What costs more to produce, a paper or an e-book? Surely it must be the former. Laying out the text is required for both, and once done, the resultant layout is almost certainly good to be used for both. Paper book, of course, require paper (and felling of trees), printing ink, glue, and finally a printing shop. Then, the paper books need to be stocked, distributed, etc, etc. With an e-book, once laid out and a "master" copy is produced, the duplication and distribution cost pretty much nothing, at least per copy, and compared to the paper books.
So, how to explain and justify the following discrepancy:
A current best-seller, "61 Hours", by Lee Child e-book will set you back £12.99 (RRP £19.40), while the same title in hard-cover(!), from the same on-line shop will cost you £9.59 (RRP £18.99), and that is with free delivery! Similarly, "The Goof Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ", by Philip Pullman, in the same shop retails as follows: e-book for £10.49 (RRP £14.99), hard-cover for £7.59 (RRP £14.99) again with free delivery. At least for the second book they had the decency not to make e-book RRP higher! All prices as of 9:30am, 26 April 2010.
As you can see the retailer are the Waterstones, but similar pricing structure can be found elsewhere, too (e.g. WH Smith). And all this after you have also spent £150 or more on an e-book reader. If you thought it would be much different for out of copyright works, you'd be surprised. "The Great Expectations" paperbacks at Waterstones range from £1.99 to £5.99, the same as the equivalent e-books (e.g. this one and this one). OK, at least here the e-book is not actually more expensive. Still, this pricing structure can only be described as: preposterous! The consolation is - provided you can read the language of the original - that out of copyright books can be had for free (as in beer) from places like The Gutenberg Project, and increasingly in the formats easily transferable to modern e-book readers.
Let's do a quick recap: you are paying more for a product that is cheaper to produce (not to mention more environmentally friendly), and also requires an expensive device in order to be used at all. This would be wrong even if bookshops were to give each customer one basic e-book reader.
It seems to me that the publishers are setting themselves up for the same kind of failure that music industry encountered when faced with the world in which people wanted their music in a simple electronic format. Yes, the music industry finally got to its senses and you can now buy single tracks for very little money - but it took them almost a decade. A decade in which the themselves lost momentum, as well as a fortune, and in which several generations grew firmly believing not that music should be free, but that the music is free. And who could blame them, even if they disagreed with the principle?
And now, exactly the same thing can start happening to the publishers (and this may easily apply to newspapers and magazines - it's just I haven't looked into it, yet). Overprice something which everyone knows is cheaper and you are literally pushing your own customers into piracy (and piracy is theft as music industry never fails to remind us). This is even worse seeing as the best book industry customers tend to be from the affluent, slightly more mature segment of the population (i.e. not your average spotty teenager who devours music 24/7).
The move towards e-books and other alternatives to print is inevitable, just as the motor-car inevitably had to replace horse-and-carriage. The way to preserve one's place in the industry is to embrace change, not to stifle it with prohibitive pricing structures. Not embracing the new and finding ways to profit from it can easily spell the end of a good few, currently profitable, enterprises. Failing, they'll eventually have to make way for the new, cleverer ones. But then, on other hand, would that be such a bad thing?
In case a publisher reads this and wants to point out that e-book readers currently being as dear as they are the people who buy them are affluent enough to be able, and maybe even happy, to shell out extra for their e-books. To this, I say: were e-books cheaper, it may encourage more people to consider buying an e-book reader and save on the books in the long run (remember, a voracious reader now is a voracious reader forever). This will increase sales of e-book readers, and the economies of scale will inevitably make their prices go down. In the worst case, keeping a healthy interest in this segment (i.e. not chasing the customers away or into habitual piracy), will give the technological advancements time to come on-line and make the readers cheaper even if the volumes don't. Don't fall into a trap of shortsightedness and/or misunderstanding the new industry segment when you see one. After all, it is not really new at all. Music industry has been here before. Learn from their mistakes - not yours. Mistakes are there to be learned from, but only a fool learns only from their own...