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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Comments
19 comments so far

This is exactly what I say when people ask me about my experience with the Kindle–it’s great for most fiction, but for non-fiction I just buy the book. Flipping back to anything is an enormous pain in the ass. The other problem is that the Kindle does very poorly displaying charts or tables or graphs. Sometimes they’re cut up and spread across multiple pages, sometimes they’re really small, and often times tables necessitate the flipping back and forth between pages behavior that the Kindle does so poorly at.

One more comment–the Kindle is great for most fiction. It is not great for fiction that demands that same flipping-back-to-earlier-in-the-book behavior–do not try reading anything by Joyce or Pynchon.

Posted by vm5 | Report as abusive

Skim through non-fiction books? That explains how all those alleged economists and bank executives missed the risks of all that risky debt last decade. They didn’t read the part about how you are not supposed to loan money to people who won’t be able to pay back their loans.

As more books switch to e-reader format, publishers will become just like the record industry – irrelevant. All anybody will need is a PR consultant and a handful of ebook retail channels.

Posted by OnTheTimes | Report as abusive

I use my Kindle primarily for non-fiction and haven’t found this to be a problem, but then I don’t skip back and forth that much. Jumping between the text and footnotes takes a little effort, but nothing that outweighs the convenience and value of Kindle books.

Posted by RichardBaum | Report as abusive

They might want to upgrade the software to make it easier to flip around. Don’t have an e-book reader, but aren’t hyperlinks to footnotes a built-in feature?

Posted by Uncle_Billy | Report as abusive

Is not the Kindle the name of a product? If so, why is it not capitalized at all in the entirety of this article? It is used as an adjective rather than a proper noun. Yes I know, a nit-picking comment.

I know nothing off Wall Street and the financial goings-on asscociated with it and quite frankly the whole industry confuses me beyond belief. I do enjoy reading your blogs though Mr. Salmon because even though I am not educated enough in the field to have an opinion about things, they might help me get some sort of small grasp about what is going on.

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive

I think your dislike of the kindle for nonfiction is due to what you’re reading the nonfiction for. I assume you’re often reading finance-related things as sources for what you’re working on. I can see that being a poor fit.

But if you’re reading non-fiction as you would a novel, straight through, for leisure, then the kindle is fine. I do kinda wish footnotes could be displayed in a fashion similar to how dictionary definitions are displayed, instead of requiring a jump.

As for prices, prices for non-fiction have never been limited to the $9.99 price. Stigum’s The Money Market 4th ed is $73.68 for kindle, which is still less than they sell the hardcover for ($80-some) and much less than Borders wants for the hardcover ($129).

Technical books such as O’Reilly programming references are typically over $30.

If you go to the kindle store on the web, select non-fiction, and sort descending by price, the prices start in the $7,000 range, for specialist nuclear engineering texts.

I would be very surprised if the price of her book had anything to do with Macmillan seeking to raise prices. I bet her book would have been the same price a year ago. As far as I know, Macmillan’s price increases applied to fiction, which has more typically fallen under the former $9.99 price.

In general, one-star reviews are the domain of cranks, drive-by ideologues, and morons with unrealistic expectations. One-star reviews on nonfiction books due to price are part of the latter category.

Two-star reviews are worth paying attention to, as they tend to be more thoughtful.

Posted by jonhendry | Report as abusive

I am not sure I follow the complaint.
Isn’t Yves paid by her publisher (not by the number of books/ebooks bought) but by the profit her work generates?

In which case, both her and Macmillan’s incentives are exactly aligned.
She is just complaining that they have done their math wrong and hence their strategy will lead to lower profit.

I suspect they might know a little more about the publishing business than Yves, but perhaps not.

Posted by TinyTim1 | Report as abusive

FS: “Amazon wants to subsidize her book; she wants Amazon to subsidize her book”

What does that mean? Is FS subtly suggesting that her book wouldn’t sell without a subsidy? If that aint envy! Shame on him!

When I buy stuff like headphones I will look at stars. I want to know if the stuff will break within 2 months. But for books that’s pretty irrelevant. I know the author, I know the subject. That’s all I need to know. For instance, if you buy a political book that’s liberal, you know you’ll get plenty of 1 star from conservatives.

Posted by EmilianoZ | Report as abusive

Of course, the hardcover sales will soon be challenged by the secondhand market. I find it amazing how Tyler Cowen has somehow managed to convince his publisher to set the price of one of his books 10c above the price of the used copies to compete against the second hand copies. It was $2.73 when I just looked at it.
http://www.amazon.com/Discover-Your-Inne r-Economist-Incentives/dp/B001OMHUVU/ref =sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267121405&s r=1-3

Posted by mattmc | Report as abusive

“Is not the Kindle the name of a product? If so, why is it not capitalized at all in the entirety of this article?”

It is a product, and is capitalized by Amazon when mentioned in text, but the name is not capitalized in the logo on the product itself.

Posted by jonhendry | Report as abusive

I think this policy is deeply misguided. I would never purchase a hard cover just because Kindle edition is delayed. I would probably just ignore the book and then forget to order it when Kindle edition is released. But then again, I live in a closet with no space for books.

Posted by TCombinator | Report as abusive

Thank you jonhendry for clearing that up for me.

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive

Having retired, I thought it was time at last to read War & Peace. So I carefully studied the reviews on the more recent translations and chose one I could put on the Kindle (I’m old — packing around War & Peace in the analog version is for heartier pilgrims). Eagerly, I started to read. Wait a minute! They didn’t translate the French, except in the footnotes. Major headache! By the time I go to the translation in the footnote and back to the text, I’ve completely forgotten both the translated passage and the whole context. Got myself the paper and ink version of the alternate translation (with the French translation directly in the text). My back hurts, but I’m making progress. Wish Tolstoy would stop yacking on about the peace and take me to the war.

Posted by pamshal | Report as abusive

The people who leave 1-star reviews because they think the Kindle version is overpriced tend to get very low “helpful” ratings on Amazon, meaning their reviews get shunted to the end. I guess they still have an effect on the overall ranking, but if Yves really won’t buy books on Amazon that have less than a four-star ranking then she deserves whatever’s coming to her. What a silly thing to say (or do)!

Posted by JustinFox | Report as abusive

That said, if she gets a bunch of 1-star reviews from the Kindlejerks, I’ll leave a 5-star to counteract at least one of ‘em.

Posted by JustinFox | Report as abusive

Here’s a one-star review of Rogoff’s “This Time It’s Different” for the kindle:

“My comments have nothing to do with the content of “This Time is Different” which was referred to me as an excellent book to consider buying. I was doing just that (which typically begins with a Kindle Sample Download) when I realized that the Kindle price was nearly $16 (only a couple dollars below the hardcopy price). Having read today that Amazon was fighting with Macmillan Publishing over their new book pricing plans I vote with Amazon to keep Kindle prices reasonable.”

a) the writer admits it has nothing to do with the content
b) the book isn’t published by Macmillan, it’s from Princeton University Press, so their one-star review is completely misdirected anyway.

Posted by jonhendry | Report as abusive

Additionally, the complaint about the $2 difference between Amazon’s kindle price and hardcopy price is kind of silly. After all, you get the kindle version instantly, with no shipping & handling charge. If you want the book from Amazon tomorrow, you’re going to pay a hefty charge.

If you want the Rogoff book today, and you don’t want to buy the kindle version, you’re going to have to find a Borders, where they sell it for $35 or Barnes & Noble who have it for $25 assuming the store price and the website price are the same. (BN don’t offer an ebook version.)

Posted by jonhendry | Report as abusive

The pricing issues here is being completely mis-stated. To start with, Palgrave has priced the e-book at the same price as the hardcover. This is a very common strategy and has nothing to do with Amazon’s dispute with Macmillan and Macmillan’s change in pricing. That change in prices has not yet occurred. The reality is that Amazon still decides what price to put on the books in the Kindle Store. If you look at all of Palgrave’s 1600+ titles in the Kindle Store, the prices range from $1.15 for a bio of John McCain to $200.00 for a book on “Climate Trading”. I didn’t scroll through them all, but I would guess that more than half the books are not being sold for $9.99 or less and Amazon has the right to put any price they want on the book. Palgrave will be paid a percentage (roughly half) of the $30.00 list price no matter what the Amazon price is. Amazon can choose to lose all the money they get from the customer or they can choose to put a $16.50 price on it and make a little money on the sale. This is not dictated by Palgrave. This book is not yet available so it’s also possible (likely) that Amazon will change the price as it becomes available. It’s their call. Part of the Macmillan dispute is that Macmillan is seeking to take the pricing power out of Amazon’s hands.

Posted by Gkiely | Report as abusive

For context, the list price of the hardcover is $30. BN.com has an ‘online price’ of $24, but ‘members’ pay $21.60, and at the moment non-members can get the member price.

Borders’ website has it at list price ($30).

Posted by jonhendry | Report as abusive
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