Pricing: The Inevitable Question

You may have heard about the quarrel between bookseller Amazon and publisher Macmillan. In a nutshell, Macmillan wanted to sell their eBooks at whatever price they felt was best while Amazon insisted on keeping all eBooks below $9.99. Since Amazon is That Big Market and their Kindle is pretty much the major game in town for now, they have the power to say things like that. Usually. Macmillan disagreed, and Amazon dropped the “buy” option on all of their books, including printed ones. Later, after much hate from the bloggers’ world, they released a statement that basically said they’d eventually give in to Macmillan’s pricing, but they had wanted to make a statement first.

This discussion is interesting for me because I’m about to release several eBooks myself, and pricing is one of the major questions here. For years, I’ve priced my books way too low. Only recently, I’ve issued my printed books at more realistic prices while keeping the eBook prices still pretty low (<1€). I really don’t have a good feeling for pricing. In print, I have a rough guideline (the printing cost), but in digital?

So when other people discuss pricing, I’m listening. Even though I’m not planning to charge anything above $9.99 myself (for the eBooks anyway), and even though this quarrel doesn’t concern me – I’m not with Macmillan, nor will Amazon carry my books any time soon.

Of course, I can’t agree with Amazon’s bullying. But I have to admit I’m having a hard time sympathizing with anybody who calls $9.99 cheap. As a customer, I think that’s a lot of money for a digital file. After all, an eBook is just a cheap knock-off of its paper equivalent, and it should well be cheaper, shouldn’t it?

Not from a publisher’s perspective. As Scott Westerfield points out, printing and shipping and all the chores making the printed book expensive are just a small fraction of the book’s cover price. I’m not sure I can trust Westerfield’s math – high marketing costs will only apply to some books while the majority will have to do with a small ad in a publishing periodical -, but from a publisher’s POV, $9.99 isn’t as much as you’d think, especially when competing with a hardcover sale. Customer expectations and publishers’ needs seem incompatible here.

Still, two arguments seem to work in favor of cheaper eBooks:

  • Since the production costs per book are zero, the relative marketing costs will diminish very quickly. Soon, you’ll have all your initial costs covered, and you still keep selling. (Ideally.)
  • Since the eBook version, unless it’s a shiny animated high-concept eBook with an audio track, isn’t the high-profile physical object the hardcover is, it doesn’t really compete with the hardcover in the first place. It competes with the paperback. (Macmillan offered to release the eBook later, along with the paperback, but that’s not really an option, of course. People will want to read the eBook right away.)

I don’t have a solution for this. Pricing is a bitch, and pricing a non-physical object is even harder because it doesn’t look like much, so people won’t want to pay much. Meeting in the middle doesn’t work either, because it either pays, or it doesn’t.

I do have an idea, though.

People have been publishing alternate versions of media for ages. Hardcover books vs. paperbacks, DVDs with or without extras, the old LP/CD/cassette package. I’ve published a comic album both with and without a commentary CD, and the CD version sold much better than I’d anticipated. It could work for eBooks, too.

If you insist on selling eBooks for more than $9.99, make them shiny. Offer a cheap, b&w, DRM-infested Kindle version at Amazon for $9.99 or less – and a beautiful, full-color, extended version from your own site. Extras could include an interview with the author, an additional introduction – stuff you can use in your marketing campaign anyway.

I’m planning to do the same with my next book. (Not the Conny book, something else.) Three versions: One will only contain the comic, one’s a solid 36pp book with a lot of extra material, and just for fun I’m adding a 48pp hardcover book for a truckload of money (don’t you just love POD?) – all with fitting eBooks.

Of course, I’m a self-publisher. I get away with a lot of things. And I don’t know if Amazon’s contracts even allow for this. But they should. After all, it’s literally none of their business.

2 thoughts on “Pricing: The Inevitable Question

  1. Check out in the Unitied States. Their ebooks come out the same day as the hardcover and are priced as paperbacks. The two releases seem to work for them. I buy both of some of my favorites. Also for some popular authors the ebook is on a disk in the hardcover.

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