Fans of electronic books got a little bit of exciting news today at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference. Showing off how the new iPhone OS 3.0 will allow purchasing transactions from within apps, Apple brought out on stage an ebook app developer called Scrollmotion. The company’s co-founder, Josh Koppel, showed off how his Iceberg reader app on an iPhone will let you browse an ebook store directly without needing to jump to a web browser. And purchased ebooks immediately download into the app so you can read them right away. Pretty cool. You can’t quite do that with current ebook readers like Stanza, Kindle or eReader.
Funny thing about Koppel’s presentation of his new ebook store, though: there weren’t any prices visible. Well, not totally true — he did demonstrate the purchase of one book, the 2nd volume in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, New Moon. How much was this book, which came out in 2006 and can be purchased as a paperback on Amazon.com for $5.50? The ebook on Scrollmotion was $9.99.
Not only is the price a terrible, terrible value for customers, but I think it may even have been purposely chosen at the $9.99 level to mislead. Many people might assume it’s a more recent best-seller being offered at the Amazon Kindle store’s typical ebook price for best-sellers of $9.99. No way Jose. And p.s. the book is $5.50 for the Kindle version.
Turns out Scrollmotion isn’t new to the iPhone app store either. Turns out they’re the folks selling all those one-off, mainstream ebooks. You know the ones where each ebook is a completely separate app taking up space on your home screens? And what are the prices like? Absolutely insane. I mean wack. I mean more than you would pay for a brand new hardcover. Bob Barker’s recent memoir, Priceless Memories, is $25 from Scrollmotion versus $9.99 in the Kindle ebook store or $16.49 for a hardcover version.
You read that right — Scrollmotion is charging you a 34% PREMIUM over the hardcover for an itty bitty electronic version that is locked down with DRM and can only be read on an iPhone or iPod Touch. There’s far less value in the ebook edition, which can’t be shared or resold and remains tied forever to a particular device platform. But they want more. I won’t even get into the fact that no matter how you measure a publisher’s costs, it is cheaper to sell an ebook than a print book (debate rages over how much cheaper, a lot or a little).
And Barker’s Scrollmotion ebook price is typical. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is $9.99 on Kindle and $17 on Scrollmotion. Testimony by Anita Shreve is $16 for a hardcover or $9.99 for Kindle but as a Scrollmotion ebook app it’s $26. Outrageous.
Koppel says Scrollmotion will have 170 newspapers, 50 magazines and 1 million (you know, use your best Mini Me voice for that: one meeeelion) ebooks available for its new in-app purchase store. No surprise that publishers are jumping on board at these prices. The question is why would anyone pay these prices? Lately on some of the ebook blogs, people from the publishing industry have been whining about Amazon’s low ebook prices and claiming that if only they were given more leeway to set prices things would be much better. I think Scrollmotion is Exhibit A, B and C in why that would be a disaster for the entire field.
By the way, although Apple is making the in-app purchase feature available to all apps in theory, don’t expect many of the other existing ebook reader apps to offer it. Apple is, first of all, prohibiting any free app from offering in-app sales. And further, Apple is demanding 30% of the revenue from any sales through in-app purchases. But with Kindle and other ebook vendors selling ebooks at big discounts, even at a loss in some cases, there is no margin to hand 30% of every sale over to Apple.
The high profile Apple gave to Scrollmotion, which is ripping off its customers daily, marks yet another sad episode of Apple caving in to the interests of big publishing and broadcasting corporations over the interests of its customers. In April, Apple caved to the music labels and raised prices on popular songs by 30%. And its video store has never taken off in part because it never offered good value, charging as much or more for low-quality downloads as the same shows cost on DVD. Seems like they’re running the same self-defeating game plan for ebooks.