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Should ebooks be cheaper or paper books more expensive?


Amazon is having something of a war with some publishers, notably Hachette, over the pricing of books. As Bloomberg asks in this video, should ebooks be cheaper? I believe the real question is  “should printed books should be more expensive?”. For too long the prices of ebooks have been kept high to avoid ruining publishers’ traditional printing and distribution model. In other words, they are used to subsidise printed books. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realise that the materials, printing and distribution of paper books must cost considerably more than the near-zero bill for ebooks.

To make matters worse, in the UK ebooks are taxed at 20 percent while paper books are off the hook. This stacks the odds even further against the modern means of distribution. Yet, in my view, ebooks are preferable in every respect. They cost nothing to distribute, they don’t clutter book shops, they don’t waste valuable resources and getting them from author to reader has a zero carbon footprint.

Authors are entitled to their fair recompense and it is right that a large chunk of the book price should go to them. But the sale of ebooks should not be used to subsidise out-of-date methods of distribution. And the tax rates should be harmonised. There is no earthly reason why physical books should be zero rated when ebooks are taxed. If there is a case for tax exemption on educational grounds, which is the basis of the current zero rating, then it should be extended to ebooks which are no less educational.

With a levelling of taxes and recognition of the low cost of ebook production, prices will find their own level. It is patently obvious that physical books must eventually cost more than ebooks. If people wish to live in the past and surround themselves with books instead of a Kindle full of digital files then they must be prepared to pay for their preference.