Are We Having the Wrong Conversation About EBook Pricing?

By • Feb 26th, 2009 • Category: 26th Story, Technology


Stanza Ebook ReaderI’m a big fan of Joe Wikert’s, so I asked his opinion about a few issues, including eBook pricing.

He told me he thinks we’re having the wrong conversation.  It’s not about how fast we can get to zero — it’s about how the content should be built……and then he said something that really inspired me:  The first TV shows were basically radio programs on the television — until someone realized that TV was a whole new medium.  Ebooks should not just be print books delivered electronically.  We need to take advantage of the medium and create something dynamic to enhance the experience.  I want links and behind the scenes extras and narration and videos and conversation…….

My new mantra is: Start Over:  How Should the Content Be Built.  

Turns out it’s not as easy to do as it should be.  I’m on the hunt for developers who can help me realize this dream.  Soon.  Like now.  If you are that person, or know that person, please get in touch with me ASAP. I have a zillion ideas and I’d love to hear yours and make this happen.

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  • Robert T Canipe

    Perhaps ebooks will become multi-media experiences?

  • Christine Fonseca

    Great idea – I love the idea of interactive reading experiences…digit format could SO do that…Your TV analogy is PERFECT…and accurate.

  • Sean Cranbury

    Excellent. A development.

    Books demand something beyond the DVD Blu-ray technology with it’s incredible expanded sound and image quality. Something rounder, more unpredictable, something with the endlessness quotient.

    Something more akin to time-travel and telepathy… you know, rather than a literal map of Daedelus’ travels thru Dublin or a jpeg of Sir Oliver James Gogarty’s pub you’d get the sound of the scuffling of shoes on the street stones, a snip of urban conversation with the sounds of the dialect and a video lesson on the art of pouring a Guinness – with a coupon for a free pint next time you happen to be in Temple Bar.

    Something… just riffing.

  • Jeff

    It’s not just about enhancing the experience of books as digital reading material but thinking entirely differently about how to use digital media “to tell” the narratives that are now told through 200 – 300 page books. Of course, that requires an entirely different kind of author, more of a documentary filmmaker than a long-form prose writer. And that also require a huge production team (then again, so does a book), but you can probably charge a lot more than a $9.99 for a text-only e-book. Yet it leaves Amazon with its 16 shades of gray Kindle out in the cold. But quite a few more people have PCs & Macs than Kindles or Sony e-readers. This whole book as e-book debate is ignoring the larger issue of narrative in digital media. I don’t think long-form prose will disappear but there’s an entirely different form of narrative emerging out there that somebody, someday, will figure out how to monetize.

  • Debbie

    I agree with everyone! Love all of these ideas. Please keep them coming.

    Jeff — I see that you do ebook design. Can you do something like this?
    Many of our authors do have multi media content to use (not all, but some).

    As a new Kindle owner– I don’t think it’s “it” for many reasons (not intuitive, clunky, and, can’t do this sort of thing. I read the Google article in today’s paper on it and wanted so badly to click through on the links — but of course, there are no live links. Arrggggg. Blog on that tomorrow.)

  • Ehren Cheung

    I’d agree with Robert to some degree that books (not just e-books) will become multimedia experiences. I’m thinking future, not just what we can do with present technology. Books are e-Books and e-Books are books … the problem is we’re still stuck with the belief that there has to be a defined idea of a book.

    I also believe the ebook pricing discussion is old and done with already. Pricing will be decided by the consumer. What content creators / publishers have is a level of influence over what to create and how it is done. Content in my opinion is no longer created from one author — so the idea of an author and a book is dated, so is the idea of royalties and “rights”. Leave that behind or set it aside for another day to ponder about and start thinking about a book that is more inclusive of different contributors — something that is more organic that can grow and evolve as contributors step in and out the door.

    You mentioned television shows … that’s really to some degree what really happens, contributors step in and out. The difference however is that television shows are migrating to online video content where users have direct input. Books however can evolve on a similar level via fan fiction. The author / creator is a person who initiates or follows-up on a conversation — maybe igniting an idea but really the book, the story, whatever it may be or wherever it may take us — is constantly influenced by the audience (who may or may not be potential contributors). Just a few thoughts … I don’t want to write an essay :) Important thing to keep in mind is that books themselves can be something that contains a two way street (or more) … not simply content2reader.

  • Sean Cranbury

    It has to be about pushing the idea forward and exploring the possibilities of what we don’t know about what the technology can do…

    It’s really out of our hands. We understand the fundamentals of how the technology works and the vague outskirts of the pricing structure… great. But how do we unleash the creative potential? How do we get readers to gasp as the new idea strikes them for the first time, their appreciation for life gets blown open to the newness of experience? Where do the writers and designers – because the designers are going to be crucial – come from to take us there?

  • Kat Meyer

    Right on, Debbie! As I understand it, the Kindle is limited due to eink — can’t embed links, or multimedia in any eink devices. Can do a lot more with devices like the iphone (books as apps would be worthwhile expenditure if they offered some cool interactive multimedia features). Liza Daly knows a lot about this stuff, and as far as making ebooks really visually appealing to read (b/c most ebooks right now are not designed at all and they SHOULD be), Jeff at Soro does great work. :)
    ~ K

  • Debbie

    Thank you Kat! Is Liza who you told me to call b/f? She’s on my list!!

  • Graham Storrs

    There used to be an ad campaign for a florist with the tag line “Say it with flowers.” I always hated it. When relationships are getting rocky, or when you need to express something good, my view is, “Say it with words.” Do the job properly.

    One of the most wonderful things about books, is that they’re constructed from words. Words, handled well and chosen with care, are the only way to express an idea or an emotion with any degree of subtlety and finesse.

    I have no doubt that e-books will evolve into multimedia medleys with text playing a smaller and smaller part in the mix. As they do so, they will lose much of what makes a book worth reading.

  • Hadrien Gardeur

    @Kat: It’s not exactly true, you can use links in your book. This could be links to something in your book, link to another book or a link to a webpage. We use all three in our Mobipocket/Kindle files on Feedbooks.

    ePub is designed to package any file type, and thanks to a good fallback system (if your device cannot support x video format, then there’s an image or text as a fallback) you can do pretty much anything you want.

    The best example of a rich media ePub is the demo that Bluefire did using ePub + Flash: audio, video, links, recommendations…
    Here’s the link:

  • Rich Rennicks

    I agree price is a somewhat irrelevant issue right now. Joe’s observation that the ebook is yet to evolve into the unique produce it should be is correct. But another important part of this discussion is how it will be distributed. A small number of centralized fulfillment hubs that bypass the large network of indie bookstores dedicated to finding and distributing the best books to bring to their own networks of customers and local taste makers is a short sighted strategy that will only speed the worst results of the ongoing runaway discount wars: a further reduction in the number of bookstores around the country.

    This is an active topic of discussion among indie booksellers, who are trying to understand how we can support ebooks as part of the various formats we bring to our customers. There’s a good discussion going on over at my blog this week:

    Check it out and expand the conversation to consider what we might like ebooks to do that they currently cannot.

  • Hadrien Gardeur

    Take a look at Sophie too:

  • Derek

    Good point. You’ve advanced the conversation. There’s great scope here for proof-of-concept projects. But what?

  • Jeff

    @Debbie – We’ve not yet had the demand for these capabilities from our clients but it’s something we’ve been exploring for a few years now. (I got to thinking about all this back when I was an academic librarian & encountered a lot of faculty wanting to utilize multimedia alongside their textual analysis.)

  • Debbie

    @Jeff — can we talk today? I think there’s demand.

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  • Susan

    Movie DVDs offer interviews with the director and actors, games based on the movie, out takes, and other special extras. Wouldn’t it be great to offer some of these things with ebooks?

    Interviews w/ the author, the book’s editor? What about an audio/ebook combo? Plug into your car as you commute and the audio edition picks up where you left off reading; turn off and you continue reading during lunch (or whenever).

    Ever have a book mention music the character is listening to–wouldn’t it be cool if the music played while reading (a potential rights/royalty quagmire).

    As we all discuss this on multiple blogs and sites I keep coming back to the question: what do readers want? Has anyone done a substantive survey of e-book readers?

  • Arthur Attwell

    We’ll certainly see more and more ebooks with rich media content, especially as lay-people’s tools for creating and editing epub improve — the Bluefire sample that @Hadrien mentions is a great example of what’s possible, and is just the start. As a step in this direction we’ve just released Moxyland, a novel with a soundtrack embedded in the epub (we originally did this in PDF, but there were technical limitations that made PDF unsuitable for soundtracks, especially when read in Adobe Digital Editions). (More info ) There are so few precedents for this sort of thing, though, that we had very little to go on by way of benchmarks and best practices; it’s been a learning process for us.

  • Mac Slocum

    As is often the case, I completely agree with Joe. And to expand on his point — and perhaps tie it more closely to ebooks and digital content — the first Web sites were digital editions of print products. It was shovelware — just scoop it from a newspaper or magazine and dump it online (complete with useless references to print elements — “Story continues on B15 …”, etc.). It took *years* for people to finally see the true functionality and the true interplay between content and community.

    I wish we’d stop calling them “ebooks” altogether. It’s just content, and content needs to mesh appropriately with its medium(s).

  • Fran Toolan

    I also tend to agree with Joe on many things, especially this. I think that it is important to recognize that people pay money commensurate with the percieved value they will receive from a product or service. It doesn’t matter what the product or service is. Books, e-, p-, or anything else are products. Retailers, Libraries, and content aggregators e-, or p- or any other way are services. The products created by publishers in the future will and should be priced in accordance based on what the publisher feels the market will perceive is fair.

    Right now e-book pricing is pidgeon holed into old p-book paradgms because they are not delivering any more perceived value. once they start breaking out of that mold, new profitablity models will emerge.

  • Michael Cader

    I don’t think it’s the wrong conversation–it’s a different conversation. Allow me, for the moment, to be the optimistic skeptic here. At least since the ill-fated book-as-CD-Rom era, we’ve been hearing wonderful speculation and brainstorming about multimedia books and a change in the fundamental form, which has resulted mostly in flaming economic death. Bob Stein, among others, has come up with many brilliant ways of achieving/enabling these new forms, and they all have basically failed so far.

    In some respects, “web sites” are this new form already–combining text, live updates, video, audio, audience interactivity, etc. As a product (both for sale and for free), mobile “apps” are the commercially-successful innovation, but note that prices there are also low (free to $9.99). But, as noted in earlier comments, e-Ink screens are not currently designed to handle anything besides text; multimedia needs the kind of screen that we all already have in our computers.

    To be sure, experimentation and innovation are the only way to evolve answers to the questions posed here, but everything we know about the market and efforts to date (e.g. Nick Carr’s supremely elaborate multimedia web site to support his book that didn’t sell very well, and which Nick Bilton said really didn’t help to sell books) would indicate this avenue isn’t going to lead to paradigm shift/big ROI any time soon.

    I often find that publishers overlook the simplest solutions. The starting point is that an electronic book has nearly endless capacity at very little cost. So at a minimum, why not always include other material from the author (research notes; additional articles; early work; other stories; work-in-progress; samples of their other printed works) and the publisher (selected sample chapters/excerpts of similar works from your list, forthcoming books, etc.)

  • Liza Daly

    I was coming here to say what Michael Cader just said, which is to first leverage the wealth of material that is easy to provide but valuable to the reader, before going nuts on multimedia. Early CD-ROMs are a great cautionary tale here.

    In fact, I’d suggest going in this order:

    1. Get your digital book workflow producing quality, well-designed text-only books first. This is already way beyond much of the material coming out of the Kindle store. I find unreadable fonts, bad spacing, gross misspellings — suggestions that the ebook versions were not sourced from the final editions that went to print. Naturally the perceived price of such low quality books is low.

    2. Test those digital books on every platform that can read them! This is also easy to do and clearly isn’t happening. Publishers are going to have to start thinking a little more like web designers: instead of, “Does this work in Internet Explorer?” you need to ask, “Does this work in Stanza?” (and if it works, does it look good — would you pay your own price for it?)

    3. Yes to more and supplementary content, but choose it thoughtfully. More is not better. Readers have demands on their time — don’t put in every bit of material that you can just because it’s easy to shovel into an ebook. Pick one or two genuinely useful additions and include them.

    At this point is where I’d suggest starting to think about more advanced ebook features, and only when the material truly suggests it. I don’t want to see publishers souring on multimedia because a lot of money was thrown away in the early experiments.

  • Rich Rennicks

    I’ll echo Liza’s point about working on usability & consistent design. I just learned that I can take the attractive, well formatted free .pdfs some authors make available of their work and use Stanza to convert them to epub format so I can read them on the go on my iPhone. The problem is the nice formatting isn’t preserved and a book has to be really gripping to make me persevere for longer than I’m forced to wait at the Dentist’s office.

    As for a survey or reader wants: how would the early viewers of televised radio plays have known they really wanted CSI or 24?

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  • Sharon

    I agree with Liza Daly’s comment—and another thing to learn from is hypertext novels and similar, which have been around for about two decades, if not longer. Sometimes one needs the cool frills of hypermedia to tell a story the way one wants to do, and sometimes one really doesn’t.

  • Micah

    I also totally agree with Liza in that fundamentals in epublishing are still woefully lacking and require serious focus and energy. But while I’m laying in the gutter I choose to look at the stars ;)

    To go way up the comment trail, Graham talks about the power of words and how he sees rich media as essentially diluting that. I see it differently. I see words as enriching visual/auditory media rather than the other way around. Enriching it with context, commentary, depth not to mention linking, searching, socializing. Text is like the glue that binds. But beyond that I look at digital content in it’s varied facets as entertainment, story telling, expression, education, and marketing. And surmise that video, audio,motion graphics, interaction, data visualization, gaming AND text combined simply proffer a much richer and more powerful pallete to create and communicate – and more fun to consume.

    Yes, both CD-ROM and DVD had/has some promise there; and some market successes and failures. But make no mistake that this is very, very different. The audience has fundamentally changed and the distribution model and economics could not be more disparate.

    And, it is different than web pages in that one can own it. One can charge money for it. It exists as a *conceptual* “object” imbued with authorship, Title, cohesiveness, depth, etc and not as a transitory and shallow browser window state we call a page or the ragtag collection of such known as a “site”.

    I posit that mixed media content is clearly marketable and inevitable. Especially travel, lifestyle, education, etc. The question is what “real world” object will become the meatspace mental model avatar for this new amalgam. the CD-ROM? DVD? I say books, newspaper, and magazines. to call them “apps” as is happening on iTunes is a serviceable alternative perhaps. Lacking connotation in the rich legacy of authorship and storytelling though. – and thus a bit sad to me.

    Balderdash you say, no newspaper ever will contain video clips….

  • Micah

    When “we” do start selling it I think it important that we not focus on volume of sales at first, rather, that we focus on how pleased the buyers are with the product and making that better and better. It would be a huge mistake to look at early test runs as indicators of “market size” or to even try for volume/mass appeal. Demand will be driven by great consumer experiences and word of mouth, and that will take time to perfect.

    We should enlist college students in the arts and lit to explore in this arena, they’d be in to it. we need some scattershot attempts to help see what “works”. It really is an unexplored medium (no dis to the early pioneers intended).

    Adobe did a nice campaign that is roughly in that vein for Lightroom. See

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  • Jaya Kumar

    Debbie, newer e-book formats (HTML5 can be considered an e-book format too) are already multimedia enabled. The devices are capable of handling this too.


    nice! [IMG][/IMG]

  • sebastian mary

    Great discussion. I just wrote an article arguing that long-form writing is intrinsic to the constraints of print publishing – and that if eBooks take off, they’ll work for a radically different type of content. There’s some suggestions there that I won’t revisit here but are relevant to this conversation – I’d be interested in your comments!

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  • Josh Loy

    You're on the right track for sure. Ebooks are an entirely new medium, geared toward people with time to burn on train, plane, or bus commutes, or simply lunch breaks, boring office meetings, etc. The real price of reading a book is the time needed to do so. Make that price “cheap” by making books easier to read with electronic devices that go where customers go easily, and you CREATE a new market for books where little to no market existed before. Pricing should be commensurate of the author's struggle to create the content, the content distribution price (in the case of ebooks it's quite negligible), and the desirability of the work in question. Ebook prices HAVE to be lower by at least half of normal hardcopy prices or people will be angry that they're being ripped off.
    Authors should not worry: ebook sales will guarantee higher royalties and more importantly, much more IMMEDIATE royalty payment than traditional publishing offers. Authors typically make only 1-2 dollars per hardcopy sold, but have been making up to 50% on ebooks, a gain of about 400% in royalty fees/copy sold.
    Not only that, but as the trend escalates, we may see big authors moving away from traditional publishing to offer ebooks on their own websites and only selling print rights to publishers so that they can keep the money generated by their intellectual product.
    Adding music and graphics back to books is exciting . . . and inevitable. It costs very little more to add these things to a published ebook, whereas adding them to a published print book can involve much more expenditure.

  • No Bite Flea and Tick

    We should enlist college students in the arts and lit to explore in this arena, they'd be in to it. we need some scattershot attempts to help see what “works”. It really is an unexplored medium (no dis to the early pioneers intended). I believe

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