September 2, 2014 Last Updated 11:39 am

Pricing of eBooks remains unrelated to quality or effort spent in developing the product

Each Monday (and very often on Tuesday!) TNM looks at books and book publishing – either a new book on the publishing industry, a new digital book release, or industry news 

The issue of eBook pricing is at the center of the negotiations (war, really) being conducted between Amazon and major book publishers. While Amazon is pushing hard for lower prices, book publishers are fighting equally hard to maintain their ability to price digital books as they please.

1000Jewish-iPadIn conversations both with book publishers as well as media people who cover the book industry, opinions given vary widely as to who is in the right. But the discussions center on how fiction should be priced, not more complex publishing products such as interactive eBooks.

The reality is that within fiction prices fall within a narrow range: $1.99 to $12.99 with only a very small number of eBooks priced higher – and while there are price differences between digital bookstores, those differences are small.

If Amazon were able to push down prices we’d likely see similar prices in Apple’s iBooks Store, Barnes & Noble, etc.

But outside of fiction, digital publishing remains the wild west, with prices all over the place.

Take the cooking category: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has just released a series of books with the theme of 1000 recipes (1,000 Italian Recipes, 1,000 Jewish Recipes, 1,000 Low-Calarie Recipes, etc.) The books are priced rather high – from $16.99 to $22.99. The listings in the iBooks Store are sloppily done, with no screenshots of what the reader can expect – they can, of course, download a sample. (On Amazon.com the reader can take a look inside and the price is $3 cheaper than what Apple is charging.)

The eBooks are basic ePubs that can be read on any eReader and compare very poorly to print. In fact, for only a few dollars more, Amazon will ship you the print version, though they will not offer you a look inside prior to buying.

Agate Publishing also has their own series of “1,000” books and they, too, are plain jane ePubs. But Agate is pricing their series generally lower – from $9.99 to $19.99. These eBooks also lack screenshots inside the iBooks Store, and Agate’s books appear to be exclusive to Apple’s ecosystem.

9781472315724_100Cass_US1.480x480-75Parragon Books has a series of “100” recipes books and you won’t be shocked to learn that they are priced lower than all the “1,000” recipe books. But Parragon has at least included screenshots of their eBooks in the iBooks Store – and while they are ePubs, they do include artwork and are generally quite attractive compared to the books by the other publishers.

In the area of interactive eBooks, Apple’s iBooks Store remains the only game in town. Four and a half years into tablet publishing, neither Amazon nor Google has seen fit to introduce their own digital publishing platform designed to help self-publishers as well as professional publishers produce more interesting digital books. Print platforms like Blurb are moving more aggressively into digital publishing, but in conversations one gets the sense that they see digital mostly as another distribution channel rather than its own platform.

Apple’s “Made for iBooks” section, made up exclusively of interactive eBooks,  is not a separate bookstore, but rather a promotional area. There is not, for instance, a breakdown of categories where a reader could search or browse for an interactive cookbook. Instead, Apple simply includes a few categories and chooses about a dozen titles to promote. As a result, the books being promoted are almost all from major publishers and are priced higher than self-published books or books from smaller publishers (assuming one can even find these books inside the iBooks Store).

Because of this, Apple’s iBooks Store is more like one of those small airport bookstores with limited selection. The iBooks Store, in fact, contains thousands of titles, it is just that Apple has made it nearly impossible to find any of them unless you are specifically looking for something and know its exact title.

This makes pricing decisions all the harder. In general, self-published books, even well-designed ones, are priced low. eBooks from major publishers, even poorly designed ones, are priced higher. Meanwhile, higher priced-lower quality books are more often promoted by Apple – while lower priced-higher quality books are not.

Every once in a while a book such as The Mozart Project breaks through and somehow gets promoted inside the iBooks Store. But these rare exceptions only show what could have been possible if Apple had remained serious about digital publishing, and what might be possible of Google or Amazon looked at digital books in a new way.

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