exploring Google eBook pricing

Updates below (added images in post, link to tweet in middle, new links at bottom)

And more updates! Check out the comments for a generous response from @bookavore with useful context for how pricing works.

So, as you surely know, Google has finally opened their eBook venture, selling e-books (to use a variant spelling that has been dominating) both through their own eBookstore and through partnerships with independent bookstores. One of the big excitements about Google’s eBook program is the possibility of generating money for indies, who otherwise lose out the opportunity to generate revenue from digital books. So my first question was to wonder what it meant to go to an independent bookstore to get an electronic book. It’s not like you’re going to walk around the corner and chat with your local bookseller, right? I suppose you could do that, get their advice, and then go online and buy the book, but that seems odd to me. Are independent bookstores going to set up terminals where folks can login to Google and order their books while in the shop? That might be a way to preserve that seller-customer relationship. That’s always been one of the things that I value about independent bookstores, the relationship between seller and customer. Of course, I don’t have an independent bookstore around the corner from where I live or work, which is part of the larger problem sellers and buyers are facing.

As I was checking out which independent bookstores were participating, I was happy to see some of semi-locals, and I spent some time clicking around to see what was what. But in taking a quick look around at how Google eBooks have been incorporated into some different indie bookstores, I was soon struck by a much larger question: What is up with the pricing??

Here’s what I mean. Take, for a first example, Stieg Larsson’s latest, the huge hit and final book in the Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. If you go to Google’s eBookstore, it’s priced at an attractive $9.99. But at their indie partners? It costs much much more, ranging from $22.36 to $17.33. If you wanted to read Lisbeth’s latest adventure in codex form, you can buy the hardback at list price of $27.95, or at Amazon’s discounted price of $11.90. (That Amazon discounted price is part of what’s making life hard for book stores. Even the big chains don’t want to sell a hardback at a discount of 57%. Barnes and Noble cuts the price by 44%, Borders by 50%.) Why this range of prices? The indies have obviously pegged their prices for the eBook to the hardback price, either selling it at full price or discounted up to 38%. What’s Google’s eBook price pegged to? Amazon’s Kindle price: $9.99.

So the huge gap is in part based on the pricing problems of hardbacks, which are, as we know, expensive. What happens with paperback? Let’s look at the second in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire. (I don’t know anyone who calls it the Millennium trilogy; it’s really The Girl Who trilogy.)

  • paperback list price: $15.95 trade; $7.99 mass market
  • digital edition list price: $15.95
  • Google eBookstore: $7.57 (47% discount)
  • WORD: $12.76 (20% discount)
  • Politics and Prose: $11.17 (30% discount)
  • Schuler Books: $9.89 (38% discount)
  • Kindle: $7.57 (47% discount)

(A couple of notes here: I’ve taken list prices, for codex and digital books, from Amazon. For my independent bookstore examples, I chose WORD because they tweeted that they had huge sales on the first day of their eBook sales; Politics and Prose because they are my most-local independent bookstore; and Schuler because they’re my hometown independent bookstore. I also want to point out that these prices are accurate only as of today, of course, and I have no idea what those prices will be when you click on those links in the future. Yesterday, for example, WORD was selling all of their eBooks at full list price; clearly they’ve gone through and rejiggered their prices since then.)


(UPDATE: I tracked down the tweet about WORD’s eBook-selling success. It was posted by @bookavore, a manager at WORD:
As others pointed out, first day sales don’t necessarily translate to ongoing sales, but it caught my attention, and that’s why I used their prices in my comparison.)

Other books follow different patterns, depending on what sort of book they are and when they were published. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is $9.99 across the board, with a paperback list price of $17.99. Howard Jacobson’s recent prize-winning The Finkler Question has a list price of $15.00, with Google eBookstore selling it for $5.69, and the indies selling it at list, except for Schuler: $12.75, a 15% discount, though the funny thing about that price is that Schuler is selling the paperback for $11.25.

Academic books are a bit wackier. Adrian Johns’s Piracy, out at the beginning of 2010 from University of Chicago Press, can be bought in hardback at the list price of $35.00 (it’s due out in paperback in the spring, listing at $22.50). Google eBookstore sells it for $19.25 and the indies for $35, except for Schuler, who again goes for a 15% discount for a price of $29.75. That doesn’t deviate from the pattern that much. It looks like Schuler does a standard 15% discount from the list price, except for those books that might be big sellers, and then they go lower. The other indies stick with list, except for the hits. And Google matches Kindle every time, with Kindle typically selling at a 45% discount from list.

What about an academic book that is oh-so-smart but not recent and not a big seller? Shakespeare and Feminist Performance (ahem) lists in paperback at $36.95, a steal compared to the $120 price for a hardback. If you want to read it in Kindle format, you can buy it for $29.56. Want to read it as an eBook? Buy it at list at any of the indies, or at Google eBookstore for $29.19. (If you do buy it, please tell me whether the photos are in the electronic editions or if they got dropped!)

And how about some very smart recent academic books that you should all be reading already? Bill Sherman’s Used Books (Penn Press, 2007, 2009 pbk) lists at $19.95. You can buy it as an eBook for $9.99 from Google, at list from the non-Schuler indies, at $16.96 from Schuler, and not at all as a Kindle. Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books (Public Affairs, 2009, 2010 pbk) lists at $13.95 and can be bought as a Kindle book for $9.79, but cannot be had for love or money as an eBook (ok, that might be an exaggeration; I have not tried offering love or endless amounts of money for this as an eBook, but you can rest assured that it’s not listed on the eBookstore as of today). Anne Trubek’s recently released A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses (Penn Press, 2010) cannot be read as an eBook or on Kindle (but you should read it in codex because it’s great–and only $16.47 on Amazon!); Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance (Yale 2010) isn’t either eBooked or Kindled (I’m sure you already own this because I keep talking about how great it is, but if not: $26.40); and Matthew Battles’s great Library: An Unquiet History (Norton 2003, 2004 pbk) can also only be read in good old ink-on-paper form ($10.17).

(By the way, yes, I realize that I’ve linked to the discounted Amazon prices for these books, and that in so doing I might be preventing you from walking around the corner to your local bookstore and supporting them with the purchase of these books there. But, on the other hand, by sharing with you the fabulous prices at which you can buy these wonderful books, I might be encouraging and enabling you to buy books that it might otherwise seem out of reach.)

What’s the upshot of all this? I’m not sure. I’m left with a lot of questions. Given that Google has chosen to seriously discount their eBook prices within their own eBookstore, how much are they actually supporting independent bookstores? How many eBook buyers are going to surf to their local store’s site to pay full price when they could be downloading the exact same book for much, much cheaper? I do find the interface on the independent bookstores’ sites much friendlier to use, since they provide clearer, and easier-to-find, information about what edition of what book you’re looking at. And sometimes you can have more device-reading options if you buy from an indie: if you buy directly from the eBookstore, you don’t always get the software that would enable you to read your eBook on your Nook or Sony eReader. Buy Infinite Jest from Google eBookstore and you get an eBook without any downloadable files, which their help page says means you can read in the cloud and on devices with supported apps; buy it from Politics and Prose, and you get an Adobe Digital Edition that will let you transfer it to your Nook or Sony eReader.

Google’s official advice on pricing is as follows:

Lowest list price 

The lowest list price will be determined by Google using metadata and other sources. If you prefer not to set a potentially variable price, you can set the price of your Google eBooks to a fixed amount instead.

Recommended price

The suggested default price set for your Google eBooks is 80% of the lowest print list price. You’re also welcome to set a price manually.

We encourage you to consider the perceived value of the Google eBooks of your titles for users and set prices accordingly. Typically, publishers have chosen to set the list price for digital formats at a lower list price than that of their print editions. If you use a percentage, we don’t allow you to set the Google eBook price to higher than 100%.

Google reserves the right to sell a book at a price discounted from its Google eBooks list price. If Google decides to offer the book at a discounted price to consumers, your share of the revenue will be based on the Google eBooks list price.

Your local bookstore can benefit from you buying your eBook through them instead of through Google. They’ll get their share based on what they sell the book for; in theory, that should mean more money from a $15.99 book than from a $7.99 one. I suspect that some of the pricing I’ve been seeing yesterday and today are still being worked out. As I mentioned above, WORD’s prices yesterday were all at list for their eBooks; today they are reflecting some discounts. As customers come and go and stores analyze buying patterns and familiarize themselves with Google’s system, we’ll see lower prices, I think. But will there be enough people willing to spend extra money for a digital book to support their local store that it will translate into money going into their coffers, as opposed to Google taking money away from them? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, if your local bookstore isn’t on the list and you want one to support, consider Schuler Books, a great mid-Michigan bookseller that offers good prices, too.


There’s a nice explanation at Tattered Cover Book Store about what Google eBooks are and how they work. They don’t talk about pricing, however, and when I just checked their prices of The Girl Who eBooks, they were all offered at list.

Also, there are countless links out there discussing eBooks. Among them, one that I read after I posted this: Laura Miller’s piece in Salon. She doesn’t discuss pricing, and I think she’s a bit optimistic about what the implications are for independent bookstores, but she does have a good discussion of the eBookstore interface that I mention but don’t go into here.

to e-book or not to e-book

There’s been a slew of stories over the last few months about electronic books, primarily of the Kindle variety, but some of them touch on general issues pertaining to the availability, use, and desirability of e-books. I’ve been trying to compose a post in response to them, but I keep getting overwhelmed. What to say in response toa prep school that replaces its library with a cappuccino machine and 18 e-readers? *head-desk* (The School Library Journal has a more articulate response.) What about the summer’s too-perfect-to-be-true news that Amazon deleted copies of Orwell’s works from the Kindles without informing owners? Make that another big #amazonfail moment after their first, horrendous mistake last spring when changes in their ranking system made thousands of gay and lesbian titles disappear from searches. Ooops. In further e-stories, there’s the non-release as e-books of two of the Fall’s big titles: Teddy Kennedy’s posthumous True Compass and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. What will those Cushing Academy students do when researching papers about the Obama election? I guess rely on Wikipedia. (For insight into why the memoirs aren’t Kindled, see Daniel Gross’s Moneybox column for Slate, in which he explains why the economics of publishing doesn’t make sense for them as e-reads.) Oh, and speaking of students and e-readers, what do Princeton students have to say about using Kindles as part of a pilot program to replace textbooks with Kindles? According to one student quoted in the Daily Princetonian, “this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool.” Finally, last week there was the New York Times piece worrying that books might be the next to be “Napsterized.” (Remember Napster? Some of you young ‘uns might not recall the world before digital music files, but let me tell you, it put the fear of Someone into the music industry when people started sharing their music online.) Joshua Kim’s response on Inside Higher Ed brings those Napster concerns into a conversation with universities and libraries.

About a year ago, I posted about my perplexed response to a newspaper column that touted the joy of Kindle as being “almost like a book”–why read something that’s almost as good as a book when you could read a book? I still stand by that point, but not because I’m a luddite. In that particular piece, I was reacting against a perception that e-reading had to be good because it was new. But I also don’t think it has to be bad because it’s new. My husband got a Kindle last spring and it’s been great. For him, the joy of the machine is that it holds so much. Given his preference for texts that come in big, heavy books–military history, science fiction, jurisprudence–the fact that he can take his Kindle on trips means that he needn’t break his back or run out of reading material. I still don’t use it, and not only because he’s the alpha gadgeteer in our household. My way of reading for work and research is to cover the page in notes, so paper copies work best for me. And most of my pleasure reading I do in a way that isolates me as much as possible from the world: glasses off, dark room, book light. We all have our own ways of reading and different technologies that meet those needs.

But much of what I’m seeing written in the popular press about e-book readers isn’t, I don’t think, taking into account the full picture. Some of the stories I mentioned above hint at the problem of Amazon’s essential monopoly over the current e-field. I know Sony has an e-reader, but given Amazon’s vertical integration, they hold an incredible portion of the e-market in their tight e-fist. (E-sorry. It’s hard to stop the e-jokes.) If there was some competition in that market, the problems of pricing and availability and Big Brother would be different.

More to this blog’s point, what does the current state of e-readers and discussion have to do with book history and book historians? So much of what we’re considering today with Kindles focuses on books that were written to be distributed in print and then are transferred into an e-format. (Daniel Gross’s book Dumb Money actually did this transference the other direction: he wrote it as an e-book for Free Press and it sold well enough that it’s now available in print–see the Washington Post profile of him for more on that.) But what happens when we get to the day that works are created for and intended to be experienced as e-books? How will that change the experience of using books? And how will we ensure the survival of those books? As anyone who has been working with computers over the last few decades knows, technology becomes obsolete and earlier formats don’t always carry over into new ones.

Similarly, how might the availability of new digital formats affect the process of creating works? According to Scott Karambis, for some creative artists, the availability of the digital world has changed how and what they write: author Justin Cronin relied on the ease of researching online to push his knowledge into new arenas when composing his newest novel, insisting that it made him become a different sort of writer. Karambis’s blog post focuses more on the effect of technology on the process of creation and less on the impact of digital creations themselves (the blog is geared towards other folks in marketing, rather than, say, writers or book historians). Rachel Toor, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is more focused on the economic impact of e-books. Even though she loves reading e-books on her Kindle, she has decidedly more mixed feelings about being an e-writer. Might e-publishing save university publishers by bringing down costs and therefore recovering the economic viability of those scholarly monographs with small audiences? And the speed of electronic publishing is wonderful for timely subjects and for the responsiveness it generates for readers. But will people stumble across e-books the way they do physical books on bookshelves? Will writers be able to live off the advances from their e-books the way that some are able to today?

Toor and Cronin don’t ask this in their reflections on writing and new technology, but I will: will we still have e-books to read if they aren’t backed up on paper? Will we still be able to lend books to each other if they’re tied to our e-readers? Will we still be able to talk back to our books, modify them, resist them?

I often, when teaching early modern book history, say to my students, “It’s all about money!” And it often is. But it’s also about creativity and interactivity and longevity. And we’re still taking baby steps towards what it all might mean.