Scott Marlowe | Pricing: eBooks vs Paperbacks
Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Pricing: eBooks vs Paperbacks

Most of the time when I finish a book, I'm ready to buy the next one on my wish list right away. Since I own a Kindle, my preferred reading format is digital. The problem of late is that too many of the eBooks on my list are, in my opinion, over-priced.

Amazon ignited widespread interest in eBooks with the introduction of their first Kindle eReader. As prices for the device came down, and the device itself got better (smaller, faster, crisper display, smaller form factor, etc.) , more and more people joined the eBook revolution. Unfortunately, with the success of the Kindle came increased scrutiny from the Big 6. In particular, publishers were not pleased with Amazon's practice of slashing eBook prices to the point where the price of the eBook was actually lower than the wholesale price Amazon paid for the book in the first place. It made sense from Amazon's perspective: they wanted to sell Kindles. In order for people to buy into a hardware purchase amounting to several hundred dollars (at that time), there had to be some perceived value. That perceived value was being able to purchase an eBook version of a bestseller or other book for $10-15 less than the print edition price. From the publisher's perspective, this was not good. Amazon was lowering the price threshold to the point where they were creating a "new normal", and undermining a pricing infrastructure the Big 6 had gotten quite comfortable with. The end result of their confrontation was Amazon's capitulation.

This has left us with the pricing structure we have today, with many eBooks costing the same (or more, in some cases) as their print equivalent. Regardless of the costs involved in producing a book (and irrespective of its final format), the perception is that an eBook should cost less.

I subscribe to this perception, and so I expect that when I find a print book that the eBook version should cost me less money. If only this were the case.

I decided to do a little analysis to see how many of the books on my Amazon wish list have eBooks priced the same or higher than the print equivalent. The list spans multiple genres: fantasy, thriller/suspense, steampunk, alternate history, and historical/informational.

Here's the list:

Title eBook
$
Paperback
$
$
Diff
% Diff
A Princess of Landover $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
Among Thieves: A Tale of the Kin $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
City of Dreams & Nightmare $4.79 $7.99 ($3.20) -40.05%
Daily Life in the Middle Ages $14.74 $36.42 ($21.68) -59.53%
The Roman War Against the Zombies of Armorica $4.99 $9.95 ($4.96) -49.85%
Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt 1) $9.59 $12.00 ($2.41) -20.08%
Infernal Devices $4.79 $7.99 ($3.20) -40.05%
Into the Storm: Destroyermen, Book I $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
Leviathan  $8.99 $11.16 ($2.17) -19.44%
Life in a Medieval City $9.99 $11.19 ($1.20) -10.72%
Life in a Medieval Village $9.99 $8.92 $1.07 12.00%
The Age of Wonder $13.99 $10.31 $3.68 35.69%
The Blade Itself: A Novel $6.99 $6.99 $0.00 0.00%
The Bookman $4.69 $7.99 ($3.30) -41.30%
The Breach $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
The Broken Kingdoms $9.99 $10.60 ($0.61) -5.75%
The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale $9.59 $10.88 ($1.29) -11.86%
The Crooked Letter: Books of the Cataclysm $9.59 $12.46 ($2.87) -23.03%
The Doomsday Book $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
The Hammer $9.99 $10.19 ($0.20) -1.96%
The Last Days of Krypton $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
The Road to Vengeance (The Strongbow Saga)* $9.99 $12.23 ($2.24) -18.32%
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack $9.59 $10.88 ($1.29) -11.86%
Wolf of the Steppes $9.99 $14.96 ($4.97) -33.22%

* title available in hardcover but not paperback

I've listed the title of the book along with it's eBook and paperback prices followed by the difference in price between formats in both dollars and as a percentage. In all, there are 25 titles listed.

The first thing that struck me about this list is how many titles have both eBook and print editions priced exactly the same. 7 titles! Out of 25, that's 28% of the sample. 15 titles have eBooks priced lower than the print editions. Only 2 have eBook versions priced higher than the print edition.

I don't know how publishers rationalize charging the same for both eBook and print formats. It's analogous to charging the same for the paperback and hardcover editions. That would be ludicrous, right? The cost to produce a hardcover is higher than that of a paperback; you'd expect to pay less for the latter. I don't think it's unreasonable to pay less for the eBook than the paperback. You've gone from something physical to electrons. While there are (minimal) data storage as well as distribution (transmission) costs with an eBook, I can't see how that equates to the costs associated with printing, boxing, storing (whether shelf or warehouse), and shipping a print book.

At least 15 of the eBooks listed come in at prices lower than the print editions. Even still, the differences are minimal, averaging to just $3.01.

One bright spot is that at least most of the eBook editions come in at $9.99 or less. $9.99 is still too much for an eBook, in my opinion, but it's better than $14.99.

Which kind of leads into another observation… A while back I had just finished the second book in Robin Hobb's Rain Wilds Chronicles and was all ready to buy the next book in the series, Dragon Haven, until I saw the eBook price: $14.99!

The Big 6 had been pushing for higher eBook prices on new releases. As evidenced by the price of Dragon Haven, they got it. Over time, then, and especially once the paperback came out, the eBook price fell. In the case of Dragon Haven, and many of the titles I listed, the eBook price fell no further than the paperback.

Which made me wonder: How long does it take for the eBook price to fall to a reasonable level?

Here's the data once more, this time with Kindle pub date added.

Title eBook
$
Paperback
$
$
Diff
% Diff Pub
Date
A Princess of Landover $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2009
Among Thieves: A Tale of the Kin $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2011
City of Dreams & Nightmare $4.79 $7.99 ($3.20) -40.05% 2010
Daily Life in the Middle Ages $14.74 $36.42 ($21.68) -59.53% 2001
The Roman War Against the Zombies of Armorica $4.99 $9.95 ($4.96) -49.85% 2010
Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt 1) $9.59 $12.00 ($2.41) -20.08% 2008
Infernal Devices $4.79 $7.99 ($3.20) -40.05% 2011
Into the Storm: Destroyermen, Book I $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2008
Leviathan  $8.99 $11.16 ($2.17) -19.44% 2009
Life in a Medieval City $9.99 $11.19 ($1.20) -10.72% 2010
Life in a Medieval Village $9.99 $8.92 $1.07 12.00% 2010
The Age of Wonder $13.99 $10.31 $3.68 35.69% 2009
The Blade Itself: A Novel $6.99 $6.99 $0.00 0.00% 2010
The Bookman $4.69 $7.99 ($3.30) -41.30% 2010
The Breach $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2009
The Broken Kingdoms $9.99 $10.60 ($0.61) -5.75% 2010
The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale $9.59 $10.88 ($1.29) -11.86% 2010
The Crooked Letter: Books of the Cataclysm $9.59 $12.46 ($2.87) -23.03% 2006
The Doomsday Book $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2011
The Hammer $9.99 $10.19 ($0.20) -1.96% 2011
The Last Days of Krypton $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2009
The Road to Vengeance (The Strongbow Saga)* $9.99 $12.23 ($2.24) -18.32% 2009
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack $9.59 $10.88 ($1.29) -11.86% 2010
Wolf of the Steppes $9.99 $14.96 ($4.97) -33.22% 2006

Unfortunately, I don't know what the eBook prices started at; that information would make this metric more meaningful. But it's pretty clear that while an eBook may come down in price, it isn't going much below the cost of the paperback. Are the Big 6 publishers creating their own new normal here? By setting eBook prices at $7.99 – $9.99, they may be attempting to create a perception of value on eBook prices simply by maintaining higher paperback prices. You can see that on 15 of the titles listed. Prices rise over time naturally due to inflation and other factors; it's sad to think publishers may use the digital medium to create an artificial spike.

One of the many benefits of eBooks, other than being cheaper than paper books, is that they're highly accessible to many readers worldwide. This is why many writers have been looking into eBook publishing options for their work.