E-book readers and e-books are a fairly recent, but popular, innovation. All the same, they seem to have been adopted very rapidly by the public. A good deal of the credit for that must surely go to the Amazon Kindle reader – in particular the Kindle 2.0 which was launched in February of 2009. Amazon’s upgraded third generation Kindle was unveiled in August of 2010 and, despite doom laden predictions for the Kindle following the launch of Apple’s iPad, is selling more quickly than ever. There’s little doubt that it was the Kindle 2.0 that really brought e-books to the attention of the public.

Another important factor was the large number of Kindle books available. Amazon has always had a lot more titles on offer than the chasing pack. At the moment they have more 750,000 Kindle books available on their website – and those are just the paid titles. They have a further 1.8 million titles which are out of copyright and are now available for download free of charge.

However, whilst the public may have adapted to e-books very quickly, it remains to be seen if the main publishing companies have got their corporate heads around the concept yet. The introduction of e-books has totally changed the traditional publishing cycle. Not only are e-books cheaper than printed books – due to the fact that they require no paper, ink or bindings – but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be made available at the same time as the hardback. The e-book version is available immediately – no need to wait months for the paperback to be released.

Clearly, the availability of a cheaper version alongside the hardback is something which could have an impact upon hardback sales. Amazon advise that they are currently selling 180 Kindle books for every 100 hard cover editions. This seems to have created a bit of a stir for many of the big publishing houses. They have already had some fairly fraught discussions with Amazon regarding e-book pricing.

Publishers like Harper Collins, Penguin and Hachette recently moved to the “agency model” for their e-books. In plain English – the publisher sets the sales price, not the retailer (Amazon). This has led to an increase in the price of some e-books – to the point where they are more expensive than the hardback edition in some cases.

Kindle owners quickly made their feelings known by awarding “one star” reviews to titles where they felt that the price of the Kindle version had been set too high. Some fairly critical comments were left on the Amazon website – aimed at the publishers by and large – and it was suggested that potential customers boycott both the Kindle and the hardback versions until prices are set at more reasonable levels. Some prices have already fallen.

Adopting such a profit oriented approach seems to be a little short sighted on the part of the publishers. After all, it seems reasonable to suppose that e-book reader owners read more than their fair share of books. People who read a book a month or so are unlikely to buy an e-book reader wouldn’t you think? In other words, e-book reader owners are the target market for the major publishing houses.

It also seems obvious that e-books should cost less than printed books. Apart from their lack of paper, ink and bindings, they have no delivery fee to speak of. They are also – even making allowances for the materials used in the e-book readers themselves – more environmentally friendly. It seems probable that e-book reader owners would not only be able to work this out for themselves but would, quite naturally, anticipate that the price would reflect this fact.

It could be that the publisher’s tactics will prove successful in the short term – however, they need to take care not to antagonise some of their best customers. Artificial price fixing is likely to antagonise the buying public and, after a series of one star reviews and public calls for boycotts, authors would most likely also be discontented. Publishers stand to gain just as much from the e-book revolution as the public. There are savings to be had by all – publisher’s costs will also be reduced and customers will expect prices to reflect this fact. If publishers can adapt to e-books, in the same way that readers have, they may continue to thrive. On the other hand, if their desire for short term profits inures them to the possible opportunities offered by this new medium, they will be rejected by both their authors and their readers.

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