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The eBook Tax: Some Publishers Want Hardcover Prices to Be...

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Wildcard by Lora Leigh is a mass market release with a retail price of $7.99 but an ebook retail price of $14.00. Sherrilyn Kenyon’s One Silent Night is also a mass market release with a retail price of $7.99 but an ebook retail price of $14.00. Almost all of Kenyon’s books that are released in ebook format are priced at $14.00 or higher.

The reason for this is apparently an industry pricing standard according to a spokesperson for St. Martin’s Press. For some reason, Macmillan, who is the parent organization for Tor and St. Martin’s Press, believes that ebooks should be priced on the same level as hardcovers regardless of whether the book is in mass market print format or hardcover print format.

Macmillan isn’t the only publisher to believe this. Avon Romance began it’s “Love Gives Back” promotion recently which encouraged users to read 20% of the books’ contents before purchasing and then gave the reader an option to buy the ebook. Avon then set ebook pricing for the mass markets to $14.00+. According to the spokesperson for HarperCollins, Avon was “experimenting” with pricing but has since returned the pricing to mass market retail levels.

When Penguin first began rolling out digital versions of its ebooks, it’s pricing for the ebook version was higher than the print counterpart as well. This premium pricing does not encourage ebook reading, but rather deters it and, as I said before, I think it encourages piracy. I’m not the only one who thinks this.

Piracy is not the sole reason that ebook pricing should be lower but it is one reason. The point of ebook pricing is to convince a reader that buying a digital copy is a good idea over a) a print copy or b) a pirated copy. The reason why a) is important is because in these tough economic times, digital technology for books is the future, not simply another format.

It is true that margins in ebooks are not as great as one might perceive what with Hydra of Lake DRM. In other words, because of the many formats that exist, publishers have to spend $$ to convert into each format which raises the overhead and reduces the ebook margin. I don’t feel sorry for publishers because this cost could easily be eliminated with say, excision of DRM. What an idea, right? And no, I don’t want to hear about the dangers of piracy because guess what? E publishers sell their books with no DRM and still manage to make money.

One frustrated reader emailed me with this to say:

It’s hard for me to imagine the marketing strategy behind this, but I’m going to assume that there is one. (Maybe some division in your company has decided to try to prove that the ebook market is not viable? That wouldn’t work, though, because other publishing houses have more sensible prices so their results would disprove that. What on earth could the reason be?)

I buy a lot of ebooks (almost 800 from Fictionwise alone in the last three years), and I’m trying to buy ebooks exclusively now, but I will not pay that price.

In general, I won’t pay more than the print book list price for any ebook, but I definitely won’t pay almost twice that price, not even for the convenience of ebooks. Clearly someone must be willing to pay it, or you wouldn’t still be selling them, but I can’t imagine who or why, when they can buy the same book discounted at Wal-Mart for $5-$6.00.

The more that I look at ebook pricing and the way that NY runs their ebook business, the more convinced I am of three things.

  1. They don’t actually want to encourage the sales of ebooks
  2. They don’t know what ebook readers want
  3. They think that we are a group of readers that they can fuck around with

The problem is that the ebook readership pool is not super large right now, but it is the only area of publishing that consistently has shown increase, rather than decrease. At a time when bigger publishers are laying off people, cutting down on acquisitions, and freezing salaries, one of the larger epublishers is acquiring a publishing house.

There are reasons why ebooks sell right now: content, availability, and yes, price. By price, I don’t mean that price needs to be so low as to not generate profit for the publisher, but it needs to be reasonably priced so that everytime a reader purchases an ebook, she doesn’t feel like she bent over and stuck out her ass to be violated which is essentially how readers feel when confronted with an ebook price that is in excess of its print counterpart.

Right now, ebook pricing must battle the idea that the margin in ebooks due to no warehousing, no returns, no shipping, and no printing. Readers already feel like they are getting hosed when they have to pay the same price as the print counterpart, let alone a 100%+ surcharge.

I don’t really believe that there is an industry standard to ebook pricing. Simon&Schuster sell their ebooks at a 35% discount off the print retail price. Harlequin gives a 10% discount. Penguin has finally brought their prices down to print retail and Random House and Harpercollins, Warner also appear to be keeping ebook pricing consistent with print retail pricing. Only Macmillan books seem to be priced at a surchage. Call it an ebook tax.

If the ebook tax is the industry standard or what the industry is moving toward then look forward to fewer ebook purchases. If the book industry is suffering from decline in sales, taxing one portion of the readership with higher prices is not the remedy. Ironically, Pan Macmillan, the UK arm of Macmillan publishing, decided last year to release its literary titles in both trade paperback and hardcover because, according to Picador publisher Andrew Kidd, the hardcover is a “moribund format.”
Bantam Discovery released its titles simultaneously in trade and mass market.

The idea is to attract more readers at lower price points, not to deter readers with higher price points. Why publishers are moving backward with ebook pricing is beyond me. I’m not sure what we can do about it as readers because I’ve written and complained. If more of us write and complain, will that change things? Maybe the answer for ebook readers who confront the higher prices is to buy these publishers at the used bookstore instead of giving them retail dollars. Yes, this might hurt the authors but maybe the authors should start pushing for more reasonable pricing and no DRM. It shouldn’t all be on the reader.


Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


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