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The Cheap eBook Revolution: What’s your Dream Price for eBooks?

AT Cnet, Gordon Haff tells us Why e-books aren’t cheaper:

We’ve all heard the rant. With e-books, there’s no paper, printing, transportation, and so forth. So why should an e-book still cost $9.99 (typical for Kindle) or even more?

The idea of e-books being cheaper makes a lot of intuitive sense. If everything you physically hold in your hand and everything it took to deliver that physical good to your hand can be converted to a few megabytes worth of electrons, surely the cost of the book must be dramatically lower than a typical hardcover–and the price should reflect that fact.

The problem is that the costs aren’t nearly as much lower as you might believe.

…if you want the same level of professional preparation and promotion associated with a typical printed book–the $9.99 e-book price that a lot of people grumble about is probably pretty near the floor.

I wonder what the sweet spot is for eBooks. I’m not knowledgeable in the economics of books sales, but as a consumer I can’t help thinking that cheaper means more sales and thus more profit.

Here’s why:

As the boxes and boxes of books I have purchased will confirm, I’m a raging biblioholic. This started during my younger days when I was looking for cheap entertainment and the local used bookstore became my crack house. The cheap entry price (sometimes as low as 50 cents for a like-new piece of classic sf…[gurgle]…) made the purchase decision a no-brainer.

I had the same media-hoarding frenzy on the used CD circuit in the 90’s. Cheap = don’t think, just buy. But I got older, started a family and the CD purchases tapered off. I haven’t purchased a new CD in years.

That is, until I discovered Amazon’s MP3 store earlier this year. It’s not the digital format I found attractive, – it was the cheap price of their daily deals. For anywhere between $1 and $5, I could download an album from new artists whose song samples piqued my interest. Suddenly, new music was in my life again. The cheap price opened the doorway to my previously-closed wallet and Amazon has become my new crack house.

I see a similar behavior in the smartphone space: I see the popularity of the iPhone App store and its $3 mini apps and I wonder: could the same thing be true for eBooks? Sure, there are other issues to consider (preferring the heft of a physical book, cheap/legible reading devices, etc.)…but I wonder if the the general public is ready for the Cheap eBook Revolution to begin.

Riddle me this: What’s your dream price for eBooks? At what price would you not think twice about buying an eBook that interests you?

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

28 Comments on The Cheap eBook Revolution: What’s your Dream Price for eBooks?

  1. All books should be ebooks, however not everyone has access to an ebook reader/smart phone. Why can’t ebooks be sold at the brick and mortar stores along with their dead tree counterpart still doing business as usual? I can go to Best Buy and purchase a preloaded gaming card. Why not do the same thing with an ebook? The cards could be like bubblegum cards with your code inside. You scratch and reveal the code like a scratch and win card found at any Macs or 7-11. Only in this case the retail book store would have the cards behind the counter. There could a touch computer screen in the store, pick the book cover and go to the counter to pick up the book card enter code there from their system or download to your smart phone and your good to go. As for the price? I think the current pricing would be good enough. There would be no more hard cover books, no more Trade etc.

  2. Weyland Yutani // May 28, 2009 at 1:55 am //

    Publishers and authors need to seize the opportunity that emerging tech will allow them to deliver a unique product.  As digital readers become smarter, there will be an opportunity to provide an enhanced (deluxe) narrative experience that will not be available to the hardcover reader.  This can be as simple as providing illustrations or instantly linked content, or as complex as providing the ability for an alternate reality narrative, tiered experience that can play out in real time as the reader turns pages.  There are endless possibilities that may be available to entice regular readers to pay for the “blue ray” version of a novel, while perhaps, offering the regular version at a more modest cost to the consumer.

    I’m predicting a few game changers in the years ahead.

  3. I think Gordon is mostly referring to e-editions from the established large houses. Because if you’re talking about the e-presses, then you can get a 80-100K novel for a lot less than $9.99. A quick look through Fictionwise, shows me:

    Loose Id – $7.99
    Phaze – $6.00
    Renaissance E-Books category length (around 55K) – $4.99
    Samhain Publishing – $5.50
    Total-E-Bound – $8.18

    And that’s not including the other incentives like frequent buyer programs, shop specials, rebate sales, Buywise, and so on. So, not a very strong argument there, although I understand where he’s coming from. Cheaper ebooks ARE around, and there are a lot of them. You just have to use your peripheral vision more.

    In other news, for music, is my crack, with Magnatune a close second. For some stunning music that’s free, you can’t go past Jamendo. All imo, of course. And I agree with Jim about selling ebooks at the bricks ‘n’ mortars as well. That would be a very nice idea.

  4. I think ebooks have to be under US$5. My own books are around US$15 in print but less than US$4 as ebooks. The Kindle editions are currently selling better than any other format, available for US$3.19 and I still get royalties. Charging more than US$5 is rorting your readership in my mind.


  5. FREE! And my favorite is to get them.

    It’s popular more with students than it is with the mainstream public.

  6. What I was getting at is ebooks need to be more accessible. The market decides the sweet spot for ebook pricing. My example above is a work in progress , one idea.

  7. if you want the same level of professional preparation and promotion associated with a typical printed book–the $9.99 e-book price that a lot of people grumble about is probably pretty near the floor.


    Then they have a serious problem withh their business model.   I’ll never pay that much for an ebook. 

    $3 or $4 would be the most I’d pay.

    I’m not the least bit interested in “professional preparation” (especially at ten dollars a book).  I’ve read plenty of ebooks by authors, published and unpublished, who posted their novels and short stories on the internet for free.  A simple text file is all I need.

    If you wanted to get me to buy them regularly $3 would be about right.


  8. I’m with Alan and David. $5USD and under would open my wallet quite a bit. I’d hapilly spend $20 on 5 ebooks, but not on 2 or 1.

  9. A similar thought from the music industry? Here’s an interesting quote from U2’s manager (from an interview about pirated music):

    I admire what Radiohead have done tremendously in seeking a new model. They would take the view, and I would share it, that perhaps price has been a big problem for the music business. The music business has tried to hold onto a price that was unrealistic for a long time now. I think wider distribution of lower priced things is probably the future.


     I almost never buy paper books now. The only times I buy paper books is when I can’t find the e-book for a reasonable price or (many cases) can’t find it at all!.  Most books I buy are in the $4-6 range which seems about right.  I buy every websriptions from Baen for $15 with (5-7 books at once) and have found some good authors that way.  also buy quite a bit a fictionwise. Tried amazon on my iphone with a couple of free books.. but really iphone is not a great reader. Not going to buy from amazon unless they get rid of copy protection. 

    Also ebooks in my mind are a great way to keep a backlist/out of print books out there, seeing some of that at fictionwise (several publishers listed in posts above) and Baen.  those should probably be at a lower price point ($2-4).

     right now e-books have 2 major issues in my mind.

     1) prices, based on Baen success should be in the $4-5 range at least for now

     2) copy protected books are a problem, reader software and platforms are not stable. no way am I going to buy a book that will not be readable in a few years.  So I pretty much stick to non-protected formats except for a few experiments. Even apple finally figured out that DRM Is BAD.

    Note for those that need e-book managment/conversion software Calibre is a nice tool. Will read and conver several formats.  

    I read e-books on my Nokia N800 and on my iPhone but greatly prefer N800 (bigger screen)

  11. They should be lower, much lower, in my opinion.  I’m about to experiment with the first Kindle version of my novels, setting the price at $1.00, going for maximum readership vs maximum profits.

  12. Anonymous // May 28, 2009 at 9:06 am //

    Actually, I trend towards wanting higher prices for ebooks. Unlike comics or movies, when you can blow through a bunch in hours, books take much longer to finish. Therefore, I can only read a small amount of books each month, so I don’t want quantity, but quality. I’d rather buy 3-4 quality, well-written and carefully crafted books for $10 than a bunch of trashy massmarket ones for cheaper.

  13. I think 30-40% under the list price of the physical book is fair.  I know that publishers are whining that printing and dealing with the physical book is only a small fraction of the cost — and I believe that.  But it’s not the whole story.  Let’s look at how an ebook world would save the publishers money in other ways than in printing presses and delivery of physical books.  

    First, no returns or remainders.  When we pay for a book, we’re not just paying for the cost of that physical book, but of the cost of having it in print, which necessarily includes those sorts of costs as well.  Print over-runs, damaged copies, ripped returned books, decreased profit on books at the remaindered table — all of these must be factored in.  

    Second, just about no lending or re-selling.  Most ebooks are DRMed.  This means that if I really enjoy China Mieville’s newest on my Sony Reader (as I’m sure I will) I can’t lend it out to friends.  I can only recommend that they buy it (as I’m sure I will).  Then, once I’m finished with it, I can’t save someone else a portion of the purchase price by selling it to a used bookstore.  The fact is that every book that’s out in circulation saves people from buying that book at full price.

    Now, how about the cheaper cost of keeping the book in print?  The cost of preparing Kurt Vonnegut’s manuscripts for publication was paid years ago.  To get them into ebook format, all you need to do is run it through a scanner and pay a copy-editor to make sure the capital “I”s didn’t turn into “T”s.  Any copy editors out there?  Are you paid some ridiculous wage that would explain how expensive Vonnegut ebooks are?

    Then let’s look at how retailer costs are lower.  Barnes and Noble has to support a lot of brick and mortar to sell physical books.  Managers, floor-walkers, cashiers.  Bills to pay. on the other hand just has to pay web developers, coders.  And if they double their customer base, they don’t need to double their costs.  By virtue of opening one store, they have opened stores all over the world.

    However, the author should still get paid.  If a hardcover edition of a book costs 25 bucks and the author usually gets $2.50 of that, then the author should still be getting $2.50.  Let’s build a price from there.  If the store used to get an average of ten bucks (some books get discounted, some don’t…) then I think $2.50 is reasonable for them.  If the publisher used to get ten bucks and $2.50 of that went to producing the book, $2.50 to marketing, then five went to profit.  I think it’s reasonable to cut that down to four because of the other advantages that I cited earlier.

    What does that leave us with?  I think it gets a final price of fourteen bucks.  I’d actually be willing to settle for that.  My environmental footprint lowers, publishers still have an incentive to be the quality-check on what I read, and the author still gets paid.

    On the other hand, what I hate is price-gouging.  The list price for the paperback edition of The Year’s Best SF 14 is $7.99, while the list price of the digital edition is $14.99.  That is unconscionable.


  14. Janice in GA // May 28, 2009 at 10:03 am //

    What I hate is seeing full hard-back price for ebooks.  I almost never pay that much unless it’s a book I REALLY REALLY want to read RIGHT NOW.

    I’m happy to pay up to $10US per book.  No DRM would be great.


  15. I have been reading ebooks on my Palm Zire for many years now and the most annoying thing is their pricing.  At ereader, one if the sites I occasionally use, if a book is only available in trade or hardcover format, that price is the same price that they charge for the ebook.  This is patently ridiculous.  Both paper and eformats have setup costs, true, but paper books have paper costs proportional to the size and quality of the binding.  There are no such proportional costs related to the electronic storage and distribution of ebooks. 

    I don’t expect ebooks to be cheap, but I won’t pay inflated prices that are based on paper models of distribution—and $9.99 is not the floor for good quality ebooks of the average novel or nonfiction book that is published today.

    As an aside, price isn’t the only factor I use to choose purchases—the available eformat and presence or absence of DRM is a big factor in my choices.



  16. i think ebooks should be available below 5$. my dream price of ebooks for which i wont think twice is 1.99$

  17. I think Fictionwise has a good pricing structure – and even better right now, when they’re having a big anniversary sale.

    My paper publisher sells two of my titles in trade paperback for $20 and another for $17.50. Fictionwise sells e-book editions of all three for $7.99 – discounted to $4.00 during the sale.

    Two smaller books sell for $7.50 in print; Fictionwise has one at $3.20 ($2.30 on sale) and the other at $2.99 ($2.09 on sale).

    Another benefit of Fictionwise is that they sell individual short stories as well. Mine range from 49 cents (34 cents on sale) to $1.35 (95 cents on sale).

    Of course, Fictionwise was recently bought by Amazon, so all this may change.

  18. The fact is, ebooks have got to come down in price, period. If I can buy a hardcover of an older book at the local Books-A-Million for $6 on their bargain tables, why would I spend $10 on the ebook version? If ebooks were at least across-the-board cheaper than paperbacks, it would be a better investment.

  19. Rick York // May 28, 2009 at 5:53 pm //

    Basically, look at the prices the deep discounters (Amazon, B&N, Costco) place on new books.  They generally knock off about 40%.  For very popular books, say Harry Potter, they’ll knock off up to 60%-65%, but those really are loss leaders.

    People who think all books should be $1-$5 need to look at authors’ revenue.  I’d bet that 95%+ of all books sell under 10,000 copies.  If you want to keep reading the authors you love, you need to help them make a living.  And, $1 a book just won’t do it.  Every book an author writes would have to sell around 50,000-100,000 copies.  That’s just not realistic.  $5 gets you into a realistic range, assuming no middleman.  But, how do you think the book tours of people like Charlie Stross or Neil Gaman are paid for?

    Now, the Jonathon Coulton approach, applied to books, might work, in the long run.  But then, in the long run we’ll all be dead.

    So, as little as I like it, $9.99 sounds reasonable.

    Hey everyone out there, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY!!  And, borrow more books from it.

    Rick York – “geezer geek”

  20. Most of my friends haven’t been turned on to e-books yet because they don’t fancy reading off a computer screen.  I think that’s currently the biggest obstacke to the e-book business, despite the recession. Several publishers that publish strictly in electronic format tend to sell for under $5, but are sales are still down. It’s the current e-book lovers that are spending less, but the paper-book readers aren’t crossing over just yet.

    I’ve read a suggestion elsewhere that if Amazon (or anyone who sells electronic ebook readers) would do what Microsoft did, and give out their Spindle at a rediculously low price, or free with a certain number of e-books (or something like that), that would bump the e-book industry over the hurdle and into the mainstream. The recession would be an ideal time to do that, as that would attract people who are addicted to reading, but can’t afford expensive paperbacks.

  21. I don’t read e-books generally, so probably no price will work for me.  When authors I might like post books for free I tend to read a couple chapters and then go buy the print book if I like it enough to want to read more.

    I suppose with that sort of metric in mind, I’d pay a dollar for an ebook since it would be me risking a buck to see if Iwant to go spend 8 on the paperback.  (In fact, I believe it was JA Konrath who had a book of his up for 99 cents, which I bought and then have since bought his newest work in print).

    But I just can’t stand reading anything of length on a screen, so I’m probably not the target audience.


  22. Anonymous // May 29, 2009 at 10:33 am //

    @ David

    “On the other hand, what I hate is price-gouging.  The list price for the paperback edition of The Year’s Best SF 14 is $7.99, while the list price of the digital edition is $14.99.  That is unconscionable.”

    The publisher is doing this to discourage ebooks.  They don’t want them for multiple reasons.  The two biggest being:

    1)  Bureaucracy – Any enterprise with more than 10 people becomes a bureaucracy.   A bureaucracy tries to protect itself at all costs.  It doesn’t matter if this is good for anyone and it might even be bad for themselves, but bureaucracies don’t function on logic.  Thus, the publishing industry is doing the same thing the music industry did.  The end result will be failure.

    2)  Competition – It will be far easier to do a start-up ebook company (or self publish) than a traditional publishing company.  Plus, as an ebook company, if you are good at marketing, you might not even have to use an intermediary like Amazon, and you definitely won’t need Barnes and Noble, to sell your product.  Just take a look at Wil Wheaton.  He seems to do ok with self-published stuff marketed from his website. 


    Concerning a price point for ebooks; I wouldn’t go over $10.  Why would I pay more than that, when I pay less than that for new paperbacks?  If authors do this right they can make more money on the ebook process than on the old process.  Maybe instead of a 400 page novel for $10 you sell a series of 5 100 page stories for $3 a piece.  It isn’t set in stone that the novel is the ideal way to go.

  23. “On the other hand, what I hate is price-gouging. The list price for the paperback edition of The Year’s Best SF 14 is $7.99, while the list price of the digital edition is $14.99. That is unconscionable.”

    The publisher is doing this to discourage ebooks. They don’t want them for multiple reasons.”


    Well, we don’t want malaka publishers like this!  If they take the ostrich approach, hopefully they die. 🙂

  24. The ‘I’ll give it a shot’ price is probably about $5 in monopoly money.

    More if I really, really think it will be good.


    The really old cheesy not very good stuff, $3-4.

  25. Hm.  May  I ask why you stopped getting books from second hand stores?  9.99 is pretty high for a book in my opinion.  I use sites like <a href=’’></a> or a site like <a href=’’>Compare-Books</a>. to get books siginificantly cheaper than that, often just the price of shipping it.  The only real benefit from e-books for me would be the instant delivery.

  26. I haven’t really stopped getting books from secondhand stores, but I have slowed down a bit.  The mathematics is killing me.  I own more books than I can reasonably read in my lifetime, at my current reading rate.  Plus, with publishers sending is review copies, well, that just makes it seem like buying books specifically to put in storage.  (Whine, whine, whine…Everyone should have my problems, eh? :))

  27. I own ebook reader Sony PRS-505 but I’ve never bought any ebooks for it because they are too expensive. I read what I find in the Internet, sometimes convert books to a proper format using

    And I’m not going to buy a single ebook until they lower prices to $2-$5 range. Then I WILL buy, as well as I buy iPhone software now.

  28. Hi! I buy e-books by 2 dolars! Almost any ebook i want! And read them on Kindle! Was a great choice. I’m happy with the price!

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