Sale! Sale! Sale! – on e-book pricing

Back before e-books, I bought paper books when I had the money to do it. Books were books, and paperbacks didn’t go on sale. You paid the price on the back of the book, and that was it. Airports charged outrageous prices (except in Portland), and you could pick up very lightly used copies cheap at Powell’s, but basically, the price was the price.

Then came Amazon, where I could often get books below cover price, even figuring in shipping. When shipping became largely free, that was even better, but still, I pretty much bought at whatever price Amazon offered.

Then came e-books. E-book prices, unlike paper, seem to be extraordinarily volatile. Or maybe it’s just that now I have better tools to track with. E-book prices are also extraordinarily high. Maybe that’s because I used to buy paperbacks. I’m not demanding a return to the $1.75 of my youth, but I do think that current prices are unreasonably high. What’s stranger is that publishers tend to stick to flat pricing, so that vast George Martin tomes cost roughly the same as thinner Jasper Fforde books.

The effect of these high prices is that I’ve become a more price conscious consumer. That’s made easier by the availability of price alert tools. I use eReaderIQ and Luzme, and I’m opportunistic. When a book I want drops below $3, I snap it up. But that also means that when it’s not on sale, I likely won’t buy it. Instead, I’ll wait until it the price drops. At the very least, until it has been stable for some time. When I buy an e-book these days, I check to make sure I’m getting the best historical price.

I don’t need to have the latest and greatest. Even for books I really want, I can wait. Instead of splurging on the latest Robin Hobb, I can go back and read some H.G. Wells instead.

So far, this strategy is working well for me. I got most of Hobb’s last Elderling series for about the price of one paperback, and was thrilled. If all e-books were priced that way, I’d be even more flooded with things to read. Conversely, when I do buy a book at full price, I’m pretty irritated to find it on sale later on (this happened recently with a Dave Duncan book).

In retail supermarket sales, manufacturer margins are tiny. Sales can be a good way to entice new customers to try your brand, but they’re not a good way to keep them around. People start to expect sales, just as I now do for e-books, and that means lower profit for the manufacturer.

On the whole, I don’t think the sale concept is such a good one for e-books. I’d much rather have ‘everyday low prices’ than keep my eye open for sales – even with automated tools to help me do it.

What do you think? Are sales useful? Is current e-book pricing a successful model?

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