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Chip O'Brien

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Why New Books Don't Sell on the Kindle: The Price of the Intangible

Posted: 10/07/09 09:26 AM ET

While we've waited for the Kindle to spark a culture-wide switch to e-books, fans of the old paper and binding format have busied themselves with anxious questions: does this spell the end of paper books? Is this the device that will truly -- gasp -- revolutionize the way we read?
Now, it looks as if book publishers are answering: sure -- but only with paperbacks.

Some book publishers now release new titles with the caveat that the e-book versions will be delayed, even indefinitely, so they don't compromise more profitable hardcover sales. The Kindle edition of Harper Collins' Sarah Palin biography Going Rogue will begin sales on December 26th, with only the hardcover edition available for holiday shopping, while Twelve Books has no plans to ever release a Kindle edition of the Ted Kennedy memoir True Compass (current list price $35).

This hasn't endeared the publishers to Kindle readers, most of whom expected the expense of new releases to vanish along with paper and dust jackets. Some vocally boycott Kindle books selling above the $9.99 price point, using Amazon's own tagging system to label books '9 99 boycott' in their catalog. Their argument is that an e-book, little more than an elaborate text file with the ability to show a few black and white pictures, has no visible production costs. Take out the costs of printing, warehousing, and distributing, and the only cost left seems to be the electricity needed to run Microsoft Word.

The cost of an e-book has become such a point of contention because it makes distinct something we haven't had to distinguish until now: the price of content, independent from its medium. When we purchase that new hardcover at an average list price of $25, it's easy to think that most of our dollars pay for paper, binding and gluing, warehouse staff. We're ready to accept these costs because of their tactile results: thick pages, colorful covers, a handsome typeface--in the end, a tangible object, straightforward and perfect at what it does. In its simplest form, though, what we're really buying when we purchase a book is access to a written work, a means of viewing a verbal record. The physicality of paper books has tricked us into thinking we're paying for the cost of the physical object, the pages themselves, when what's really being sold is their words.

The reason this is important? It's clear what a tangible object costs: the slimy salesman at the used car dealership will sell the Corvette with an engine straight out of The Fast and the Furious for more than the Camry salvaged from someone's front lawn. Abstract products sell for whatever people will pay for them at that moment. This relative cost of access already takes place in the paper book marketplace, as demonstrated by the Harry Potter novels' simultaneous rise in demand and price:


  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1998):24.99

  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003):29.99

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007):34.99

According to publishers, the majority of a book's ultimate sales price pays for intangible costs as well: preproduction (editing, graphic design, etc.), marketing, and author royalties and advances. Money Magazine found that these three made up about 77% of a hardcover's production costs. By these numbers, a publisher doesn't save much on an e-book over a paper book: about 23% of existing costs. So maintaining the same profit means a fair price for a $27.95 hardcover in an e-book format would amount to $21.50. Imagine how many '9 99 boycott' tags a Kindle book would receive at that price!

Different pricing needs to match the different emotional, intangible appeals of the two book formats. So: what is the true draw of the Kindle?

The easiest answer is cost savings, but what reader spends $300 and up on a single-purpose machine -- unlike, say, a $300 iPod that also sends text messages, takes pictures, and browses the web -- expecting to save money? Cost savings don't sell the Kindle. Its appeal, much like the appeal of its prime offering, is intangible: ability to look up and download titles at any location with cellphone service, portability, and the irresistible promise of having all the books you've ever wanted in one place, like a thorough and flawless memory bank -- the Holy Grail of every avid reader. Not many readers can afford the buy-in cost of a device that, at its current price point, is suited best to a very specific kind of reader: the kind of avid reader who reads often enough for a $300 reading machine to make sense, who has reason to need the room saved by storing hundreds of titles on a device as thin as a pencil.

With fewer than half of Americans reading regularly (and those readers averaging a modest seven books a year), plus the $250 plus price of every e-reader device so far, book traditionalists have no need to fear the imminent extinction of the paper book. Even those who spring for the Kindle seem to purchase as many paper books as they had before buying the device. But the only way to make new releases profitable on e-readers such as the Kindle is for the reading audience to reevaluate the traditional metrics we've used to measure a book's worth. Past the weight of its pages or the speed of its delivery, a book's value will remain constant, and with a near-constant price, between paper and electronic formats: in its words.