The $14.99 E-Book: Publishing’s Salvation, Or Just the Last Nail in the Coffin?

Last summer, when the UK National Portrait Gallery and the Wikimedia Foundation got into a kerfuffle over whether the foundation had the right to copy thousands of the gallery’s high-resolution digital images to the Wikimedia site without paying, I wrote that the foundation may have been within its rights, since the original portraits are in the public domain, but that the copying was still unfortunate, since culture isn’t free—somebody has to pay to keep the doors open at the institutions that preserve and curate art. Museums shouldn’t hold digital representations of their art hostage, but it’s not unreasonable for them to ask people to pay something to use it.

Now I’m about to make a contrasting argument. There’s a debate raging over whether publishers should raise e-book prices from their current level, around $10 (for books that are just out in hardcover), to something more like $15. The publishers say that Amazon has been keeping e-book prices unrealistically low, and that they, like art museums, have to charge more to cover their costs. They usually go on to issue vague warnings about how Amazon’s predations are threatening the entire publishing apparatus with extinction. (Struggling industries always need a scapegoat. With the music industry, it was the fans. With publishing, it’s Amazon.)

If I’m in favor of paying museums a reasonable amount for digital art, shouldn’t I also be in favor of paying authors and publishers a reasonable amount for digital books? Of course. The question is what’s reasonable.

Free clearly isn’t a workable price for art or music or books. But neither is $14.99 per title—the price that MacMillan and other publishers reportedly plan to charge now that they’ve prevailed in their recent game of chicken with Amazon. My worry is that in their haste to find ways to pay for their own elephantine and outdated ways of doing business, book publishers will squelch an important new market that could offer the industry’s only long-term salvation.

There’s been a lot of good coverage of this issue recently. Just yesterday, the New York Times‘ technology section ran a fascinating piece surveying the clashing opinions over e-book prices. The most telling quote, in my opinion, came from novelist Douglas Preston, who was attacked by Amazon commenters because his publisher withheld the Kindle version of his latest book, Impact, to bolster hardcover sales. “The sense of entitlement of the American consumer is absolutely astonishing,” Preston told the newspaper. “It’s the Wal-Mart mentality, which in my view is very unhealthy for our country. It’s this notion of not wanting to pay the real price of something.”

David Pakman, a partner at venture firm Venrock, penned a contemptuous rebuke of this line of thinking in a February 3 blog post. Forcing higher prices on consumers on the argument that the “real” cost of a book is the hardcover price, or $14.99, or whatever publishers say it is, is more than just arrogance, Pakman pointed out. It also flies in the face of … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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