Day One Hundred & Twenty

29 Apr

On Friday, C.E. Murphy published a brilliant piece on her blog – “E-book pricing“. In the piece, she goes into detail about the how and why of pricing, with the easy-to-understand comparison to traditional print pricing.

Murphy’s argument is it’s the same material being printed, both electronically and on paper, thus the same work goes into it. The author still has to write. The editor must still edit. The artist must still design an eye-catching cover. (People who refuse to acknowledge that they ABSOLUTELY DO judge books by their covers really get on my nerves. Alas, a topic for another day.) The designer must still make sure the words line up properly. The same amount of work goes into the book, so why shouldn’t it cost the same?

And there is the loudest argument among readers. It’s not being printed on dead trees – dead trees and ink and printing presses and book binders cost money – that amount of money should be shaved off the price of the electronic version. Right?

Well, sort of. It’s true that paper and ink and presses cost money. It’s just not a significant percentage in the grand scheme. To reference Murphy’s article (which you should just go ahead and read. It’s short and brilliant and you’ll learn stuff),

“…bookstores pays the publisher $7.50 for that $14.99 book, which means all of the above[*] is coming out of the $7.50 a publishing house is getting paid for that book. Subtract 20% of that $7.50 for printing costs[**], and appreciate that publishing is *not* a get-rich industry.”

* The previously mentioned cost of writing the book, editing it, designing the cover, etc.

** Based on her personal invoices from her publisher.

So, from her example, it costs about $3.00 to print each book that sells for $14.99 at your neighborhood Barnes & Noble. The publisher has to pay the author, editor, designer, artist, marketing department, etc. out of the remaining $4.50. Per book. If they sell 50,000 copies, fabulous! If they only sell 1,000? Well, if they’re a huge publishing house like Penguin or Random House, they pay everyone anyway and take the profit loss on the assumption that other books will make up the slack.

What that means for e-books is that all of the same people have to be paid, with the single exception of the printers. Why do e-books still cost $10 and $15, when there is no paper involved? Because it still has to be written, edited, designed, and sold. Barnes & Noble and Amazon take their cut regardless of the books medium.

This is the biggest argument I have with people who complain about the cost of e-books. Just because you cut out one step in the long publishing process doesn’t mean you should be able to get a best-seller on your Kindle for $1. Sure, you’ve eliminated the paper, but you haven’t eliminated any of the other steps, any of the other things that cost money and make the book worth reading.


As a quick experiment, I clicked over to Barnes & Noble to see what the going rate for a best-seller from a well-known author is. Stephen King published a new book in the Dark Tower series this week, The Wind Through the Keyhole. According to the website, the hardcover is 309 pages long, making it a short-to-mid length novel. Using Murphy’s numbers, we can guess that of the $27 (full retail price): $13.50 goes to Barnes & Noble, $5.40 goes to the printer, and $8.10 goes to the publisher to be distributed to King, his editor, the cover artist, the designer, the marketing team, and the legal department. The e-book of the same title costs $12.99. Remember, if all we cut from the cost of production is $5.40, this e-book should cost $21.60.

In November of last year King published 11/22/63, a stand-alone thriller that is 864 pages long, putting it firmly in the long novel category. Full cover price is $35, making the printing cost $7 per book. The e-book version from B&N is $16.99. Again, if all we cut was the cost of printing, the e-book should be $28.


Murphy’s point, and mine as well, is that e-book pricing is tricky. There are more factors than most people realize, more steps, more expenses that go into deciding the final price. I find it interesting how perception shifts when you know the numbers behind the numbers. For me at least, it put several things about book publishing in perspective. I’d be excited to see what you think about all of this. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted by on April 29, 2012 in Discussion


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