People will go on about this. In crude terms publishers can be said to have wrested control of pricing back from Amazon, who were allegedly loss-leadering ebooks. Unsurprisingly publishers have an interest in their books (in whatever format) not being sold too cheaply — they are after all all profit seekers, even not-for-profit university presses who, like any publisher, have costs which must be covered if they are to continue in business.

The commentariat often moans about this, mocking publishers for charging so much that nobody’s going to buy their product. The commentariat is mercifully free of any need to cover the costs of creating a book. Its members also gaily play the other side of the street and complain about publishers’ meanness in paying royalties at far too low a rate on ebooks which after all, they claim, have no costs associated with them, so 70% of revenue ought obviously to go to the author. Why should these guys care that they are asking for 30% of lower and lower prices to be all that will keep publishers afloat: after all, they claim, if you lower retail prices sales will increase, so that a 30% piece of the huge pie will represent so much more than the larger current slice of a smaller pie. Sounds like it might be reasonable — except that it’s not. Selling your books for $1.99 may well increase the sale, but it will in almost every instance not increase it enough to compensate for the loss of revenue. An example like the sale at 20p of 250,000 heavily discounted ebook copies of The Life of Pi represents a bonus sale of a book which has already covered its costs with regular print sales. Would that all our books could get to that category: but they don’t.

Sales of ebooks have indeed slowed, and I’m pretty sure the major explanation for this is price. Whatever these commentators think, selling fewer copies at a higher price is not in and of itself a crazy policy. It’s hard to reprice a physical book, but you can switch the price of an ebook up and down as often as you want, and starting off fairly high is the obvious way to go. It’s the time-tried way too: for years publishers tended to publish in hardback and then follow up with a (cheaper) paperback a year or two later. The ebook is just another format, but allows for easy price adjustment as there’s no physical stock that needs to be stickered when the price is changed. But there are costs, and if they are not covered bankruptcy inevitably follows. Such, one often feels, is the animus of the commentariat that this is an outcome that they’d welcome.

Recently we’ve had a flurry of rhetoric driven by a Daily Mail article reporting that Amazon had called for publishers to reduce their ebook prices. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly, and all too typically) this article reports on ideas which come out of the writer’s brain rather than anyone at Amazon’s mouth. The Digital Reader corrects the record. What Amazon was actually advancing was the anodyne and undeniable comment that setting a lower price may well be a good way for an unknown author to get attention. It obviously is. Can we go too low? Of course we can, as The Writers’ Workshop reminds us: the strategy works best when no one else is doing it!