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Kindle and Nook readers bash high e-book pricing with angry one-star reviews

The e-book for Michael Connelly's legal thriller, "The Fifth Witness," is getting hammered by people for being priced at $14.99, with dozens of one-star reviews. How's that affecting sales?

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
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David Carnoy
4 min read

Kindle and Nook users share one thing in common: a number of them are rather upset about high e-book prices and are voting their displeasure in their user reviews.

Case in point is Michael Connelly's new legal thriller, "The Fifth Witness," which is getting hammered in both the Kindle and Nookbook stores despite strong reviews from "real" reviewers. "The Fifth Witness" costs $14.99 while the hardcover currently runs $14.28 on Amazon and $14.73 on BarnesandNoble.com. Sure, $15 is a lot to spend on an e-book but the even bigger insult that people take issue with is the higher cost of the e-book versus the hardcover.

Michael Connelly's 'The Fifth Witness' e-book is being attacked for being priced higher than the hardcover. Amazon

"I was about to purchase this e-book and then noticed the price is GREATER than for the hardcover," writes one reviewer named Teri, who is among the over 60 people who've posted one-star reviews on the on Amazon--and that number is growing by the hour. "The reason I bought my kindle two years ago is that I didn't have to wait for paperbacks to buy books at a reasonable price. This is ridiculous!!! I like Michael Connelly, but I'll wait to buy until this is priced rationally."

The reviews on BarnesandNoble.com are just as indignant.

"Greedy publishers is the only thing I can see at this point," writes Al57, who threatens to get rid of his or her Nook before paying more than the hardcover. "Will go back to the library and place Connelly along with R Patterson, Sanford, and Woods on the do not buy list."

I'm just citing a couple of user reviews, but most of them sport similar themes: rage at the publisher, an unwillingness to be ripped off, and a feeling of injustice given the fact that an e-book costs much less to produce than a physical book. Some even encourage Mr. Connelly to have a talk with his publisher; they hold him personally accountable.

I can certainly understand people's frustration. It is ridiculous that an e-book costs more than the hardcover. And $15 is a lofty price to pay for an e-book. But here's the deal. Back in the day, before e-books got big, publishers used to put out a hardcover and then wait a while (about a year) before putting out a paperback. The term for this is windowing, which also applies to the movie business.

With the arrival of e-books and the agency model for selling them, windowing has gone away--at least for bestsellers (not every e-book comes out at the same time as the paper version, though many do). However, you could argue that pricing is simply a form of windowing. The publisher needs to sell hardcovers and it's also supposed to put out an e-book. So what it does is put out an e-book at what seems like an outrageously high price, hoping that the hardcover sales won't get too cannibalized while making the most it can on early e-book sales.

Over 60 one-star reviews and counting.

In a couple of months, if not sooner, the price of "The Fifth Witness" will drop to $12.99, which many will argue is still too expensive. And in a year, when the paperback comes out, you'll see it priced for even less (Connelly's "Lincoln Lawyer," now a movie, is $7.99, and the "Fifth Witness," which features the same main character, ties-in nicely to the movie).

But who cares about the hardcover, right? "I have an e-reader and I want the e-book," you say. "E-books are what I buy now. And I'm good, loyal reader and I buy a lot of books. So don't screw me."

Well, I certainly get that. But what happens is that same person who's angry about not getting the e-book right away at a reasonable price is a good reader and may end up getting a little upset when their local Borders, Barnes & Noble, or favorite independent bookstore closes. At some point--and it's probably sooner than we think--it will become increasingly difficult for publishers to actually put out hardcovers (or paper books in general) for a reasonable price because not enough people will be buying them. And that means more bookstores will be closing.

But so what? That's capitalism. That's innovation. The horse and buggy went out with the automobile. The CD replaced the LP. The iPod replaced the Walkman. The MP3 replaced the CD. Streaming video will kill DVD and Blu-ray. And so on.

All true. Which is why, ultimately, sales, not one-star "protest" reviews on books will force publishers to lower prices. And right now, Connelly's book is ranked No. 4 both in the Kindle Store and the Nookbook Store, selling thousands of copies even with all those low ratings. Obviously, plenty of people are willing to pay $15, so why go lower if you don't have to?

What do you think? Is it wrong to post one-star reviews if you haven't read the book? Or is it a perfectly legitimate protest tool?

Update: A few days after this story ran, the price of "The Fifth Witness" dropped to $12.99.