Sookie Skyrockets, But the Joke is On Us

by PocketGoddess on April 1, 2010

And it definitely isn’t funny.

Today is April Fool’s Day, the time for harmless pranks and practical jokes. Usually it’s a lot of fun seeing who can come up with the best joke, and it’s all in good fun if we all have a laugh and nobody gets hurt.

Unfortunately today is also the day that the agency pricing model went into effect for electronic books. It has been discussed a great deal in the blogosphere, so while we knew that big changes were on the horizon, we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.

So I’m sure I’m wasn’t alone yesterday in trying to snap up a few last minute ebook purchases before the big agency pricing changeover. Unfortunately my efforts were largely fruitless, as just about everything I wanted at Fictionwise was removed from the site (and from my wishlist!) well before the deadline. I looked at a few things early yesterday morning, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to purchase and thought I would wait until I got home after work.

Bad move, because everything I wanted was gone. The Star Trek section (yes, I’m a Trekkie) was completely gutted. It wasn’t just that there were higher prices, there just weren’t any Star Trek books to purchase at all. Many other titles such as the Peter Walsh organizing books that I had held off on purchasing because they were still at hardcover prices, even for the ebook editions, were also completely missing from the site. As of this afternoon none of the Star Trek titles have returned, and I can’t even download the books I had previously purchased! When I try, I get a variety of error messages, such as

“The requested eBook title cannot be downloaded at this time due to difficulty in communicating with the retail site. Please try again later.”

and

“The requested eBook title is currently not available for download at this time. This most often occurs when the title has not been released by the publisher for general distribution. Please try again later.”

And then there are the prices. As you can see in the table below, the Barnes & Noble price for the Sookie Stackhouse series of books by Charlaine Harris have literally skyrocketed overnight. Yesterday, the ebook bundle price at Barnes & Noble was under $33. It’s unfortunate that I can’t remember the exact price, but I had seen them often enough in my wish list while considering the purchase to know that it was somewhere between $30 and $33–roughly 40% more than yesterday’s price. The product didn’t change in the least, but the price certainly did! And why are the individual ebooks at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble more expensive than the equivalent prices of boxed sets of physical books?

 

Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series, first 8 volumes Amazon Barnes & Noble
Box Set Bundle Price, Physical $37.38 ($4.67 each) $37.38 ($4.67 each)
Bundle Price, Electronic $31.96 ($3.99 each) $55.99 ($6.99 each)
Individual Price, Physical $7.99 $7.19 (current promotion, otherwise $7.99)
Individual Price, Electronic $6.39 $6.99

 

Let me be perfectly clear when I say that I am not looking for free–just because ebooks are significantly less expensive to produce than physical books I’m not blind to the fact that the author who wrote it and the publisher who edited and marketed it and the vendor who provided it all deserve fair compensation. I also understand that there may be price differences between suppliers, and that smart consumers do their research before making a purchase, but the price difference on the electronic bundle is rather somewhat extreme.

Is all of this a measure of the infancy of the electronic book business when compared to iTunes/electronic music? Michael Mace recently wrote a brilliant piece for his blog on the future of publishing, It’s a fascinating read, and does a far better job than I can do here of explaining many of the pitfalls, practicalities, and possibilities of ebooks. So I’ll leave you to read it at your leisure, and share a few closing thoughts from my perspective as a consumer.

For starters, I will not pay more for an ebook, especially an older title, than I would have to pay for a physical copy of a book. Charging more for an electronic product that incurs no shipping or warehousing cost just makes me feel like I’m being taken advantage of as a consumer.

I might consider paying more for an ebook edition if there is significant extra content such as author interviews, exclusive short stories or other extras, excerpts from upcoming books, or something similar, depending on the author and my level of devotion to their work. But I am not interested in the so-called “enhanced” ebooks that include video, sound effects, or other media. If I want to ‘watch” a book, I’ll just watch a movie.

Second, bestsellers should be $9.99 or less. This isn’t much less than the hardcover book, since they are routinely discounted 40% or more. Current prices at Amazon range from $13.72 to $17.79. If publishers decide they should cost more, I’ll probably wait until the price drops, which is exactly what many folks already follow when purchasing physical books.

For the last several years, before I got my nook, I bought a lot of ebooks from Peanut Press/eReader and Fictionwise, but I was always baffled by their hardcover-equivalent pricing scheme, which usually prompted me to add books to my wish list and wait to purchase them until the physical paperback would come out and the ebook price would drop accordingly.

Third, I don’t want to wait for ebook editions. Several publishers have stated they will delay ebooks for three months to as long as a full year (as is the case with the most recent volume of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, The Gathering Storm, published by Tor!) after the release of hardcover book. This is a very bad idea. You’re simply alienating the early adopters and the fans who might even have spurred hardcover sales of the title by generating buzz and positive word-of-mouth reviews. By the time the ebook comes out they may have moved on to something else entirely (or simply downloaded an illegal copy of the book for free) and never make the purchase at all.

Why not capitalize on that idea and charge a bit more for eagerly anticipated titles? Baen understands this, which is why they price their eARC (electronic advance reading copies) editions of books by popular authors higher than their regular ebooks: $15 instead of the typical $6. Fans will gladly pay more for early access to the latest book by their favorite author, but that pricing scheme doesn’t penalize folks who are willing to wait until the official publication date.

Of course I’ve been singing my praises of Baen/Webscriptions for several years now, and I’m not planning to stop any time soon. Their open policies, reasonable prices, and freely interchangeable multi-format options (including ePub, HTML, RTF, and Mobipocket) that don’t lock me in to a particular device, with no DRM hassles, means that I’ll be happily acquiring a lot more electronic gems from them in the future. It’s a shame that other publishers haven’t taken a page from their book, so to speak.

Finally, the ebook market is small enough at this point that publishers can experiment with what works best. This is the time to try new things such as making the first book in a series free to bring in new readers and drive future sales, bundle physical books with ebook vouchers offering free or heavily discounted access to the electronic edition of the book, release tangential short stories to reward fans and bring in new readers, etc. The possibilities are literally endless.

This is the brave new world of electronic publishing, and it’s time to get with the program. Stop penalizing consumers who want to purchase your products–charge reasonable prices and make it easy for them to use your products, no matter what electronic reading device they happen to own. Get rid of the restrictive DRM schemes that punish the honest consumer and do nothing to stop piracy. Put your energy into advancing the ebook market, instead of throttling it.

Then everyone will win: authors sell more books and generate a wider audience, innovative publishers will flourish, and consumers can get down to the business of reading, whether they prefer physical books or ebooks, without being overcharged or inconvenienced. Change is coming, and it’s easier (and potentially a lot more profitable) to embrace it than to fight it.

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