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Harry Potter’s Latest Magic Trick: Lower E-Book Prices

J.K. Rowling cut out the muggles and middlemen and began selling digital versions of her Harry Potter books directly to readers Tuesday. By going it alone – without the big publishers or e-book stores, experts say she may also be inadvertently casting a price-lowering spell on other e-books.

J. K. Rowling / Getty Images

Rowling’s new web site, Pottermore, went live today. When the site is fully operational, those who venture to Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com will be directed to Rowling’s page to purchase the books, helping her to avoid paying massive royalties to publishers.  And even though she’s already sold 450 million paper editions in 70 languages, Rowling appears to still have some extra marketing magic tricks up her sleeve. “I will be sharing additional information I’ve been hoarding for years about the world of Harry Potter,” she says in a video broadcast on the site.

Rowling doesn’t need to offer bargain basement prices online, but at $7.99 for the early books in the series and $9.99 for the rest, she is charging less than other publishers might have, experts say. Analysts say Rowling’s effort will help drive younger readers to e-books and spur imitation among bestselling authors and relative unknowns. “J.K. Rowling is going to open up a lot of eyes,” says Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords.com, one of the world’s largest distributor of self-published e-books. “It will bring about a sea change of books by big-name authors at lower prices.”

E-books theoretically cost less because they are cheaper to produce and distribute. However, prices often remain high – a fact that prompted a Justice Department investigation into alleged price collusion among publishers. And though Rowling is charging substantially less than hardcover prices, her digital e-books are more expensive than the paperbacks. Not everyone is prepared to buy them at that price. Chicago, Il.-based crime writer Joe Konrath, who has sold over 800,000 e-books at below $5, says his son can’t afford $57.54 for the Harry Potter e-book collection. “Instead, he’ll borrow the paper books from the library, or buy them used,” he says.

Selling discounted e-books has made millionaires of some authors. Minnesota-based writer Amanda Hocking found success for her paranormal/romance e-books for young adults, selling hundreds of thousands for between 99 cents and $2.99. Last year, she signed with MacMilllan to publish her trilogy: Switched, Torn and Ascent, one of which was optioned for a movie. Writing on her blog, Hocking says new versions will have fewer editing errors: “They’ve been polished up and smoothed out.” But at three times the price.

Others authors worry pricing the book too low can make it seem bargain basement. Mike Essex, online manager for Koozai, a London-based digital marketing agency, spent an hour a day for a month writing a how-to book, Free Stuff Everyday. He’s sold around 1,000 copies at $3.68 each. He had less luck at 99 cents. “People assume the content isn’t very good because it’s priced so low,” he says. “Nobody wants to buy something without any reviews.” Her personally asked websites to review it, too.

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    • I Agree, I Refuse Spend That Much for an eBook, $7 To $8 is Too Expensive, $2.99 is My Current Limit For eBooks. Think of it, There is No Transportation to a Book Store. You Save The Very High Cost of the Printing Press Operation. No Warehousing Costs, Etc. No eBooks Should Ever Cost More Than $3.00!! Sorry.

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    • It sounds like we’re in about the same place redingarg review copies. I love getting them, but if I’ve connected with the provider in some way it’s harder for me to review in some ways. And they’ve definitely been pulling me away from other books I might rather be reading. I’m hoping to make some changes after these next few busy months.

    • I’ve actually tuhghot about this in the past few months. I decided to take baby steps to make my life more “paper less.” I pay all my bills online, which I have been for a while, and have had statements sent to my email. I could be the proud and debt-riddled owner of 102 credit cards from Home Depot to L.L. Bean. One day after seeing the stack of credit card offers on the kitchen table, I got angry and called an 800 line that is usually listed in small print at the bottom of all these offers. It’s a national line, not a scam, and my name was removed from the pool of companies that send out these multitudes of rectangular envelopes. In about a month, I saw the colorful envelopes appear less and less in my mailbox. Occasionally some get through the cracks, and I immediately adopt a strong presence on the phone when I get a hold of those lucky customer service representatives…Soon after, I adopted this attitude toward my bookshelves. Yes, shelves. When I lived at my parents’ house, at my “worst” point, I had four cases, so lovingly assembled by my dad as he gave a hairy eyeball to the new “additions” to my book family. But when I moved to my first apartment, I realized how ridiculous it was to have four huge storage boxes of books, none of which were too light. I gave some to friends, others to Goodwill, and then to the local library. (Side note to those of you who live in Lancaster County, PA: Support Your Local Library! Thank you.) I’ve moved two times since then, and each time, books disappear. It’s not a bad thing. Even though I’ve enjoyed a lot of the books, and at one point, hoarded them, they are now (hopefully) in others’ hands. The only books I’ve actually thrown away? The Lord of the Flies (please), The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (shudder), and Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (um, I think I was too dumb at the time to understand the book, got embarrassed, and consigned it to the garbage).On the other hand, I’m keeping all my Truman Capote, Thomas Hardy, and Virginia Woolf. Throughout life, sometimes books must stay with me. Maybe it’s a funny anecdote, a scene that mirrors my own life’s journey, or something special about a character that I can’t quite remember, but I know I love it and will come back to it when I’m ready. Or maybe it’s my $4.95 World’s Classics edition of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, covered in cheap contact paper, with a broken spine, tiny scribbled notes in the margins, and the intangible perspective I have gained from reading it.

    • The hardcover is the basis of comparison because without it being written and successfully published, the e-book would not exist. The costs are the same for paying the writer, editor, book designer, publishing, promotions, advertising, etc., regardless of the format. There would be no reason to write books if the most they could be sold for was is a dollar or two. People who make this argument are being contemptuous of writers and books.

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