Ebooks and the pricing surrender monkeys

09 Nov

Google launched its ebookstore in Canada last week and, as a self-interested author, the first thing I did was head over to see how much my book, Sex, Bombs and Burgers, was selling for.

Surprise, surprise, it’s going for the princely sum of $21.99, which is not only more than the hardcover on Amazon or Chapters, it’s also quite possibly the most expensive ebook in history. This isn’t surprising because it’s exactly the same price that Chapters/Indigo has been charging through Kobo.

Who would pay that much for an ebook? Aren’t digital goods supposed to be cheaper because they have significantly lower manufacturing and distribution costs?

Exactly. Which is why I sold all of 16 of them in the second half of 2010, according to my sales reports.

Google has evidently joined Kobo in catering to publishers’ out-of-date pricing schemes. So, while Canadians seem to have growing choice between e-tailers, most of those sellers aren’t actually going to bat for consumers by trying to lower prices. It’s a little surprising in Google’s case, given that the company has in the past been willing to go to war on things such as wireless prices and net neutrality.

The exception in ebooks is Amazon, which has been notable in its battle against publishers on several fronts. The most recent is the skirmish over its new book lending program, which has prompted some libraries to stop buying from the likes of HarperCollins.

My favourite situation is the fight between Penguin, my publisher in Canada, and the online bookseller over pricing. A quick recap: Amazon last year wanted all ebooks to be priced at $9.99 (a price I agree with, by the way) but Penguin would have none of it. The publisher said it would no longer let Amazon sell its ebooks once their contract expired so, in retaliation, Amazon decided to sell all of Penguin’s physical books at $9.99. The company might take a loss on those books or not make as big a profit, but it was evidently set on making its point. Gotta love those kinds of balls.

The two companies ended up settling the dispute, but something is still going on since I can’t find my ebook on Kindle. I wish I could say why that is, but as is usually the case with us authors, nobody tells us nothing, even when we ask.

That’s why Google’s ebookstore launch is a ho-hum for me and it’s why, as a consumer, I buy all my books - physical or digital - from Amazon.


Posted by on November 9, 2011 in amazon, ebooks, Google, kobo


11 Responses to Ebooks and the pricing surrender monkeys

  1. hfiguiere

    November 9, 2011 at 12:13 am

    Companies rarely stand by their customers. Google is not the exception.

    The only reason Amazon do what they do is to beat the competition. And just that.

  2. reality_curmudgeon

    November 9, 2011 at 7:57 am

    Sorry, but $10 for an ebook is still highway robbery. We’re talking about immaterial goods which have zero reproduction cost here!

    If you charge an actually reasonable price like, say, $1 or $2, you will make more money and sell more books than you ever will at those ridiculous material-object prices.

    At $10, you might as well put up a big sign that says “you can probably find this for free if you spend a few minutes looking, and that’s what I’d prefer you do”.

  3. Erika Meissl

    November 9, 2011 at 9:51 am

    I have a problem with KOBO: Uploaded my (strict requirements), does not show up. Several of my complains unanswered, no access, e.mail address blocked, I guess.
    What makes me really angry: I bought a KOBO reading device, receive all announcements (the purchasing side is obviously working), but cannot buy my own, because it’s not listed.

  4. Russell McOrmond

    November 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Google is fighting on so many fronts, sometimes they need to just sit back and let the blame lie where it should be. I find it unfortunate that you suggested that they were to blame in any way for the impractical pricing (and device incompatibility) imposed on them by publishers.

    Legacy publishers (and associations they control like Access Copyright) tend to stand in the way of people actually paying for books. Whether it be trying to impose themselves as a compulsory tax on educational institutions, or lobbying in favor of eBook incompatibility (encryption which ties the ability to access books to specific technology brands), they are making it harder and harder for anyone to ever want to (or be able to) pay them.

    If only PWAC and TWUC, two associations who claim to represent authors, were fighting on the side of authors rather than publishers. Far too often I see them blindly aligned with publishers, but that may slowly be turning around.

    It is amusing: many of the Canadian publishers were created by authors back when a different set of publishers were screwing authors. Sad how these things seem to have to be continuously fought.

    • petenowak2000

      November 9, 2011 at 12:54 pm

      Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame Google for the pricing. My point is the company has the size and power to fight for change, but it’s increasingly becoming less interested in doing so across a range of areas. Amazon has the same size and clout, yet it’s not rolling over for publishers. Not yet, anyway.

      • Russell McOrmond

        November 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm

        Amazon wasn’t the subject of a books settlement, didn’t get involved in scanning legacy books, didn’t buy an existing video service that the incumbent broadcasters/etc were trying to shut down (YouTube), etc.

        Amazon may be more aggressive in this very narrow area, but have been largely absent from the larger policy/etc issues. They’ve let Google and others do the heavy lifting. It’s Google that gets misdirected attacks by some copyright holding groups who don’t get the long-term positive benefits of what they are doing, as well as the anti-trust investigations, etc…

        Not an investor/etc in Google, and I’m a customer of both Google(*) and Amazon, but find that on the policy front Google is doing much more to protect creators&customers than Amazon is.

        Anyone know if Amazon has an equivalent of Google Canada’s Jacob Glick?

        (*) Not just user of free services where I’m the product, but paying customer of a few services.

  5. petenowak2000

    November 9, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I don’t know what Amazon’s up to on the lobbying front, but not everything is settled at the policy level. At the end of the day, dollars matter and that’s where Amazon is having a much greater impact than Google.

  6. Chris C.

    November 9, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Great article! It is obvious to me that the (e)Book is going the way of the Manuscript, and it’s the publishers who are sending it there.

    To paraphrase Russell McOrmond, who put it so well in his comment, legacy publishers are those responsible for making books so difficult to sell not only because of their outdated pricing system, but also for making the legitimately acquired product so difficult for people to actually use.

    Can you tell us, Pete, as an author, why do you even keep sticking to this failed distribution system?

    • petenowak2000

      November 9, 2011 at 2:44 pm

      Oh boy, I could probably write reams on that question. The short answer is clout. I haven’t tested the self-publishing route yet, although I really want to, but there is an undeniable difference between putting your book out yourself and having a big-name publisher behind you. The “establishment” takes you seriously if you’ve been endorsed by one of these publishers, which opens the door to many things, such as media coverage, invitations to speak at conferences, consulting jobs, etc. The only way a self-published author can achieve this same sort of clout is by having an ebook that sells a zillion copies, which is of course rare. There are many anecdotes about self-published writers making a good deal more money than through the traditional publishing system, even without mega-sellers, and I can completely see why. Unless you’re a top-shelf name, writing books under the traditional system is not a money-making exercise. That’s why I’m itching to give self-publishing a try.

      That said, I think self-publishing might work better for fiction than non-fiction books, which can require substantial financial investments to get the research done (i.e. for travel, etc.). For that reason, an upfront advance from a traditional publisher is often necessary. Fiction, on the other hand, can often be written for free. Right now, I have a non-fiction book that I’m pitching to traditional publishers and a fiction novel that I’m working on when I can find the time. The non-fiction book probably won’t happen if I can’t land a publisher, but the novel will get published, most likely through Kindle. At that point, I’ll have a comparative experience to talk about. Stay tuned…

  7. Dave

    November 10, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Paper books certainly cost more to produce and distribute than electronic books, but that should have very little effect on the price. You’re paying the author for the work they put into creating the content. In the case of technical books, that can be months or even years of hard labour researching, writing, and editing. To say that the book priced at $60 in hardcover should only be $10 as an ebook is just silly. The vast majority of authors already work for far below minimum wage.

  8. Chris C.

    November 10, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Dave :
    Paper books certainly cost more to produce and distribute than electronic books, but that should have very little effect on the price.

    I totally disagree and any economist would as well. For every dollar spent and passed from one hand to another there are interest charges on the investment and fees. So a disk that costs 1 dollar to produce ends up costing $10 at the store. The problem we have here is clearly one of an outdated, inefficient business model.

    Dave :
    You’re paying the author for the work they put into creating the content. In the case of technical books, that can be months or even years of hard labour researching, writing, and editing. To say that the book priced at $60 in hardcover should only be $10 as an ebook is just silly. The vast majority of authors already work for far below minimum wage.

    I agree and that is the precisely reason why authors should self publish.

    My brother in law is a successful jazz musician and before he produced his own music online, he was getting 5 CENTS per tune on every CD that he sold (they would sell for an average of $20 and we would get less than a buck on each one sold).

    Now that he produces his own CDs, signs each and every one of them and sells them between $5 and $10, he makes a LOT more money and even makes some of his stuff available for free download. Plus he’s had much more engagement offers as a result and that is where the money is.

    Like Pete says, once you are published online, talks eventually start and this is where the money is.

    I suggest that you, as an author, move on out of the paranoia of “we’re making already to little as it is” (I know how little it pays, as part of my work 70% of my working hours are spent in technical writing, and it only brings in 30% of my revenue) and think of the big picture like Pete mentions.

    Would you rather be paid $60 for 100 books sold or $6 for 10,000? It’s up to you to decide based on your market.


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