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The Absurdity of Pricing: A Response and Rebuttal

Mark Mzyk | March 21, 2008

Earlier I wrote a post on what I consider to be the extreme pricing of the Kindle version of the book The Algorithm Design Manual.  Richard was kind enough to provide a comment on my views, but I’ve been lazy and slow in responding to Richard, so instead of posting a comment in response to Richard, I’m elevating my response to a full post.  Consider it author’s privilege.

First, here is Richard’s comment, in its entirety:

“Of course, computer books, for some reason, never are. ”

While a novel writer/publisher might try to sell a book for $65 – few readers would buy the book because the availability of other good novels for $10-20/book are widely available – and few people “have to” read that $65 novel – as the book is read solely for enjoyment. So charging more than the going rate for a novel means very rapidly declining unit sales – means the writer/publisher make less money.

Computer Science books address a specific field of interest compared to mass market books. So if the “The Algorithm Design Manual” costs $65 why not buy “Algorithms” by Sanjoy Dasgupta for $33 instead? BTW, “The Algorithm Design Manual” sells more copies than “Algorithms” by Sanjoy Dasgupta on Amazon (based on sales rankings)

If “The Algorithm Design Manual” is the better book to learn from – and the book is being read for getting a degree or professional reasons the “The Algorithm Design Manual” is the better buy especially if one considers the 10-100 hours you may spend with this book. So higher book prices don’t hurt unit sales very much.
In case you think this is a matter of “evil greed” think about this. Would you accept a accept a different job with similar working conditions, hours, people, advancement opportunities, commute, etc. – at 20% less pay? If your answer is “no” you are acting the same way as the writer/publisher of “The Algorithm Design Manual”

I think Richard’s response is certainly valid.  He pointed out some things that I hadn’t thought all the way through.  The computer science book market is much smaller than the novel market and therefore relies on fewer sales.  Also, if a publisher can charge a premium for a book because it is better than others (perceived or actually so), then why not charge the premium?  The non-book example of this would be Apple computers vs. everyone else.

I also admit that I did imply evil greed in my post, even if I didn’t come out and say it.  I somewhat hastily jumped to a conclusion and had not thought through all the implications or possibilities.  Richard rightly called me out on that and his job analogy is an excellent one.

Still, I stand by my original post.  While the computer science book market might be smaller than the novel market, it is still a market.  There is elasticity there.  I think that a Kindle version of a book should be discounted more than about $8.  By discounting it more, it is possible it will sell more copies and make up for the discount.  It still isn’t likely to sell like a novel, but I bet it would sell more and bring in additional profit, especially considering the greatly reduced costs of producing the Kindle version.

I also think the job analogy, while excellent as I’ve said, is misleading.  The Kindle version of a book is not the same as the print version.  Therefore, it isn’t like accepting the same job for 20% less pay.  With the Kindle version, I’m giving up the feel of the pages between my hands and the ability to place the book upon my shelf.  You could argue I’m getting some things in return, like the ability to change the text size, but that only highlights how the two versions aren’t the same.

There’s also the fact that to buy the Kindle version I’ve already payed a premium for the Kindle.  So the price of the Kindle version of the book is actually higher than the price of the print version when the price of the Kindle itself is factored in.  Granted, as I buy more books for the Kindle the cost of the Kindle is dispersed, but at least initially, I’m paying a high premium for each book.

I appreciate the comment, Richard.  It made me further think through my opinion and that’s always a good thing.

For further reading on ebooks and some arguments against them, I recommend this article by Charlie Stross.  It’s thought provoking, to say the least.