E-book pricing – what are you worth?

My aunt, who is a lovely woman, equates retail price to quality and will bypass a modestly priced something-or-other in favor of the most expensive because she places her value on quality. She has no clue what the item cost to produce, and she doesn’t care. She knows that a particular brand or particular shop sells quality stuff. And what they hey, she can well afford it.

I agree with her philosophy to some degree – even if we do run in different economic groups – because I want the biggest bang for my buck. Reminds me of the time when the beagle bought cheap tequila to mix up a batch of margaritas, and we spent horrified hours watching little pink cheese graters float above a box of worm-infested Twinkies. Consequently, we stick to the good stuff.

“You get what you pay for” holds grains of truth. So when Amazon became the Great Yoda of establishing e-book pricing, they set an artificially-generated worth to e-books of $9.99. Since they were the first, they had the advantage to make the call – even if that 9.99 was a loss leader for them. Publishers were forced into this retail price, kicking and screaming, until Amazon got into a slugfest with Macmillan, who wanted to set the retail price for their e-books.

Agency pricing turned the whole e-book pricing issue on its head. Readers howled at the higher prices, while smaller e-book publishers and DIY’ers – good capitalists that they are – dropped their e-book prices to .99 in an effort to gain traction for their books. In the real world of tight wallets (quite unlike my aunt), buyers gravitate to the best deal. This gave way to the insistence that consumers “deserved” lower priced e-books, and any publisher who charged near-bound book prices was a heretic.

The justification for this demand has been varied, but the prevailing consensus is based on the fact that publishers costs are lower. Eh? Whazzat? True, there are no warehousing fees and print run costs – but those are minimal when you consider the production costs, distribution, marketing, and promotion. And let’s not forget the author’s advance…

Given that logic, why should I have to pay huge bucks to buy the Photoshop program? If you consider the R&D costs that went into product design and implementation, Adobe has made money hand over fist – yet no one barks about how Adobe should drop the price to $15.95. Instead, we pay the retail price because we attach worth to the product.

So what about e-books? What are they worth, and who sets the gold standard? E-books are still in the evolutionary stage, so the gold standard hasn’t been established, especially since Amazon’s initial attempts got blown to bits. It’s a tug-o-war between the publisher and the marketplace. Since it’s still the Wild West, publisher’s have to individually decide what they feel their authors’ books are worth.

Deciding what we’re worth comes down to perspective. I’m of the opinion that e-books can’t be quantified strictly by production cost because it doesn’t allow for the actual product – the story. I would LOVE to pay $3.99 for a John Lescroart or Joan Didion book, but that ain’t gonna happen. Evah.Their publishers have placed more worth on their books, and charge accordingly.

Does that mean I should cry foul? What would it get me if I did? Nada, that’s what. My options are to:

  • Buy their physical books, which are priced about a dollar or two higher than the e-book
  • Buy the e-book
  • Go without

John and Joan are worth it, in my opinion, so I pay for the e-books because it’s my preferred reading option. It doesn’t matter that they have no print run costs or warehousing fees. It’s about the fact that authors and the production team, which consists of the editor, art dept., sales, marketing, promotion peeps, work just as hard regardless of how the book is published.

Of late, I’ve seen a lot of “You get what you pay for” remarks from readers, who feel those .99 e-books lack the same kind of attention to editing, story organization, plot structure, and writing ability – so the very marketing tool that was used to attract readers is now repelling them. I would agree. I’m a huge e-book reader, and I’ve bought a number of .99 e-books that turned out to reflect the price I paid for them.

Absent from this group are authors who jumped ship from their commercial publishers and are now DIY’ing their books, or those few lucky duck authors who made a boatload of money – this group is the minority. I’m talking about the huge majority of DIY’ers who have, for whatever reason, decided to strike out on their own.

Just scrolling through the .99 bin at Amazon is dizzying because there’s no way to determine the diamond among the coal. The thought processes are, “Ah well, it’s only .99, so if it sucks, I haven’t lost much money.” I don’t look at as the money aspect, but of the time suck. I’ve read some .99 and thought, “Well, there’s a few hours I’ll never get back.”

I consider the entertainment factor. Dinner and a movie costs a whole lot more that a John Lescroart book. Heck a movie costs just about as much if you include the popcorn and Sweet Tarts (and why bother going to a movie if you can’t have the popcorn and Sweet Tarts?). The $15.95 I spend on an e-book gives me far more pleasure for far longer. I may carry around a book’s impact for weeks or years. I can’t say the same for movies.

I guess it’s a matter of perspective. Readers complain that don’t own the e-book and, therefore, it shouldn’t be as expensive. Well, movie goers don’t own the Hollywood movie, either, yet they’ll shell out $20 for two-hour’s worth of pleasure and a sweet-tooth fix. And do we even want to talk about the price to go to Disneyland?

No one really knows how the Great E-book Pricing War will shake out, but the adage of “You can’t get something for nothing,” holds true. If you want something of quality, you’re gonna have to pay for it.

8 Responses to E-book pricing – what are you worth?

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    What annoys me is that the electronic format is great for single short stories. But when you price a ‘single’ at .99 and somebody else has an ‘album’ at the same price, most consumers will go for the latter.

    This is denting a major opportunity for writers and publishers of short fiction.

  2. Frank Mazur says:

    Often enough one pays for quality and it isn’t there. I’ve several volumes, fiction and nonfiction, trade and hardcover, whose purchase I regret. At the same time, I understand every book isn’t going to be a great read, just as one shouldn’t expect every teacher to be great. Taking this to mind, I’ve thought publishers should adopt a policy, across the board, whereby the purchaser who buys either e- or the physical, can always buy the other without paying the full cost of the second purchase.

    Let’s say Mazur’s Novel is priced at $7 for a download to an e-reader and $17 for a trade paperback.

    Consumer A downloads. A likes the book and wouldn’t mind having a physical copy grace his shelves. Under my plan A could then purchase trade edition, not for $17, but for $10. The e-edition he purchased earlier would then be regarded as a simple loss leader, and certainly not much of one since it costs virtually nothing to download.

    Consumer B buys the trade edition at $17. He has no wish to wish to download because maybe he has no e-reader. But it would be great, I think, if he had to option to download at a later time and it would cost him nothing.

    Consumer C downloads at $7 and he likes the book, but he doesn’t require a physical copy.

    Consumer D buys the trade at $17 and he has no use for reading long works on a computer screen.

    On my shelves is the book Without Sanctuary. It was very expensive at the time of purchase. If a download of it had been available at the time, I might have gone for it first simply because of the cost. As it turned out, the book is one of a kind and was worth every dollar.

    It would be an interesting study to discover how many trade and hardcover many books are denied purchase because of their price, but might have been purchased if the consumer first had the opportunity to view it in an e-reader.

  3. My only problem with ebook pricing is when it’s $14 and higher. I tend to buy paperbacks when I buy physical books, and even trade paperback usually isn’t that high. I know the production costs for an ebook aren’t that much less than for physical books, but when the ebook costs MORE than a paperback, I don’t buy it.

  4. One can’t go by price, so one has to make the most possible of reviews. Other tools help, such as look inside on Amazon, and good blog postings.
    I usually take a punt on eBooks that have a paperback version as well, and often reject those that don’t. If the author has gone to the trouble of producing a real book there is more that a good chance that the beast is at least tolerably edited.

  5. MK says:

    I don’t like e-readers and I always buy physical books, so my opinion is not the most relevant. But I don’t underastand why people feel they are entitled to buy the same thing for less money. When one buys a book, they don’t buy the physical copy, they buy the story; and it’s the same story. I see a lot of nit-picking all over the internet about what a physical book costs as opposed to what an e-book costs and it baffles me. What determines the price of, well, everything, is not only what it cost the producer of said item, but what people are willing to pay for it. The manufacture cost is only crucial nin determining the lowest price point, not the highest. Does a designer piece of clothing cost more to make than one of similar quality, but without the brand? I doubt it. People don’t buy them only because of their quality, but because they like them and want them.

    As a reader, what annoys me is the hardcover-paperback system. I dislike buying new books in hardcover; they are inconvienient and take too much space. It has been years since I bought a new hardcover; even when I have really eagerly anticipating a book by a favorite author, I force myself to wait till the paperback is out, because I don’t feel that the hardcover is worth the higher price. Of course, by the time the paperback is out, I may well have become obcessed by another writer and not buy the book. The only books I like to have hardcover copies of are old favorites that I now I will want on my selves 10 years from now.

  6. Rik Roots says:

    (Late to the show again)

    Not to be a heretic or anything, but I don’t pay the full price for Photoshop. Instead, I download The Gimp (for free) and make small contributions to the volunteer development team when I can afford them.

    But I know the point you’re making. Good cover art and diligent proofreading doesn’t grow on trees.

  7. […] This is why it will cost readers more than ninety-nine cents. […]

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