Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Prices

Interesting article in Slate magazine this week by Jack Shafer, about e-book pricing. The entire article is worth reading, but something he brings up in the first paragraph interests me more than the rest.

According to Shafer, publishers routinely sell books to retail booksellers for half the cover price. This is true of both hardcover version and e-books, so a publisher is charging the bookseller $12.50 (more or less) for a license of electronic content. The money saved by not having to produce a physical copy, ship it, and pay for returns is not passed along.

Another good question is why Amazon charges the same for the new Dan Brown as for a reprint of The Maltese Falcon. (We’ll leave the relative merits of the books for another discussion. Or not.) Does it make sense to charge more for an e-book, which costs them virtually nothing to ship and warehouse, than for the equivalent paperback?

Part of the problem with the book industry is that books, especially new hardcovers, are expensive. The new Michael Bay explode-a-thon at the multiplex is $9; the new Elmore Leonard is $25. While readers and writers will argue (correctly) the Leonard provides more hours of entertainment and more actively engages its audience, most consumers just see the price tags. They aren’t all that interested in how actively engaged they are, or they wouldn’t be going to see Michael Bay movies in the first place.

The publishing industry is hurting, no question, largely through its refusal to adapt its outdated business models. E-books may be this year’s Big Thing Of The Future, but they still have to face the hurdle of getting people who enjoy the tactile sensation of holding a book and turning pages (people like me) to convert to e-readers. Given the choice of going to the local library, waiting a year for a paperback at $7.99, or paying $25 for the new hardcover, the new hardcover is Choice #3. If I’m willing to wait the year for the paperback, the e-book has nothing to interest me at all.

I like to support working authors and local booksellers all I can, but I read about 65 books a year. That many new hardcovers at $25 each, plus 6% Maryland sales tax is $1,722.50 that has to compete with my mortgage company, the University of Maryland, my doctor, the oil cartel, State Farm, groceries, clothing, and the taxes of various jurisdictions. The full-price book purchase comes pretty far down that list, and reading is an integral part of my life. I don’t read as much as many of the people who will read this, but I probably read more than 95% of the population at large. It might be time for publishers to start looking for ways to get more books into the hands of more people, instead of trying to bleed every last penny out of a stagnant or shrinking existing sales pool.

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