/ Technology

Ebook buyers ripped-off by publisher’s prices

Woman reading ebook

Amazon sold more Kindles in 73 days of this year’s Christmas season than it did in the whole of 2009. It’s a massive success, and appears to have cornered the ebook market. There’s a problem, though – agency pricing.

Normally retailers, be they online or high-street stores, set their own prices. Distributors and manufacturers can ‘suggest’ prices (MSRP), but retailers can ignore these if they so choose. It’s called competition, and it’s a good thing.

Until recently this was the case with ebooks, and Amazon had been selling them at prices slightly below hardback and paperback versions. As you don’t get a physical copy, just a digital file, this makes perfect sense.

Then ‘agency pricing’ came along. This is when publishers set the price. Big publishing names (such as Macmillan and Penguin) have catalogues large enough to make them powerful and they’ve demanded to set the prices. Unfortunately they’re high – too high.

Putting a price on convenience

A glance at Amazon’s bestsellers list is revealing. Some top-selling titles are set ridiculously high. For instance, ebook biographies from Stephen Fry (prices pictured below) and Michael McIntrye both sell for £12.99 – around £4 more than the paperback and hardback versions.

Prices of The Fry Chronicles

These are two extreme examples – there are still plenty of books unaffected by such practices, but look hard enough and you’ll find many ebooks, old and new, with unrealistically high prices.

So are the publishers to blame? Yes and no. Yes, the publishers are clearly using strong arm tactics here – they know Amazon wants ebooks to be successful, so have used this against them. However, Amazon isn’t totally innocent either.

It’s been the dominant player in book retailing for a long time, and by many accounts has misused this power in the past by demanding greater and greater discounts.

It looks increasingly likely that Amazon and the Kindle have corned the market in the same way that iTunes and iPod have with digital music. So it’s understandable the publishers are afraid of its power, even if their response is short-sighted.

The consumer is the loser

While Amazon, publishers and other ebooks stores (among them Waterstones and The Book Depository) squabble, it’s consumers who are losing out – doubly so given the restrictions put on ebooks. It’s conceivable the market will decide – Amazon insists affected ebooks have seen lower sales since the change – but it’s anyone’s guess how long this will take.

There are also legitimate arguments and discussions to be had about the future of publishing, and how to protect the income of authors.

One thing is for certain, though: agency pricing is not the answer.


Ebooks are also subject to VAT whereas hard copy books are not – I have no idea why.
This means they will increase in price even more in January.
I purcahsed a Kindle for a number of reasons and hoped I would manage (eventually) ro recoup the cost of buying it.
Doesn’t look as if that is going to happen anytime soon!
Frankly, I’m appalled at the prices of some ebooks – yes, there are freebies but most are books I read many years ago!


The reason I haven’t bought a Kindles yet is the price of both machine and files –

I have nearly 3000 books at home (avid reader) so I’ll never really get tired of reading the ones I have – and Ebay is an excellent resource for books – many either new or indistinguishable from new – some almost as cheap as their cover price of 2/6d – and includes post and packing.

I sometimes wonder why we need an electronic gadget to read a book – A real book is small – very portable and can virtually be read anywhere.

cr0ft says:
15 December 2010

Try traveling and hauling 20 books along and the book doesn’t seem like such a portable format anymore…

Ellie Peabody says:
22 December 2010

I bought a kindle because I have poor eyesight and the number of books available in large print is restricted. It is easy to increase the font size on a kindle. I used to be an avid reader but have had to access books via audio books in recent years. The kindle could be great for people with poor sight but the pricing of ebooks is disappointing.


Cr0ff – In all my long Uni days (several degrees) – and my far longer working days (over 40 years) – and my years in the Caribbean. I never had to transport 20 books at one time.- Exactly where do you need to carry 20 books?.

At uni – I bought the required books second-hand cheap – then sold them on when no longer used. The number of reference books I still have in Physics and Pure Maths is still less than 20 – not one is required to travel. At work the books required for rocket guidance systems were readily available in the Laboratory library. The same could be said for Uni Library for Lecturing purposes later.

On holiday I don’t read 20 books. The same for the Caribbean.

In all honesty – when I move homes – I don’t carry 20 books either.

So where is the need to travel and haul books?

As said previously – books both hard and paper back ( particularly second-hand) – are cheap and easy to carry – . And unless I can sell files on – just like books – I won’t be buying files for a Kindle.

I do agree that adjustable font sizes mentioned by Ellie is a boon for poor eyesight – but the price is off putting.

Simon says:
15 December 2010

I’ve recently bought a Kindle, and I simply won’t be buying any ebooks that have stupid prices. I wouldn’t even pay the same price as the print edition for one, let alone more than the print price. It’s partly because of the reduced type of usage you get with ebooks, and partly the fact that you know the ebook version costs basically nothing to distribute so it’s pure profit (and some VAT, as Amazon frequently reminds us).

So far I haven’t in fact paid for any books – I’ve just been reading free ones, of which there are many.


Crucial point, that: ebooks come with significant restrictions (e.g., can’t lend a Kindle book to a friend). And they carry an inherent risk: if the sponsoring company goes out of business, you could lose some or all of your bookshelf simply because their servers go away. They *deserve* a lower price.

Michael Mason says:
25 December 2010

Just to correct JREP – there is now an Amazon application that allows you to lend your Kindle books (for up to 14 days I believe) during which time you won’t be able to read that book yourself. Just like a real lent book in fact – except you will always get it back 🙂