The new JK Rowling book and ebook pricing

So it has been pretty quiet here. I have been meaning to explain my absence, but procrastination builds on procrastination. I will eventually explain, but in the meantime, a post from the news…

I have been notified by Amazon, Facebook and a number of news outlets that the new, non-Harry-Potter book from JK Rowling is due out September 27th. There is an understandable level of curiosity about how she will follow up after such a successful series. She is not only leaving the Harry Potter universe behind, but the new book is also not in the very hot Young Adult genre. Some are calling it a sophomore effort, which seems odd after writing seven successful novels, but there is no question there will be heightened scrutiny to go along with the hype.

I am curious just like everyone else, and followed the links to see what the story is about. But before I could get to the book jacket description, something at the head of the page put my guard up.

The price.

The publisher will undoubtedly capitalize on the built-in, anxious market and sell millions of books, but they have chosen to do a little gouging in the process.  The suggested hardcover price is $35. Though few will pay this (as is already discounting it to $21), $35 for a piece of hardcover fiction seems out of touch.

I felt the same way when I saw the $36 price tag of the Ken Follett book Fall of Giants. I am a big fan of his writing, and know that he does extensive research beyond the writing to make his books historically accurate, but the $36 price tag priced me out of his market. I was excited to read it, and wanted to have a copy to keep, but decided to wait in line at the library instead. If it had been priced more typically, I am sure I would have bought it, but the price forced me to wait and I ended up reading it for free (thank you again, robust library system).

All this said, I rarely buy hardbacks anymore. There is no money in the budget to be an early adopter anymore. I almost always wait for the paperback, ebook, or eventual library availability. So though $35 sticks in my craw, it is sort of irrelevant. What really grabbed me on the JK Rowling book was the ebook price.


Much the same way that iTunes has effectively set the price of a song at about a dollar, Amazon made $9.99 the top end for a ebook for a number of years. When you consider that a market paperback is generally at or below that price, and there is no additional printing costs for an ebook, it seems a fair level. But traditional publishers continue to fight against the ebook market, even as it grows exponentially. A quick check of the Ken Follett novel on Amazon:

Hardback – $23.76
Paperback – $16.50
Kindle – $18.99

Even though the production costs are lower, the shipping costs are essentially non-existent, and there are no returns of unsold books from bookstores to account for, the ebook price is higher than the paperback.

There is debate about the sweet spot of ebook pricing among self-published authors. Authors obviously make more money on a higher priced book, and it is tempting to cozy up close to soft ceiling of $9.99. At 99 cents, you make very little on each copy, but the volume may make up for it. Where the lines cross is a matter of anecdote and experimentation.

I priced my ebook at $2.99. This seemed like a fair price for a novel-length work. The paperback is priced at $7.99, so the ebook feels like a real bargain. And because of production costs, I actually make a little more on each ebook sale.

There is value in a piece of writing. Writers should be paid for their hours, days and years of effort. Publishers, distributors and bookstores need to make money as well to keep the doors open. I am absolutely willing to pay read a good book, even when money is tight. But when publishers set prices unreasonably high, they shrink their market. Rather than getting $10 or even $25 dollars from me, they get no incremental money when I check the book out from the library instead.

I am sure JK Rowling’s publisher will sell untold copies of her new novel regardless of the price. The pre-sale is already high up on the Amazon charts. They can get away with the price gouging on these hot authors with their built-in markets, but the system is changing and publishers are no longer the gatekeepers they once were. If they continue to price ebooks high to try to keep people buying the paper versions, they will likely go the way of record companies clinging to CD sales while the market moved on to MP3s and iTunes.

And just to be clear, this is not what I am rooting for.

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