An American Editor

April 13, 2011

Frustration in eBookville: Will There Be a Rubicon for Publishers?

I’m one frustrated ebooker! I recently purchased several books in hardcover (The Eichmann Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt and Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg), which is (supposedly) what the publishers prefer I do. But although I bought hardcover versions for my library, I would like to do the actual reading on my Sony Reader.

I already own (and read years ago) Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book on the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and I would like to read it again but this time as an ebook. I am particularly interested in comparing the Arendt’s contemporaneous account (who also attended the trial) with Lipstadt’s hindsight account. The reviews of Lipstadt’s book indicate she comes to a conclusion opposite from Arendt regarding Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust.

All three books are available as ebooks. One would think, then that the problem is solved. Just buy the ebooks. Alas, it isn’t solved because of the exorbitant ebook pricing.

I purchased The Eichmann Trial for $16.20; the ebook costs $12.99. I purchased Bismarck: A Life for $21.25; the ebook costs $14.97. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was originally published in hardcover in 1963 (I own a first edition of the book). In 2006, Penguin released a paperback version. I can buy the paperback today for $10.98, but the ebook costs $12.99. Based on the ebook price, one would think Arendt’s book had been released for the first time yesterday, not that it is nearly 50 years since its publication!

The publishers of these books are playing a dangerous game. It is readers like me, that is, readers who want both hardcover and ebook versions of a book, that publishers and authors should be trying to find ways to accommodate. We are interested in buying a book twice.

Alas, it appears that neither the publishers nor the authors are able to wrap their heads around the concept of a decent package price. It is certainly obvious that publishers are fixated on a single remedy to cure all ills, with that remedy being high ebook pricing — even on a book first published 48 years ago. What happened to the promise of lower prices the further away from the initial hardcover release we are? How much farther away than 48 years do we need to be?

As it stands now, the ebook pricing scheme is forcing me to consider the darknet route for the ebooks. Truthfully, I’m not sure that I’d even consider, in this instance, darknetting as piracy, as I bought the version the publishers wanted me to buy — the hardcover version; after all, preserving hardcover sales was/is the rationale for high ebook pricing.

What the publishers should be doing is thinking up schemes to entice me to buy both the hardcover and ebook versions. The first step to accomplishing this is to come up with a realistic ebook price when the hardcover has already been purchased or as a package price at the time of the hardcover purchase. This latter approach would work easily.

Give me the option to buy the hardcover alone, the ebook alone, or the hardcover-plus-ebook combination. In the combination package, charge me $5 more than the hardcover alone. Because I value having hardcovers in my permanent collection but want the pleasure and ease of reading the book on my Sony Reader, I, for one, would readily pay a $5 premium for the package. Publishers should learn from the movie companies, which increasingly are offering DVDs in two packages: DVD alone and a combination of DVD plus Blu-Ray, with the combination package costing only a few dollars more.

With all their complaints about piracy and the threat the darknet raises to their existence, the reality is that publishers are their own worst enemy because they refuse to address honestly what the marketplace wants. Instead of complaining about their problems and doing nothing productive to solve them, publishers should be devising creative solutions to those problems — and packaging the hardcover and the ebook together, although not a final solution, is one interim solution that would increase sales and revenues yet preserve the hardcover that publishers seem to be focused on preserving.

If publishers do not take such steps, they will have met their own Rubicon. They will turn ebookers like me into darknetters, the opposite of what publishers want and need to happen. It is time for publishers to meet head on the challenges of the eBook Age and not continue to try to hide them beneath the carpet.

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