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WTF is... up with e-book pricing?

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Electronic books are a topic that never fails to generate comment on Reg Hardware – most often along the lines of, 'why are they so expensive?'

With the launch of Amazon's Kindle in the UK, many book buyers hoped that e-books would become cheaper. Together with the falling price of readers, and Amazon trumpeting large e-book sales compared to hardbacks, could e-reading finally be about to take off? Or is publishing still an industry fighting to maintain old ways of doing business in the face of new technology?

How much does an e-books really cost?

None of the publishers Reg Hardware spoke to was willing to break down the price of a book to reveal the costs of physical distribution – paper, printing, shipping to bookshops and paying for premium display space there, though some estimates suggest only 10-20 per cent.

Tolkien at Waterstones
Tolkien at Amazon
Tolkien at WHSmith

Taking Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings at Waterstones (top), Amazon (centre) and WH Smiths
Hint: The omnibus version is way better value than the separate editions

But all of them stressed that there is a lot of work that goes into a book before it’s ready for production in any form: finding material, nurturing talent and editing. These are arguments that readers will have heard before, from the music industry when justifying the price of CDs and downloads.

It's worth remembering that unlike musicians, authors are unlikely to make a living from other income streams, most notably performance, so their money has to come from somewhere. When it comes to just how much work publishers do, SF author Charles Stross provides a useful insight into how a book is made. Of the 17 steps to creating a book that he outlines, the majority apply regardless of whether the result is an e-book or a printed one.

There may not, then, be quite as much room for manoeuvre as some buyers think. Yet it’s clear that many publishers want to reap the rewards from high-margin hardback sales for as long as they can, an approach that pricing e-books at paperback levels would undermine. Better, they think, to cut prices only when the paperback goes on sale.

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