steadily pocketing at least $6,000 per year that I would otherwise be paying in agency commissions. So, despite my murky academic past, I can do math pretty well when it matters to me.
Which brings us back to the oft-stated assumption that the DoJ’s lawsuit will result in lower e-book prices.
In contrast to the anguished cries of doom that have been floating through our industry, I think that’s a good thing—primarily because I believe publishers are pricing books too high for the marketplace. Not just ebooks—all books.
I recognize that publishers have high overheads (staff salaries, production costs, office space, etc.), that the production and distribution of print books is very expensive, and that many of the same costs go into ebooks (editing, copy editing, packaging, marketing). But consumers (including me) don’t base their price-point tolerance on the producer having high overhead expenses. We base our purchases on perceived value. (Or, okay, yes, sometimes on acquisitive obsession and lack of impulse control. But work with me here—today we’re focusing on the “perceived value” argument). And it seems to me that a lot of consumers find publishers’ e-book and print book prices too high.
Despite the fiscal struggles of independent bookstores and the big chains, the two large used bookstores in my area have become so perpetually overcrowded in the past year, I don’t even like to go there anymore.
I can no longer find a day or a time when those stores aren’t jammed with shoppers and when the lines at the cash register aren’t long.
Although there are fewer retail bookstores in my area now than there were before, and the remaining ones have depressingly few customers when I go there, my local library has become as inconveniently overcrowded as my local used bookstores. Despite the installation of half a dozen self-service machines, when I want to check out, I usually have to wait in line behind multiple people carrying armfuls of books.
So I’d say that people here in the thrifty Midwest don’t seem to be reading a lot less print these days; they’re just buying a lot less print at retail prices—because those prices are too high for them.
And I can readily understand that. I haven’t bought a new hardcover since 2010—because they cost too much. Frankly, so do many mass market paperbacks. Rather than replace my vanished backlist books by one of my favorite writers (I made four long-distance moves between 2003 and 2006, and some of my stuff ran away from home each time), I’ve been re-reading those titles via the local library. Much as I love this writer’s work, it’s too expensive to replace those 20 to 30 missing books at the $8.99 price tag that’s on almost every current paperback edition of these books—which novels, all decades old, earned out a long time ago and are now all pure profit for the major house that's also charging $8.99 for almost all of the poorly formatted e-book editions of these titles.
A friend of mine who earns a good salary recently told me that she’s gone back to being a regular library user, as she was in her salad days, because too many of the books she wants to read are too expensive. Her initial addiction to her e-reader has ended for the same reason: She finds the e-book prices (mostly $12.99 to $14.99) too high on the titles she wants to read. She doesn’t care about overhead and production costs.
From her perspective, book prices have simply reached a point where this voracious reader isn’t willing to pay that much for them.
Many consumers, as we know, are also finding their affordable alternative in self-published e-books, which are usually priced between $0.99 and $6. Titles available in that range increasingly include well-packaged, well-formatted e-books by well-known writers—as well as by talented, commercially viable new writers who aren’t under contract with a publisher. This isn’t back-alley garbage (though there’s plenty of that, too); this is strong competition for those consumer dollars. In an increasingly large number of instances, these e-books are as attractive to readers as the e-books that the big publishers are offering, and they’re priced better.
Yes, there will always be readers who will buy a book they want to read at retail price, even when that price is high, instead of borrowing a library copy or waiting until the title is available in used bookstores.
There will always be readers who'd rather read an author’s new, expensively priced book than read (or reread) any of her self-published backlist e-books priced 25-to-75 percent lower than the newest one. But will there be enough such readers in 10 years?—five years? two years?—to sustain multiple large companies trying to stay afloat by clinging to higher prices in a rapidly expanding sea of well-produced e-books (often by the same writers) that are not perceived as too expensive?