Why Do Ebooks Cost So Much?

I got pulled into an online discussion yesterday regarding ebook pricing. Let me start by saying I’ve never seen objection from my readers regarding  the price they’ve paid for the books. This was in reference to someone who couldn’t believe I (and Mark Lawrence & Anthony Ryan) charge so much for our books (even though we don’t set the price, but that’s a different matter).  They stated, “Sell the book for $5 like a man, and quit taking advantage of poor readers.”

Anyway, the subject of ebook pricing comes up often and I must say it has long baffled me—not why they cost so much, but why so many people think they do.

I had lunch at Chipotle after the subject was brought up. A burrito and a soft drink cost me about $10. A movie ticket costs between $8 and $14, but to own a copy it will run from $15 to $30. A pair of jeans cost $30 bucks, a T-shirt $20, a pair of shoes $60. Ebooks tend to range mostly between $0.99 all the way up to as much as $14.99, but most range between $5 and $10. After reading the above question for the second time I had to double check Amazon’s numbers to make certain ebooks hadn’t jumped up substantially —but $5—$15 for many hours (or week’s worth) of entertainment? Sounds like a deal to me.

The idea behind the question, as I understand it, is: since no printing is involved, or any other out of pocket expenses in the form of raw materials, why aren’t ebooks free (or something very close to it) If authors don’t have to invest money to create the product, why charge people to read it? I wonder if these same individuals assume a lawyer, psychologist, home inspector, or tax preparer should also not be paid? After all they don’t invest any money in the services they provide. An argument might be made that these people invested money in their education or in the cost of maintaining an office. But don’t authors do the same?

Perhaps it is the bizarre notion that anyone can sit down at anytime and write a novel—no education, no practice needed, and ignore the costs incurred from rent, mortgages, heating and cooling, books, seminars, software, travel, etc. that those serious about a writing career incur. But what about the editing? What about the cover art? Even ebooks need these, and they aren’t cheap. So, of course, there are investment costs even in an ebook—quite a bit actually by the time you add up the multiple editing, layout work, the art, and then the months or years of promotion and marketing that goes into getting a book noticed.

Authors travel across the country promoting their work, doing signing as bookstores, conventions, and other events. So there is the cost of entering these events, the cost of travel, the cost of hotels, and the time lost from their day jobs, and the cost of ads (if they or their publishers run them), the cost of making swag such as bookmarks, bookplates  and postcards to help prompt the book. Authors can easily invest several thousand dollars in a single book. Given that a great many authors don’t sell more than 5,000 copies (and that’s considered pretty good in the industry even if you’re traditionally published), and that Amazon takes 30-70% off the top, it is very likely the writer will not recoup their out-of-pocket investment.

But that’s not why I am writing this. For even if it really didn’t cost a writer any money to write a book it still costs time.

I write novels very quickly, and still it takes me about three or four months to do a rough draft. Then it takes several months to edit to a state clean enough to send out. Then there is all the hours that others pour into the book, my wife (who is my first pass structural, line, and copy editor), at least one and usually three copy editors, a proof reader, and of course the layout people.

Given the amount of time and effort I put into my novels, given the decades I invested in learning how to write, given risks that I took in abandoning other safer paths to making a living in favor of a risky career as a novelist, I should be charging $500 per book. Of course that’s ridiculous—not because the effort isn’t worth it, but because the market won’t bear it. No one will pay $500 for a novel when they can get an iPhone for the same price.

So let’s forget the “book” because that appears to be the stumbling block here. How much is the “story” worth to you? If no expenses at all are incurred by the author, if the story he/she created could be transmitted directly into your brain, does it have worth? And if it does, then it doesn’t matter what format it comes in. The delivery system—be it ink or electronic—is irrelevant. It’s like stating that the packaging should determine the price of a product. Packaging can add to that cost of a product, but that isn’t the source of the cost. You’re paying for the story—and a story has intrinsic value, and I would propose that this value is at least as much as a inexpensive lunch.

Granted you can’t eat a book, which brings me to my next point: books are luxury items. You don’t need books to live. No author is taking advantage of anyone by charging money for their work, because you don’t need to buy it. This isn’t like car insurance, food, or clean water. If it costs too much to buy a book—don’t. You won’t die. You don’t even have to miss out on reading it. There are places out there called libraries, which allow you to read books for free! Do you know why? Because once upon a time, books were expensive—really, really expensive, like more than a month’s wages. They cost so much and were so rare that Ben Franklin created The Library Company of Philadelphia so that he and other men of means could pool their resources and obtain books that they could share. We have libraries because we see the value of books and know there are still people who can’t afford them.  We are willing to subsidize the right for all people to have access to the written word. That’s a pretty amazing notion.

Given that:

  • Most ebooks rarely cost more than a ball-park hotdog.
  • You don’t need to have them to live.
  • You can read the story for free from a local library or borrow them from your friends and family.
  • The upfront time investment required to develop one’s skill to produce a high-quality read is extremely high.

 

I hope you can understand my bewilderment at the suggestion that ebooks are priced too high. Personally I think a novel length work should never be less than $5. To me, 100,000 words is worth at least a fiver.

But note I say that should be the “base cost.” To that you can add on paying a bit more for a story you really want to read (people obviously will pay more for Stephen King or J.K. Rowling than they will for “Joe Newbie” author). Also there is a premium for getting the book right away, which is why initial releases are more expensive hard covers and the lower-priced paperbacks come later.  For instance, Age of Myth just released with a list price of  $26 for hardcover ($12.99 for ebook) and will be $9.99 for the paperback release in January 2017 (at which time the ebook will also decrease in price).
Ultimately the price of the book is what the market will bear. The more you appeal to readers, the more you can charge, but you have to be mindful not to charge too much or you’ll tip that precarious balance between supply and demand, and readers will simply leave you for other authors because you’re being greedy. Asking $10 – $15 for a book that entertains for more than a full day, (or as much as a week, or month, depending on your reading speed) seems like a wonderful deal.

All of this is irrelevant if you’re traditionally published. As I said, the author doesn’t control the price. (Something that many don’t seem to know). And given there is additional overhead involved with a traditionally published book, it’s not surprising that they cost a bit more than most self-published titles.

Years ago, when I first started trying to get published I was called by an “agent” who had only read the first page of my manuscript, but had only one question for me, “I just need to know if you’re willing to go on the Tonight Show and the other talk shows on the circuit, because I don’t want to waste my time with someone who won’t. I’m not interested in someone who isn’t as serious about his career as I am.” I hung up on him. Then I looked the guy up and learned he charged aspiring writers $3000 a year for his “services.” Like a Stephen King monster, he was a shyster preying on the dreams of authors. Many times this “agent” was successful because people so badly want to succeed in this industry. They’re willing to do anything, whether that is giving books away for free, or paying a guy who promises to get them on the Tonight Show. Refusing to pay writers for their work or complaining that a novel isn’t worth at least  $5 – $15 is another way people destroy those dreams.

So if you like novels, consider that a book isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on; the value is the story, and that is a treasure worth paying for…and a steal even at $12 for an ebook.  I’ll step down from my soapbox now and get back to writing.

Profile photo of Michael J. Sullivan
Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan is a speculative fiction writer who has written twenty-five novels and released nine. Eight of his fantasy books (The Riyria Revelations, and The Riyria Chronicles), were published by Hachette Book Group’s Orbit imprint. Hollow World, a science-fiction thriller was released by Tachyon Publications. The first four books of his new series, The First Empire, has sold to Random House’s Del Rey imprint, and the first book is scheduled to be released in the summer of 2016. He can be found on twitter, through his blog www.riyria.com, and on his facebook page and his publisher’s page for the series.

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12 thoughts on "Why Do Ebooks Cost So Much?"

  1. maxicchars says:

    You say ” I wonder if these same individuals assume a lawyer, psychologist, home inspector, or tax preparer should also not be paid?” I think a better comparison would be with a plumber.
    If the plumber comes and does the repairs without having to buy any parts would you expect to pay him just as much as if he did exactly the same job and bought the parts himself?
    I don’t know the exact costs of producing a physical book but they are certainly higher than producing an eBook, so if a paperback costs (say) $9.99 I would expect the eBook to cost at least a couple of dollars less.

  2. I don’t think it’s the overall cost that bugs people, I think it’s when they see the ebook is the same or more expensive than the print. Sure there is a lot of formatting that goes into the eBook, but there is also formating that goes into print.
    Your example above, ‘Age of Myth’, demonstrates this. The paperback is 9.99 and the ebook is 12.99, people mentally think about the cost of printing a paperback book and deduct that from the paperback cost and think that’s what the ebook should be. It might be a false thing to assume, but I think that’s where their logic is at.

  3. Muratcan Şimşek says:

    Ebook pricing was a problem for people living outside USA for a long time, it is no longer so. I live in a much poorer country, Turkey, and I can get ebooks from Google Play cheaper now. You last book costs $7-8 here, and you can’t buy it without a Turkish credit card. I couldn’t do this before printed books, they costed the same everywhere. So, ebooks doess’t really cost so much, they actually enable me to read much more now.

  4. hoppy1913 says:

    I would just like to point out that many ebooks over the price of around $3.99 has lending disabled.

    That is one of my problems with the cost of ebooks. If I spend $10 on a paperback I can loan it to anyone I choose. That same $10 spent on a Kindle version doesn’t allow me to share even once.

    I used to introduce a lot of friends to authors I enjoyed by sharing a book. I can’t do that now.

  5. Julian White says:

    I am more concerned with the availability of ebooks. It’s somewhat absurd that I can order a hard copy of many books from the US but if I try to obtain an ebook of the same title I am often informed ‘Not available in the UK’. I appreciate that there are complex international copyright regulations but this is a situation that needs to be resolved.

    As for price – I’m usually happy with the ebook prices: especially as I’m not paying postage!

    1. michaelsullivan says:

      Interesting to hear you have had quite a bit of problem in that regard. Generally authors sell “World English,” “World Rights,” or Northhe last ca American English rights. Only in the last case should you bump into that, and that’s not very common. That said, there are times when I hear from readers from countries where one of my publishers does have the rights and yet they don’t have access. It has a lot to do with antiquated systems that haven’t been properly updated to know when a right is available in a certain region.

      1. Julian White says:

        I assumed that it was a hang-over from the (loosely) Commonwealth v North American copyright laws. It’s not helped by my living in Canada and using a Kobo (Canadian) ereader which is still registered in England where my account banks… I have the same problem buying for the Kindle app on my PC. As I said it irritates me that I can often purchase a hard copy but not an ebook (or not at anywhere near the price on offer online from US and Canadian publishers’ websites!)

  6. Daniel W Kauffman Jr says:

    Yep People do forget the writer has to buy groceries,. If they want more than one book from them, That said it does seem like the Big 5 are gouging a bit. Or maybe for some reason they don’t like eBooks so they price them up,. Down the line that might lead to a big loss in market share.

    1. michaelsullivan says:

      I don’t think it’s matter of discouraging ebook purchases. They get a higher margin on them then they do print books. I’m sure they are setting the price at what the market will bare, but if the unit volume goes down, they adjust the sales prices too.

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