Some rights reserved by Jonas Tana

Some rights reserved by Jonas Tana

When your browse any of the big online bookstores these days you’ll find both books by independent publishers and traditional publishing houses (“Big Five”). One of the main differences between them lies not necessarily in the quality of writing, editing and cover design — many indies are commissioning professional designs and hiring their own editors — but in pricing.

Yes, that’s right. Some independently published books are becoming so professional that to the reader they are virtually indistinguishable from traditional publications — if only there weren’t that wide gap between their price tags.

As a rule of thumb many independent ebooks range from about $5 at the upper end to the sweet spot of $2.99 and all the way down to the piling $0.99 penny pit. Traditionally published ebooks on the other hand rarely cost less than $10 and almost never cross the $5 threshold at the lower end.

This traditional pricing structure is not much of a mystery, since it more or less mirrors the existing mass market paperback structure. However, what always struck me about the pricing habits of indie publishers is the similarity to the prices of smartphone and mobile apps. There are millions of apps for $0.99, $1.99 and $3.99, but the closer we get to the $5 mark it becomes increasingly less crowded.

Is it just a coincidence that the average Angry Birds clone and any random young adult novel about werewolves both are in the $0.99 to $2.99 range? In other words, is the similar pricing of ebooks and apps a result of shared content characteristics or is it simply a byproduct of digital delivery mechanisms?

Well, let’s start with the most obvious. Customers love small prices. By lowering the price of any digital product incrementally towards zero, the publisher hopes to decrease the threshold of impulse purchases. Especially when the book’s author or app’s publisher isn’t well known, lowering prices to an absolute minimum (even free) can be a way of standing out in the endless sea of stuff.

There are billions of apps and ebooks out there all clamoring for the attention of the buyer. The low pricing structure has become a go-to way for new publishers to gain quick exposure. There’s a growing sense that getting a new app or book out there and garnering reviews, word-of-mouth advertising, etc. outweighs any immediate monetization pursuits, especially if there is no previous audience to build on. It’s eyeballs before wallets, showing off before cashing in.

just bits and bytes …

It has been noted many times that these new ways of marketing and pricing are happening in many industries from music to films and ebooks. Digital delivery and distribution systems (Kindle Store, iTunes Music, etc.) are wielding an increasingly large, albeit indirect, power over pricing.

While protesting these growing digital content monopolies may seem noble (and creating alternatives is certainly crucial), perhaps these concerns shroud the actual issue: all these digital products are just data. Whether it’s a Beethoven symphony, a vampire novel or a Candy Crush clone, they are all just bits and bytes, easily stored and replicated.

As I’ve said before, ebooks are basically just software, so it’s unsurprising that they’re subject to similar pricing and marketing models (freeware, shareware, licensing, etc.). While indie publishers are quick to adapt to this new field, traditional publishers are often resisting this change. They still think in pages instead of bytes.

I’m not saying that a 6,000 page ebook should cost the same as a 100 page short-novel. There still should be some correlation between the sheer amount of words and the price you pay. However, perhaps it may also be useful to look at ebooks in terms of file-size. The problem with ebooks, from a piracy-protection standpoint is that they’re so super small. It takes significantly longer to pirate something like a Game of Thrones season or Michael Jackon’s discography than a simple ebook. Even if the literary work was a true doorstopper in its pulpy incarnation, the ebook edition is bound to be just a few kilobytes light.

Am I suggesting that a literary opus like Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg (Magic Mountain) is worth less than a TV season, because it weighs less in data units? Of course not. Mann worked on it from 1912 to 1924, that’s 12 years of hard labor, while a television season is usually produced within one or two years.

It’s simply a new reality writers and publishers have to cope with, that in terms of raw data, their works don’t weigh much more than a couple of cat photos, which (from a software perspective) makes it difficult to justify the same prices as for paperbacks, not even mentioning the fact that there are almost zero production and distribution costs once an ebook is ready to ship.

What to do? New data shows that low price points for ebooks may actually help both authors and readers. Authors get exposure and high volume sales, and readers are happy not to part with too much of their hard-earned cash. In a long-gone world where it was costly and labor-intensive to produce books, volumes were not released often, but when they were, they used to be quite thick. Nowadays, we’re dealing with the opposite situation. This is why many authors are choosing to serialize their work. Instead of publishing one big tome for a proud price every ten years, you can publish many little ones for smaller prices.

We can lament that people aren’t willing to buy overpriced ebooks, pointing to a general decline of reading and literary awareness, while in fact, we’re experiencing a revival of reading and publishing these days, due to renewed availability, affordability and access.