Will E-Book Pressures Send Hardcover Prices Soaring?

ebook prices
ebook prices

Do you love the feel of a book, the smell of the ink, the crinkle of the pages? If so, get ready to pay more for the pleasure of holding the printed word in your hands. Thanks to the e-book revolution, hardcover book prices could climb dramatically in the next few years.

Alberto Vitale, former chairman and chief executive of Random House, and an early proponent of digital-books, believes the prices of hardcover books could climb by at least a third in the next five years while the prices of e-books could decline.

Interviewed at a recent publishing conference in New York, Vitale, also the former chairman of the now-defunct International eBook Award Foundation, which created the Frankfurt eBook Award, predicted that "a book that sells today for $27, $28.95 may be selling within the next two to five years at anywhere between $37.95 and $45."

"Eventually, I believe the market will bear the higher price -- publishers will have to experiment with the price. The economics of book publishing are not very good now," Vitale said, adding he did not expect "appreciable resistance" from consumers to higher hardback prices.

Vitale further predicted that the cost of e-books will drop, despite efforts by Apple (AAPL) and book publishers to raise prices above the $9.99 standard set by Amazon (AMZN) for new releases downloaded to its Kindle device. When Apple introduced the iPad earlier this year, it said it had agreements with five of the six largest publishers -- the Hachette Book Group (LGDDF), HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Group (PSO) and Simon & Schuster (CBS) -- to sell new adult fiction and nonfiction e-books at prices ranging from $12.99 to $14.99. However, industry executives later said those prices could decline for books that became best-sellers.

"E-books will become the equivalent of the mass market. Mass market is not down market, it's just a market accessible to a larger number of people. That's why I believe e-book prices have to be lower than they are today. The consumer is not stupid, he knows the e-book is a lot more economical to produce than a regular paper book," Vitale said.

E-books, he added, "will become eventually the dominant part of the business."

The Challenge: Developing "New Iterations of the Book in E-format"

But Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins Publishers (NWS), generally disagrees with Vitale's assessment on the directions of prices.

In a phone interview this week, Murray cited the $35 price charged by Scribner for the hardcover edition of the Stephen King novel Under the Dome, calling it "a big step up" for commercial fiction. He said that although "we may see prices of hardcovers go up a little bit, I don't know if we'll get what [Vitale] is talking about."

He also said prices of digital books might rise, for books enhanced with additional content or other value-added features, or they might drop "lower than they are today."

Although the future of book publishing is "clearly evolving, traditional book publishing will continue," Vitale predicted, noting that the challenge for traditional book publishers will be "to take this hardcover and develop new iterations of the book in e-format," with the product "as is" in e-format, or enhanced with video, voice, "you name it."

Traditional Print Is Far From Dead

Another speaker at the conference, Albert N. Greco, professor of marketing, communications and media management at Fordham University, was far less bullish about the prospects of e-book publishing in the short term, especially books for children, mass-market books and books about religion.

"If you read The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and other media, you get the impression that everyone in the Western hemisphere has an e-reader, and that print is dead. That is clearly not the case, and it's not going to be the case," said Greco. "Will digital books replace print books? At some point in the future, yes, but not quickly."

For his part, Murray said that although the 6 million e-reader users in the U.S. today is an "incredibly tiny number, [but] when you look at their consumption, that number is really staggering. That's what the buzz is about."

The conference on the future of publishing was hosted by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Vitale is the founder of the Wharton Lab for Innovation in Publishing, one of a number of programs at the Wharton School involved in the conference.