News flash: e-books are overpriced

I saw a story yesterday about how e-readers are getting cheaper, but e-books are rising in cost.

In some cases, the e-books cost as much as, or more than a paper copy of the book. Which, as anyone with any knowledge of printing should be able to tell you, is ridiculous. Most of the cost of a paper copy of the book is printing and distribution. Or, at least that’s what they used to tell writers. When people paid $24.95 for a copy of my book, published in 2000, I saw about $1.75 of it. I’m probably not supposed to tell you that, but I just did. The printing and distribution costs of an e-book are negligible, so if the author, who does most of the work, is supposed to be able to get by on $1.75, shouldn’t the publisher and retailer find a way to do the same? So divide the revenue evenly between the author, publisher, and retailer, sell the e-book for $5.25 and, and everything’s fair. They could even put the book on sale for $2.97 sometimes, drop everyone’s share to 99 cents, and hope to make it up in increased sales.

But here are some things you can do while you wait for publishers to get a dose of reality.
For one thing, just because you have an e-reader doesn’t mean you have to use it exclusively. If you haven’t noticed, used books are dirt cheap, especially on common books. If an e-book costs $15 and a new paper copy costs $13 but a used paper copy costs $4, just buy the paper copy, especially if it isn’t something you envision wanting to carry with you forevermore.

Finding free e-books

And while there are a lot of expensive e-books out there, there are also large numbers of free ones. Visit either Amazon.com or BN.com and type 0.00 in the search box. You’ll find a couple million free books to download. Sometimes they’re specials, and sometimes they’re books printed before 1923 that are now in the public domain. Some have been retyped and reformatted for e-readers and some are straight scans off library shelves. BN- or Amazon-branded classics are more likely to be reformatted.

Some freebies are little more than spam–hastily produced e-books given away by their authors/compilers and given away in hopes of convincing you to buy other titles from them. You can usually spot those from their reviews.

(Sometime) advantages of e-books

Publishers argue that an e-book is worth the same amount as a paper copy because of its portability and the ability to take notes. And that argument has some validity in the case of a reference book. My CISSP books, which are over 1,000 pages in length, would be nicer on an e-reader. I can take notes without affecting readability, I can search, and I can carry them in a package that weighs less than a pound. If I can’t recall which volume of the Rainbow Series covers password management, being able to quickly search a couple thousand pages of reference material and instantly find it was the Green Book is nice. As is being able to call up what one or more of those books have to say about, say, circuit-level firewalls.

But why would I ever need to take notes or search a Michael Connelly novel, just to pick on the guy who happens to be at the top of the New York Times bestseller list at this instant?

And here’s the thing. I’m studying for the CISSP right now. And in my day-to-day work, I refer to CISSP-type material a lot, whether it’s to refresh my memory or to explain why I’m picking whatever nit I happen to be picking that day. I can easily justify spending some money on electronic versions of those books. Most of them cost anywhere from $30-$70. How many will I buy? Two? Maybe three? But if they were priced at $10-$15 apiece, I’d probably buy all 15 of them. Reading all 15 of thsoe books cover-to-cover is impractical, but any smart student who’s consistently missing study questions about a given topic will read about that topic from as many books as possible. If there’s one thing CISSPs all seem to agree on, it’s that you can’t pass the test by just reading one book, even the official (ISC)² book. I can’t speak to that yet, but do know there was a lot of material on the Security+ test that wasn’t in CompTIA’s official book.

But at $50 a pop, I’ll settle for having electronic copies of two or three. Or I’ll just get by with the paper copies I have.

If you’re wondering why authors are signing up directly with Amazon and cutting the traditional retailers out of the equation, that’s why. Then they only have to split the pie two ways, and they can negotiate price with someone who’s more interested in maximizing total revenue, not per-unit revenue.

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