One-Star Reviews

It is common these days to see e-book of new releases priced about the same as the print version, and not uncommon at all to see the e-books priced almost the same as the hardcovers, despite the fact that e-books take virtually no resources to copy and distribute. This bothers me. A lot.

So, I smiled to see that rash of unhappy people posting one-star reviews on Amazon for e-books priced near the price of physical books. While I have a philosophical problem with reviewing and rating books that haven’t actually been read, I like this protest movement. I think it’s funny. For myself, any book that has the paper and e-book versions priced near each other prevents me from buying either. I just can’t do it.

From a practical standpoint, though the article tries to justify this pricing by pointing out the traditional publishing practice of windowing, where more expensive and profitable hardcovers are released first, and people who want to read the book right away are forced to pay more, and publishers make more. Later, after a year or so, publishers would then release the same book in paperback, with a lower price and a somewhat lower profit per book. Later still, some books would be released in mass-market paperback, for the lowest cost and lowest profit. Overall, this practice was thought to maximize the revenue per book.

The article defends the e-book pricing by saying that publishers don’t want to cannibalize profitable hardcover sales with lower priced e-books, and that changing the windowing model will produce lower revenue.

The first point, that e-books necessarily cannibalize hardcover profits, is mistaken. A hardcover at, say, $20, might have a profit of $4 ($10 wholesale – ~$6 for production/distribution). An e-book priced $4.99 would have roughly the same profit to the publisher. Charging $20 for the e-book is either about two things. First, publishers are trying to preserve paper sales to stay relevant, because their value to authors is in their paper printing and distributing infrastructure. They have a stranglehold on this infrastructure, but it isn’t needed for e-books, which means that authors and readers don’t need publishers for e-books. The second reason for pricing e-books so high is simply raping ignorant customers with a bald-faced money grab. Neither of these things is worth doing.

The article’s second point, about damaging the windowing pricing model, doesn’t hold water, either. There is nothing about e-books to prevent windowing (nor any particular reason why that might be the best approach, though that’s a different subject). To practice windowing with the traditional hardcover/paperback/mass-market release structure, a publisher could simply match the profits of each with the e-book versions, with e-book prices starting at $4.99 and falling to $3.99, then $2.99 (or less).

All in all, though, I’m happy to see publishers putting out high-priced e-books. They will turn customers away to more sensibly priced books, like mine.

And the one-star reviews are funny.