Pricing Ebooks: A Reader's Perspective

Jun 06, 2012

As a publishing professional with a deep-seated interest in the future of the industry-and, perhaps more importantly, a reader-I'm concerned that by filing an antitrust suit against Apple, Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster, the Department of Justice has effectively legitimized an ebook monopoly for Amazon.

Since rumors of a potential federal lawsuit began swirling, authors, publishers, bloggers, and more have spoken up in support of or opposition to the agency model for ebooks. Some of these opinions (my own included) have been incendiary treatises on the saintliness or villainy of Amazon's actions preceding this case.

But regardless of whether the DOJ can prove the defendants' collusion in instituting the agency model, let's face it: the odds that the agency model will succeed are not looking good. Therefore, shouldn't we-people who are passionate about the future of the book-continue brainstorming an appropriate model for selling digital books?

There are a couple of points we should consider when contemplating how ebooks should be sold. First, most people would agree that the physical book format-unlike, for example, the CD-has not been outmoded by the digital format. I lament the inability to pass along one of my ebooks to a friend. I also can't read my ebook if my iPad battery is dead, or sync an ebook across devices if I can't connect to a wireless network. But no one misses the bulky, black leather CD binders that used to lay strewn across backseats and car floors. The printed book is a self-contained reading apparatus; the ebook, though sharing the same content, is not.

On the other hand, the ebook has many features that are superior to the codex. An entire library of hundreds, even thousands of books can be toted around easily. The font size and type can be changed if the book designer's default is difficult to read. And don't forget the possibilities for social reading, where groups of people can read and comment on the same text in a unique interactive experience. The relevance of both formats in our culture implies that printed books and ebooks will continue to coexist for years to come.

Second, we need to consider how we read? Some of us have completely transitioned to the digital format while others have settled into a comfortable balance between it and print; still more have never read an ebook. How do publishers best serve the contradictory interests of that diverse customer base? For readers who prefer to read on a tablet, it seems unfair to make them wait twelve months after the hardcover release to buy the book. On the other hand, it seems unwise to release the ebook at the same time as the hardcover, but at a fraction of the hardcover price-leading some readers to perceive the price of a hardcover as unjustifiably expensive.

In the past, the practice of windowing-releasing the paperback version one year after the hardcover came out-helped publishers avoid a real pricing war between the two formats. But now readers have come to expect the hardcover and ebook versions be released simultaneously. How can we prevent ebook sales from cannibalizing hardcover sales on new bestselling titles?

What would happen if we were to enforce an ebook minimum retail price of not less than the price of the hardcover for a limited term, perhaps the first six to twelve months of a title's lifespan? A frequent book buyer might say, "What are you, insane? There's no way I'm paying $30 for an ebook." What you're paying for, primarily, is not the physical or digital object itself, but the immediacy of accessing the content-format is a non-factor.

The reader would purchase whichever format he finds personally more valuable; the publisher and retailer would be removed from making the decision for the reader. And after that term period, retailers would be free to set prices based on the wholesale model.

It's true that those of us who have grown up with the internet and computers are less likely to treasure the elegantly bound, hardcover memento that was, and still is, the book. What a growing portion of readers care most about is the ability to have it right now: the medium with which we consume content matters less and less with each new generation.