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Meissner Research Group — Operations Strategy and Pricing Management Blog

The Economics of E-Book Publishing

March 17th, 2010 by Joern Meissner

Customers have a habit of demanding lower prices, especially when they believe a product’s price represents a huge profit for the company. The case in point here is e-books, just one of many digital products facing the e-pricing dilemma.

In recent weeks, thanks to the soon-to-be-released Apple iPad, five of the six major publishers banded together to demand a change in price. Up until now, Amazon, the leading e-book seller, has set most bestsellers at a $9.99 price point, but by making a deal with Apple to price books from $12.99 to $14.99 and threatening to remove their products from Amazon’s online store and it’s e-reader Kindle, the publishers were able to push up the price.

To illustrate why publishers keep pushing for the higher price, the recent New York Times article ‘Math of Publishing Meets the E-Book’ by Motoko Rich broke down standard hardcover book pricing and compared it to the new iPad digital pricing, also suggesting, according to Rich, that “customers have exaggerated the savings and have developed unrealistic expectations of how low the prices of e-books can go.”

A hardcover books costs about $26. After all the production, editing, marketing, and author’s royalties are paid (see graph), the publisher actually only sees about $4.05 in return, but that’s before any of the overhead bills are paid. Compare this to $12.99 digital price. In the new set-up with Apple, the publishers make between $4.56 to $5.54 in profit (see graph).

E-Book Economics

But this profit does not actually represent how much profit a publisher makes off any book. Like movie producers, publishers expect a loss on most of their products. Most books are published and disappear from the bookstore shelves long before the publisher recoups the author’s original advance and the original run’s printing costs. In the end, publishers truly only make money off major blockbuster books, further creeping into the publisher’s profitability.

On the other side of the pricing debate is the booksellers themselves. America only has two major booksellers left: Barnes N Noble and Borders, and many of the smaller independent have started shutting down due to Amazon. If the digital revolution takes hold with book-buying customers at too low a price point, it could also mean the end for traditional printed books, as there won’t be any bookstores left o sell them. Borders has already closed the majority of their stores in the U.K.

Some are advocating that the publishing world should step away from digital publishing and should discourage their customers from buying e-books by setting a high price for them. A similar idea has been put forth to save newspapers, which seems to be failing.

Many, however, realize that trying to hold back the digital revolution simply won’t work. Anne Rice, one of the most popular paranormal and horror writers in the world, said, “The only thing I know is a mistake is people trying to hold back e-books or Kindle and trying to head off the revolution by building a dam. It’s not going to work.” Publishers, a notoriously conservative business as a whole, are going to have to find a way to start looking towards the future, if they want to make their products viable and profitable once more.

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Comments (2):

  1. Cathy Macleod Says:

    For goodness sake! Ebooks are an extra for publishers, not an alternative. We’ve proved it at Booktaste.

  2. Bradley Robb Says:

    “Most books are published and disappear from the bookstore shelves long before the publisher recoups the author’s original advance and the original run’s printing costs.”

    Isn’t this one area where eBooks have a distinct advantage? Once they reach profitability they maintain that profitability until the rights granted to the publisher expire. So, the best sellers can keep on selling best while smaller titles have the potential to find their audiences as search engines build up linking histories from readers. Starting up might be difficult, ensuring that a publisher has a stable of books that steadily bring in profit, but thankfully the traditional book publishers have quite the backlist – many of which are sitting unpublished right now.

    The question then becomes, if publishers are earning regular profits off of backlist titles, do they print more risky books or continue to produce best sellers?

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