On eBook Pricing

My friend Nik Fletcher nails a good chunk of my dissatisfaction with the ebook marketplace - and I say that as someone who, this very day, broke down and purchased an actual Kindle to go with his iPad.

You win, Bezos, you magnificent capitalist.

Philip Jones then followed up on FutureBook.net by wondering if Nik was being a little "hysterical" with the word gouging. Since that word really came from Nik quoting a tweet of mine, I thought I should chime in.

Let me make this very clear: I know absolutely nothing about publishing. I don't know how deals are structured, I don't know about advances or geographical rights or anything. All I know is that I'm being offered one package of words in, usually, three formats - hardback, paperback and ebook - at three different prices.

In The Design of Everyday Things Donald Norman famously wrote about the disconnect between the user's mental model of how something works and how it actually works. I think I have this problem with ebooks.

Here's how I think of it:

I made these numbers up and I have no idea if the relative proportions of these blocks are correct in any way. In a sense, that's not the point. What I'm expressing here is how I think about the value proposition when presented with three different ways to read the same book.

The thing that rubs me the wrong way with being asked to pay a premium for an ebook is that, thanks to DRM, a publisher gets to sell a copy that can never ever be resold. I think that enforced reduction to zero of the resale value of a book should be reflected in the purchase price - particularly for higher-end titles such as reference books.

The graph above shows how I think of ebooks and my buying behaviour reflects that. I don't see ebooks as luxury items. I don't see how pricing ebooks above hardback prices is defensible when there has been no material to physically construct and ship. I particularly resent that pricing structure when so many ebooks that I purchase have obvious OCR errors or truly awful typography.

Neither do I see ebooks as having no value. People gots to get paid and I'm happy to pay for ebooks - I have never pirated a book. I just see premium pricing on ebooks as someone, somewhere taking a fat profit from ebook early adopters on the basis that those users are keen on books.

So what happens if I feel I'm being ripped off for the ebook? Do I buy the paper version? No. I just move to the next item in my list of "books that sounded interesting". Maybe I'll come back to yours but that list contains, at current rates of consumption, about two years worth of reading. It'll be a while until I get back to you.

I don't care and don't want to have to care about the internal structure of your industry and the value chain and who pays for what when. If it doesn't feel like a good deal, then no deal. All this says to me is "we think you're a schmuck":

I'm not unsympathetic to people trying to make a living in book writing or publishing. I merely note that any value proposition that includes within it something about "you, the customer, need to understand our cost structures and pressures" sadly contains the seeds of its own destruction.