Price wars are great, aren’t they? Consumers always win, apparently. So, the launch of Kindle in the UK should have heralded a new dawn for eBooks, with prices falling thanks to greater competition, and everyone happy with their lovely new Sony models, or the latest version of the Kindle.
The world of publishing and bookselling, it seems, has other ideas. I wrote not that long ago about the new version of the WH Smith eBook store, and when Kindle launched I compared the prices of a selection of books – essentially looking at those I’ve bought, and comparing what the price would be to buy the whole collection again for Kindle, or just to buy them all now, if I were starting from scratch. Essentially, a year’s worth of book buying from Amazon would save me enough to buy a Kindle too.
Surprisingly, prices appeared to have gone up. At the end of August, I did a quick comparison of prices, with just a few books. A couple of months on, and I thought I’d repeat the comparison, looking at the prices of the same collection of thirty six books in electronic format that I originally compared at Amazon UK, Waterstones and WH Smith.
That turned out to be an impossible task; I’ll be going into the reasons in more detail in an article for Register Hardware, but essentially a lot of the books are no longer available to UK readers in electronic format. For example, none of the Iain M Banks culture books can be bought as ePub at the moment, though you’ll still find them on Kindle. Nor is there anything by Qui Xiaolong, Ian Rankin, or Stephen Baxter. Of the thirty six books I used in my previous price comparison, only twenty one are now available regardless of which of the three stores you use. One title is not available at all now, but the bulk of what’s gone missing is common to Waterstones and WH Smith with Amazon so far unaffected.
Taking these twenty one books, the cost at Waterstones (reasonable search engine, reliably high prices) is £130.43. WH Smiths (better pricing, truly horrible web site) is £108.26, while Amazon’s UK Kindle store would charge you £84.30, leaving plenty of cash left over to buy all the books that the other stores don’t even have at the moment.
Going back to the August prices, to buy those twenty one books at WH Smiths would have cost £110.95, so they are a little cheaper now, as are Amazon, where they’d have cost £87.16 while Waterstones ploughs their own furrow, defying logic by increasing the price – you could have bought those twenty books for £113.10 in August.
That’s a 3.2% fall at Amazon across these twenty titles as a whole, 2.4% at WH Smiths while – bless their little capitalist socks – Waterstones have put prices up by 15.3%.
Some price war, eh?
Of course, some of the blame for this is certainly not the bookshops. It’s the publishers, who resolutely refuse to understand digital media; the absence of major authors like Ian Rankin and Iain M Banks in ePub format is most likely the result of the imposition of ‘agency terms’ by some big publishers. Essentially, if you’re going to sell their books, they want you to sell them at the prices they set. Can’t have eBooks getting too cheap and affordable, can we?
Hopefully, the absence of some major authors from eBook stores will be temporary – but in the meantime, you could be forgiven for thinking that publishers really do want to hand all the cards to Amazon – they’re the cheapest and, for whatever reason, they are now the ones with the biggest range of books, some of which UK readers cannot, right now, buy electronically in a format compatible with their own devices.
If I were an executive at Sony or any other maker of ePub readers, I’d be asking my PA where to find voodoo dolls of publishing execs round about now.
Update: 26th November. Just checked the spreadsheet, and it’s 21 books, not 20. But since I’m not working out average prices, it makes no real difference.