & has been released as en ebook after being out of print

More than $9.99 if I loved the book
No more than $9.99
No more than $5.00
99¢ and not a penny more!

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( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 1st, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC)
One problem with $0.99 books is that if anyone can put the books out, anyone will. And, with $0.99 a book, that'll let shoddily edited books sail through into people's eReaders. After all, it's only 99 cents, right?

I'm not so sure that someone who worked hard at their book, had it edited, had a cover designed and the whole nine yards, would want their book selling for the exact same price as someone who slapped together something and stuck it out on the net for the same price. If you make everything such a low price, it'll be hard to see the wheat for the chaff.

May. 1st, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC)
We're pretty much there as far as "anyone will;" it was recently announced that 1,000,000 ebook titles have been self-published.

As one person in the podcast commented, if you're a new author trying to get a following without having the backing of an established house, free is better than 99¢. The barrier between even a minuscule amount and free is substantial. And if you're serious and plan to produce more books, free can get your foot into a very crowded doorway.

May. 1st, 2011 11:26 pm (UTC)
But 'free' creates expectations of 'more free'. You start charging for the book, and significant portion of people will say "I'm not going to buy that, because there are others out there for free."

Piracy will make a lot of these discussions moot, anyway. You can still get all the pirated music you want for free, and while there are a lot of sales for $0.99 or $1.99 a song, there are probably twice that still out there in pirated copies.
May. 2nd, 2011 12:21 am (UTC)
Actually, the scary thing about ebook piracy is a lot of these folks are charging for pirated copies. They will bundle up 20 ebooks by different authors and sell them for $10.00.

And I think the idea behind a free sample is that folks who try a free ebook by an author will be willing to pay for other books by that author, assuming they like the book. Free and dirt cheap ebooks have hooked me a couple of times. On the other hand, getting books from pirated sites probably does reduce the chance of that person ever buying a legal ebook.
May. 1st, 2011 07:44 pm (UTC)
Depends on how bad I want it.
May. 1st, 2011 07:46 pm (UTC)
I think it comes down to that simple fact for almost everything we buy that we don't actually need to live. :)
May. 1st, 2011 08:00 pm (UTC)
True, but what I mean is books are not fungible. What I will accept for one is not the price I'll accept for another.

There aren't a lot of books I'll buy full hardcover price or close to it. (and the ones I will are usually nonfiction specialty type books rather than ones geared for the larger public stage.)

For an OOP book more than $10 would be a real hard sell unless there was something I thought justified the high price.
May. 1st, 2011 08:37 pm (UTC)
I agree books are not fungible. I have heard people try to argue for the "tier" approach in which, say, Stephen King is equal to Dean Koontz as they are in the same tier for sales, but I don't buy it. I don't even think all books by the same author are the same, as I like Lois McMaster Bujold's science fiction novels more than her fantasies.
May. 1st, 2011 08:00 pm (UTC)
something is worth what people will pay for it

I would rephrase that as:

something is worth what people would pay for it if a stolen, consequence-free version weren't available free of charge
May. 1st, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
in the case of ebooks, that might well turn out to be the relevant fact.
May. 1st, 2011 08:35 pm (UTC)
I think the problem is even larger than what you comment on here. The price structure of e-Books has been dumped on its head and not because of piracy.

There are quality novels sold for .99, which causes people to question short stories/ novelettes/ or novellas priced higher than that.

E-Books could have been a publishing form to bring the short story market and less than novel length work to a stronger position salable position, but that isn't likely to happen as people race to the bottom.
May. 1st, 2011 08:41 pm (UTC)
I don't know if the 99¢ model will hold for new novels, once everyone who wants to publish a book has put their novel out there and had it go nowhere. But I do see it being a good price for a longish short story (an oxymoron, I know). If you look at the ebook best seller lists now, they are both ends of the spectrum, high priced and low priced. I can see that persisting for a while. And quite frankly, I think anyone trying to predict the market more than six months out is going to have a rough time because things are changing so fat it's starting to make my head spin.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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