On Ebooks and pricing

I’m an avid reader. And I’ve got quite a collection of books. But apart from some pdfs I bought at rpgnow and some I’ve got from humblebundle, I bought exactly one ebook on the internet.

One reason for this is DRM. I can’t stand it, and I vote with my boots. I will never support such a completely consumer-hostile scheme, not with my money, and I even try to boycott the most egregious abusers of it by not buying their other products as well. Amazon for instance. There are of course some other abuses producers can indulge in which might want me to boycott them, like lobbying for extensions of copyright or ripping of the academic communities with journals and other such rent-seeking activities. But I won’t go into detail here; if buying a book is not as easy as can be or the book has antifeatures like DRM, you can stop right now, you’ve already lost.

Another reason is price. I’m very well aware that producing an ebook has a lot of the same fixed costs as one on paper has, but still, ebooks are much, much too expensive. The one thing that most people seem to forget, is that while ebooks have the same fixed costs (basically the writer and the editor; see Charlie Stross‘ Blog for details) there are practically no costs associated with the individual file you sell. So that base price of the individual unit which came beforehand from printing, stock and distribution, falls away, what remains is the amount for writer, editor, marketing, etc. which can be spread out over as how many units you like.

The question is, where actually is the “right” price for ebooks (and movies, by the way, which also seem to be much too expensive)?

The facts to keep in mind are: Budget and time are constrained on the buyers side. For most books, the things that tell stories are the immediate competition: Movies and computer games, But basically everything else that entertains people is competing with books, like forums and blogs and other places of discourse on the internet. And the public domain will also compete with newer books. Also, while people can (and will, no matter of copyright) share books with their friends they can’t actually resell them and recoup some of the money they spent. So the price needs to be rather low, to compete with all the other offerings, with public domain books, and with used books on paper.

Now, I’ve noticed from my behaviour regarding computer games, that I actually bought a lot of games I already had again, at gog.com or steam. Why? Mostly because they were cheap. With some autumn- summer- and christmas-sales, I’ve just about re-bought all the computer games I’ve already had.

This leads me to the conclusion of what the “sweet price” for ebooks is: The price where I can re-buy all the books I’ve ever had on paper or ever read within the space of maybe a year or two. In my case, that’s probably around 2000 books, some of which I’ve gotten for SFR 1 at garage sales, some I lent out from libraries, some I bought at retail price. The price for all of them should probably be below SFR 10’000; and with the SFR 1 paper ones as measuring stick, probably not a lot more than that. Say between SFR 1 and 4 (one swiss franc, by the way, is slightly more than a dollar nowadays).

Of course, you won’t want to make every book this price; you might want to put prices of popular ones more towards SFR 4 and unpopular ones more towards SFR 1, and of course, for new releases you want to have prices rather towards the prices of the paper version, SFR 15 maybe. Still, even new releases should have prices markedly lower than the paper version, since you really don’t have to take any logistics into account. Plus, you might want to have sales with huge discounts, and bundles, like “all the works of Isaac Asimov for SFR 30”. Take a look at steampowered.com around christmas, and you’ll see what I mean.

Exactly the same thinking can of course be applied to other digital goods, like movies and television series. I suspect the prices there could be a bit higher, maybe something around SFR 3-10 for movies, and maybe SFR 1-4 for single episodes, or SFR 10-20 for whole series. And again, newer ones priced above that, And bundles (“all the James Bond movies for SFR 50”).

The main point here is: There is a price that is so low, people will buy these things just to have them (or even fear that “it will cost more after this sale”), regardless of whether they even get around on reading or watching them. Just for the sake of collecting. Because they remember them, or because they’ve heard about that author and plan on reading something of him some time in the future. It doesn’t even matter if they already have gotten that book from a friend, for free. And, most importantly, it doesn’t matter if they will even find the time to read it; or even expect to find the time.

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