“How much should books cost?” and other misleading questions

If you have a Kindle, as I do, you’ve come across complaints in the pages of Amazon.com about the “outrageous Kindle price.” Most of the time, as you know, that price is $9.99.

In my earliest encounters with this all-too-common complaint, I wondered whether there was a groundswell of concern for the financial health of Amazon.com, which I’m told pays an average of about $13 for those self-same books. After all, if you lose $3 on every sale, you can’t make it up on volume.

But, no. In my naivete, I had failed to consider the possibility that book-buyers would think $9.99 was too much to pay for a book priced at $25-30 retail. Although the logic of this position escapes me, it appears to be common among Amazon’s customers. Somehow, the logic seems to go, a book whose physical manifestation consists exclusively of electrons should cost . . . well, how much, really? $8? $5? Less? After all, the publisher doesn’t have to pay for paper, printing, and binding. Nor does it face the costs of storage, distribution, and returns, right?

It’s hard to imagine that any of these kvetsches has ever tried to run a business of any sort, much less a publishing company. The reality is, as anyone in publishing will tell you, a new book — admittedly, not an out-of-copyright title — involves . . . guess what? . . . a lot of work, and somebody’s got to pay for that. Start with the writer. Then consider the editor (sometimes more than one), the proof-reader, the typographer, the designer, the marketing staff, and don’t forget the people who supervise all these often-temperamental individuals. It turns out that the cost of paper, printing, and binding (called “PPB”) in the argot of the publishing industry, is relatively minor. Perhaps $3-4 for a fat hardcover book. Storage, distribution, and returns collectively may amount to more than PPB, but they vary greatly with volume and thus with the popularity of a title. If the book in question is a best-seller, and the author has an established name, the royalty may amount to all the printing and distribution costs combined. And publishing jobs don’t command high salaries, to say the least, but I haven’t heard of any starving editors lately. Add these real costs up, even factoring out the costs of manufacturing and shipping a physical product, and you’re likely to find that they amount to more than that $9.99 we typically pay for new books on Amazon.com.

It turns out, though, that some of these folks think $9.99 is an outrageous price because . . . books should be free! Now, perhaps I misunderstood something along the way, but I distinctly recall reading a comment by one customer who bragged that she had acquired more than 200 books on her Kindle that were absolutely free! It’s true, of course, that I’ve come across free book offers in the Kindle section, and I’ve picked up a few myself — generally, classic titles that have long been out of copyright. But I find myself pondering what my reading experience would be like if I limited myself to free books. Something like wandering the streets of a college town and picking out books from the boxes of stuff left behind by students at the end of a semester. Interesting concept, eh? I wonder what that would be like.

But I’m not wasting a lot of time and energy on that thought. I’ll pay for my books, and as long as Amazon is able to force publishers to let them sell most titles at $9.99, I’ll be grateful.


Filed under Commentaries, FAQs & Commentaries

2 responses to ““How much should books cost?” and other misleading questions

    • If you mean, how does Amazon swallow $3 per book, the answer is, they lose money as part of their strategy (successful, so far) to dominate the e-book market. But I think you mean how do readers find so many free books. There are actually lots of them on Amazon.com. The problem is, it takes a lot of looking to find them. Maybe “they” have the time to look. I don’t. I’d also rather choose my books by other criteria.

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