As a general rule, it seems to be the case that publishers have done a relatively poor job of making older catalog titles available in eBook format. Go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or your other favorite eBook seller and look up some book you remember from 20 years ago. More likely than not, it’s not available as an eBook unless it’s from a fairly successful author.
Even books that spent time at the top of the bestseller’s lists are often not available. One great example is the Belgariad/Mallorean fantasy series from David Eddings. A total of twelve books, most of which spent several weeks at or near the top of the bestseller’s lists when they were originally released. And yet, none of them are available here in the USA as an eBook. In fact, of Eddings’ twenty-five novels, only seven are available in eBook format here.
In the case of David Eddings, I suspect that there is some issue regarding royalty negotiations with the estate that is the main problem, because some of his books are available in other countries but not here. However, aside from situations like that, I think the biggest factor is that mass-market eBooks are still a relatively new thing. It’s still a young market. To whatever degree eBooks existed before Amazon released the first Kindle in late 2007, they were a niche product used mainly by hardcore computer users. For comparison, if you look at the situation with older music catalog releases on CompactDisc 5-6 years after that formats was first introduced, I suspect you would see a similar situation with the availability of older titles.
But “young market” is not a good excuse, for many reasons. The first reason is that the publishers should know better. If you look at the availability of older titles on DVD, you’d see that they were released earlier and more quickly than had happened with music on CD. In fact, this helped make DVD one the fastest growing media formats ever.
Why did they release older titles more quickly? The DVD format was created and introduced in the mid-90′s, about the same time that significant numbers of people started buying music on the Internet. Tracking sales statistics for online purchases was much easier and more accurate than for brick-and-mortor stores, and it soon became apparent that the sale of older catalog titles, overall, was a much bigger part of the market than had been previously realized. This fact did not escape the notice of the movie studios. While new releases still got the most attention, they also made an effort to make older titles available more quickly as well.
Another reason why the “young market” argument isn’t a good excuse is that, unlike the process of bringing older music titles to CD or older movies to DVD, there’s no potentially expensive restoration or remastering process required. With music and DVD, the process of bringing out an older title can require a significant investment of time and money. With music, taking an older set of analog master tapes and making a decent digital master could take a serious amount of work. With movies, even more so. It’s not unusual for it to cost a quarter million dollars to restore a movie for a DVD release.
With books, and we’re talking basic mass-market fiction with minimal illustrations, there’s no such expensive and/or arduous process involved. Even if the text isn’t already available in digital form, it takes no more than a few hours of work to scan and proofread. Once the text is in digital form, it takes just a few hours of work, at most, to create an eBook.
How Much Should It Cost?
Above all else, any eBook edition should never be any more expensive than the cheapest paper-based edition.
If the book is available as a mass-market paperback, and is still “in-print” (an increasingly archaic concept) and reasonably easy to find on the shelves at bookstores, then I think the same price as the mass-market paperback is reasonable. Although I’m not complaining if it happens to be cheaper.
I am not at all a fan of the idea that an eBook should cost more because there’s a trade paperback or collector’s edition hardcover edition. I’ve seen prices go up on books that have been available for years because of this sort of foolishness. It’s especially stupid when there’s a new CE hardcover, because the markets don’t really overlap much. If I were to buy a new hardcover edition of Dune for myself or as a gift, it doesn’t really affect my decision to buy the eBook version, or vice versa.
If the book is no longer easy to find on the shelves, then my thought is that it should be somewhat cheaper than a current mass-market title. I think pricing it the same as a current title is foolish because you’re just driving away a lot of people that would otherwise make a purchase.
Once upon a time, with paper-based books, it made sense that older titles which were no longer selling very well would be eventually taken down off the shelves at the bookstore. After all, shelf space is a limited commodity and you want it used for books that are going to sell, not just sit there. Anything on those store shelves has to generate a certain level of income or be replaced by something that will.
It’s a long-standing idea of retail that if you’ve got a warehouse full of stock that is no longer really moving at the original price, you knock the price down. And knock it down again, and again until it’s in the bargain bin. The money required to create the product has already been spent, and every day it sits on store shelves or in the warehouse is costing you more. At some point, you stop worrying about how much it cost to manufacture and start worrying about being able to recover any money from it at all. If you end up selling it at at 10% of the original price, you’re probably still better off than just letting it sit.
With eBooks, “warehouse space” is virtually infinite and virtually free, so it’s probably easy to decide that if it doesn’t cost you anything to store the product, there’s no compelling reason to drop the price until sales pick up. Just leave the price where it is and sales will still trickle in. As long as the publisher isn’t losing any money, what’s the problem?
The problem with looking at it that way is that it means there’s not a lot of incentive to spend any time or effort on older titles that you’re not convinced will sell very well. Even if the break-even point is really, really low.
Lower prices on older catalog titles would provide incentive to buyers to try out authors and genres they’ve never read before. Why wouldn’t you want a fantasy reader to decide it’s time to check out James Patterson’s Alex Cross mystery series because they can get some of the older books for $3.99 instead of $7.99? I guarantee you will sell a lot more copies of Along Came A Spider at the lower price, and maybe you also create a new James Patterson fan in the process.