Pricing kindle nonfiction

By Felix Salmon
February 25, 2010
Naked Capitalism, has sent me a note to tell me how unhappy she is about the kindle pricing of her new book, which has a cover price of $30, an Amazon price of $19.80, and a kindle price of $16.50. Her publisher, Palgrave, is part of Macmillan, which just won a fight to force Amazon to sell e-books at more than $10, but part of the fallout from that fight is that books which cost much more than that on the kindle often get one-star reviews on the basis of their pricing alone.

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Yves Smith, of Naked Capitalism, has sent me a note to tell me how unhappy she is about the kindle pricing of her new book, which has a cover price of $30, an Amazon price of $19.80, and a kindle price of $16.50. Her publisher, Palgrave, is part of Macmillan, which just won a fight to force Amazon to sell e-books at more than $10, but part of the fallout from that fight is that books which cost much more than that on the kindle often get one-star reviews on the basis of their pricing alone.

Writes Yves:

You know my base skews heavily toward the type that buys on Amazon, and to top that off, as you would imagine, my book promotion is going to be more than usually web oriented, so that will maintain that skew.

I don’t know about you, but the vast majority of the time, if I see a book with an Amazon rating of fewer than four stars, I won’t buy it. And it does not take many one stars to drag an average down.

In principle, my sympathies are with Yves and Amazon here. Amazon wants to subsidize her book; she wants Amazon to subsidize her book; but her publisher, worried about kindle sales cannibalizing hardback sales, won’t let that happen, and is willing to risk bad reviews as a consequence.

My feeling here is that none of this matters a great deal. And the main reason is pretty simple: after about a year of kindle ownership, I’ve come to the clear conclusion that it simply isn’t suited for reading the vast majority of non-fiction. You might not even notice it when you’re doing it, but when you read a non-fiction work like this one, you tend to flick backwards and forwards a lot, skim past the bits you already know about, re-read earlier passages in light of later ones, that sort of thing. And that’s prohibitively difficult with the kindle, which is designed primarily for reading narratives where you start at the beginning and make your way steadily to the end. Truly narrative non-fiction a la Krakauer is fine, but “learn about the crisis” nonfiction just doesn’t lend itself to being read on the kindle at any price. If you’re the kind of person who reads footnotes, you will get very annoyed very quickly with the kindle whenever they start appearing.

What’s more, the phenomenon of angry one-star reviews will I think fade away pretty quickly: they’re a response to the change in prices more than they are a response to the price itself. If the price for a kindle book goes up from $10 to $17 without the product changing at all, that’s annoying. But if it was never $10 to begin with, the annoyance is much lower.

Obviously, the number of kindle versions of Econned sold will be lower at $16.50 than it would be at $9.99 — just as I doubt many people buy kindle versions of books which are more expensive than the ink-on-paper versions. But a substantial proportion of the people who would have bought at $9.99 but won’t buy at $16.50 are people who will now just buy the hardback instead — and I’m pretty sure they’re going to have a better experience that way. And that should make Yves happy, not angry.

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