Why do e-books sold on Amazon cost nearly as much as paperback copies?

Amazon’s Kindle e-books were once a way to read titles at affordable prices, but the digital-paper price divide is closing. What is causing this? And how will it affect Indian readers?

February 20, 2024 12:22 pm | Updated 12:45 pm IST

While this pricing model sounds strange, it is the case for numerous English-language titles spanning across genres, publishing houses, regions, and formats on Amazon India [File]

While this pricing model sounds strange, it is the case for numerous English-language titles spanning across genres, publishing houses, regions, and formats on Amazon India [File] | Photo Credit: REUTERS

For ₹256.50, a buyer can download Jan Yager’s How to Finish Everything You Start, the no. 1 bestseller on Amazon India’s Kindle store, and start reading it in a few seconds. Amazon India says the reader is getting a discount of 13% (or ₹37.50), compared to the digital list price of ₹294.

However, if a reader chose to pay ₹13.50 more, they could have the physical paperback priced at ₹270 delivered to their doorstep.

The Amazon India product page for Jan Yager’s How to Finish Everything You Start

The Amazon India product page for Jan Yager’s How to Finish Everything You Start | Photo Credit: Screenshot sourced from Amazon India and compiled on Canva

While this pricing model sounds strange, it is the case for numerous English-language titles spanning across genres, publishing houses, regions, and formats on Amazon India.

Whether a reader’s pick of the day is R.F. Kuang’s fantasy epic Babel or Chetan Bhagat’s slice-of-life novel One Indian Girl, the price gap between the Kindle e-book edition and the paperback on Amazon India causes a reader to scratch their head as they wonder whether the e-book is overpriced or the paperback is underpriced.

Amazon India product listing for R.F. Kuang’s Babel and Chetan Bhagat’s One Indian Girl

Amazon India product listing for R.F. Kuang’s Babel and Chetan Bhagat’s One Indian Girl | Photo Credit: Screenshots sourced from Amazon India and compiled as a collage on Canva

The difference between Kuang’s e-book and paperback is less than ₹30. And Bhagat’s is just ₹1.

Compare this scenario to five or ten years ago, when buying an e-book on an Indian e-commerce platform was a breezy choice that saved money, letting the reader buy two or three additional e-books for the price of one paperback. But now, the e-book/paperback price gap is closing for numerous popular books. What is Amazon trying to do, exactly?

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Licensing versus buying

Many who buy e-books on Amazon are either looking to save space or money. And in that process, they want to build their own digital library. But the Kindle Store notes in its Terms of Use that “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.”

This means users are paying to access their e-book title through an authorised device (such as their Kindle tablet) or software (such as the Kindle app on their laptop and phone). While paperbacks can be shared with friends, and PDF books in the public domain can be emailed to others, sharing another person’s Amazon e-book is at times inconvenient because the buyer’s login credentials and a Kindle app/device are needed.

In the case of the bestseller example, a buyer who pays ₹256.50 to access digital books may find their content changed or updated in the future, whereas someone who bought the hard copy at ₹270 will remain the book’s sole owner. And the difference in price is just ₹13.50.

Amazon India also showcases Kindle Unlimited, a subscription-based service, as an alternative as it charges India-based members a monthly fee of ₹169 to give them access to over 20 lakh e-books and comics on any device. After paying for Kindle Unlimited, a member can read Yager’s How to Finish Everything You Start, along with other books included for free. Those who want to give Kindle Unlimited a try should ideally go through the catalogue and see if the freely available titles interest them.

Just like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video subscribers, Kindle Unlimited subscribers do not own the content.

“As a member of Kindle Unlimited, you may read Kindle books from a designated list of titles an unlimited number of times for so long as you are a member of the programme. From time to time, we may add or remove titles from the programme and we make no guarantee as to the availability of specific titles or the minimum number of titles available,” notes Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited Terms of Use.

At a Glance
A reader on Amazon India who wishes to buy a printed book has three main options:
Buying the paperback or hardcover version of the book in order to own it
Paying to license, not buy, an e-book through Amazon’s Kindle store in order to read it and store it digitally
Paying the Kindle Unlimited monthly fee to access free e-books during the subscription period

Love for books in the time of cholera

A publishing consultant and former commissioning editor who has worked with both Penguin and HarperCollins India, Shreya Punj pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a possible factor behind rising e-book prices.

A comparison showing how two titles on Amazon India have similar e-book and paperback prices

A comparison showing how two titles on Amazon India have similar e-book and paperback prices | Photo Credit: Screenshots sourced from Amazon India and compiled as a collage on Canva

“Traditional publishers list the e-book on Amazon and the prices are decided by them,” she explained. “During the pandemic, readers began buying e-books and that changed consumption habits. In my opinion, publishers picked [up] on this trend and thus matched physical book prices to their Kindle versions. Kindle still does offer discounts but these are usually applicable only if one has a Kindle Unlimited subscription.”

Through her Instagram account @‌theeditorrecommends, Punj shares insider knowledge about books and the Indian publishing industry with her more than 23,000 followers. She observed that as e-book and paperback prices come closer together, a reader’s buying capacity is impacted.

But the price gap has not narrowed for all books, according to her.

“Equally priced [e-book and paperback] versions are usually a publisher’s big titles, books they expect will sell huge numbers. In these cases, a reader’s decision is based on their format preference,” Punj said.

So what can an Indian reader do if both Amazon’s e-books and paperbacks are becoming too costly to afford? Punj recommended hitting the library, exploring second-hand bookstores, and hunting for bargains wherever possible.

“For fiscally responsible readers, it makes sense to not base their reading decisions solely on current trends and instead explore the thousands of equally, if not more, interesting books from a publisher’s backlist,” Punj said.

“Read beyond what’s trending.”

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