Ether for Authors: eBook Prices at Rock Bottom

By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson


From January 29, 2013

An excerpt from my series of Ether for Authors columns on pub­lish­ing at Publishing Perspectives, appear­ing Tuesdays.


Penny Ante: The UK’s Rock-Bottom Ebook Pricing

“Obviously I would support individual price promotions that boost an author’s readership, but if we just go to rock bottom, it is not supportable. At the moment retailers take the hit, but if this becomes the price of ebooks they won’t continue to, and then it is authors who will suffer.”

Ursula Mackenzie

That’s Ursula Mackenzie, president of the UK’s Publishers Association. She’s quoted by The Bookseller’s Joshua Farrington and Lisa Campbell in their story, Fears for long-term over 20p ebooks.

And what’s playing out here is a darkening chapter in the ebook pricing saga that means, as The Bookseller Editor Philip Jones writes, “20p has already become the new £1.”

Philip Jones

In his deftly headlined blog post Penny dreadful, he writes:

The promotion was started by Sony last summer, and went largely unnoticed until Amazon began to price-match. Then it was seen as something of a flash in the pan, affecting a small number of titles from a small number of medium-sized publishers. Even now, some mischaracterise it as an Amazon push, while others downplay its impact.

Jones and his staff, however, are working to alert the community to the fact that it may be getting more than its money’s worth in trouble on this open-ended “promotion” driven by Sony.

Jones, emphasis mine:

One problem has been trying to ascertain the size of the 20p footprint. But the more numbers we see concerning the ebook market, the bigger the problem appears to be. My working estimate is that the 20p promotion might now account for 15% of all ebooks sold [in the UK] — roughly as big as the self-publishing market (the consequences of which remain much discussed).

And in his post at The FutureBook, The 20p ebook is starting to reshape the ebook market, Jones outlines how serious the effects of this bargain-basement pricing could be, again with my emphasis:

At the moment the top five ebooks selling in the UK via the Kindle store are priced at 20p. Canongate says that Life of Pi is racking up sales of 10,000 every day, meaning that even at a conservative measure of the other titles’ relative performances, we might be talking about 10% of the overall ebook market that is books selling at 20p.


Laura Hazard Owen

Ironically — and about what in publishing these days can we not say “ironically?” — Laura Hazard Owen, paidContent’s lead on the industry! the industry! has just looked at the world of periodicals and their own pricing saga in What digital magazines can learn from ebook publishers.

Owen’s comparative overview finds “a number of publishers charging more for tablet editions than print,” and includes a section on promotional pricing that could make even 20p look better than nothing:

The good news for magazine publishers is that, with their digital revolution in the early stages, they can learn from those who came before them. The bad news is that many magazines are more threatened by free online content than most books are.

Joshua Farrington

She rightly cites the experiences of many self-published authors:

Countless self-published authors have found that offering their books at initially very low prices is a great way to gain new readers: When the barrier to entry is low, readers are more likely to take a chance on an unknown name.

While Owen concedes, “This strategy is working less well as the ebook revolution progresses” — noting that “there’s a sea of self-published books out there — she’s nevertheless talking about a limited-time strategy.”

Lisa Campbell

And what has so many red flags flying on the Sony 20p pricing scheme — rightly described by Jones as “one of the more curious price strategies, even for a sector that is no stranger to selling its most desirable products at a loss” — is twofold:

  1. These are best-sellers moving at these prices; and
  2. For something called a “promotion,” the 20p pricing approach applied by Sony and matched by Amazon shows no signs of ending.
Tim Godfray

Farrington and Campbell quote Tim Godfray, chief of the UK’s Booksellers Association:

“Obviously I would support individual price promotions that boost an author’s readership, but if we just go to rock bottom, it is not supportable. At the moment retailers take the hit, but if this becomes the price of ebooks they won’t continue to, and then it is authors who will suffer.”

And this could be one of the very real consequences of the long-running so-called 20p “promotion” that seems to have no end.

The Half-Life of Hannah author Nick Alexander calls the 20p phenomenon “a real noose around everyone’s neck,” telling The Bookseller about his experience in pricing the book at Amazon:

Nick Alexander

“The Top 10 is totally dominated by 20p ebooks [as Amazon’s algorithms match Sony’s 20p pricing — remember, this is not instigated by Amazon]. With a couple of exceptions, the only chance to get there is to put a book at that price. It means I only get 10p for each book, when my books would usually be priced higher and I could receive more.”

Ten pence for each book.

Just take that in for a moment. In US currency? Fifteen cents. The author is making 10p (15 cents) per copy.

In the States, Digital Book World’s latest look at what it estimates to be 25 best-selling ebooks currently sees the average pricing to be around $8.30. That weekly totting-up of where things stand may offer, more than anything, a look at just how drastically a low-ball price can affect the overall averages.

For example, in the week ending January 19, the DBW Top 25 list’s upper-end books included three going for $12.99 and one (Brad Meltzer’s new The Fifth Assassin) going for $12.74.

Two ebooks at $1.99, however, and a rock-bottom entry at 99 cents — Addison Moore’s shirtless-men-kissing-beautiful-women erotic romance, Someone to Love, of course — so forcefully lowered the overall pricing of the group that it’s hard to know whether we’re learning anything from such gauges.

In London, Faber & Faber chief Stephen Page appears sanguine on the matter, telling The Bookseller:

“Aggressive short-term pricing is one thing, but in the long term most ebooks are priced sensibly. We think some very sensible pricing is emerging. There’s a recognition that digital is different to physical, but people realise that doesn’t always mean digital is lots cheaper‚ the intrinsic value is in the copyright.”

Stephen Page

It might be interesting to ask readers what they think of the value of a copyright, actually. I wonder how many of them have ever considered a copyright at all, let alone its value, in relation to books they read.

It certainly is interesting to read The Bookseller report that “Faber has seen several of its titles sold at 20p and its ebook sales grew by 260 percent by value in 2012, well ahead of averages across the industry.”

Asked if Faber might consider withdrawing its titles from Sony’s 20p deal, Faber and Page declined to comment.

And, as Jones concludes:

If this persists, in 2013 as the rate of volume growth accelerates, the rate of value growth will continue to diminish. The consumer will be paying less for more. Significantly less, for significantly more, in fact.

Join us for the rest of this column at Publishing Perspectives.

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