Is someone fixing ebook prices?

Google's rumored ebookstore is here at last, begging the question: Who has the better price on ebooks? It's certainly the question I'm asking looking ahead to holiday shopping. Ebooks are definitely on my list of gifts this year -- and yours? Early this afternoon, I did a quick comparison, so you won't have to. The results are disturbing. Something stinks like a diaper. It's not the differences in pricing but the uniformity across ebookstores that surprises. Shouldn't competition in a hot new category drive pricing variations?

The first consideration buying ebooks is consumption. On what device? Google's new store appeals for much the same as Amazon's: Broad device support. While Amazon and Google approach the solution in different ways, the result is essentially the same -- ebooks available for reading on Macs, PCs, smartphones and tablets. Uh-oh, there's no native Google ebookstore app for BlackBerry, Kindle or Windows Phone 7. Hey, but Google has got Barnes & Noble Nook and Sony Reader. Eat those bananas, Amazon. Of course, Nook does run Android. I wonder how those B&N folks are feeling about open source -- in this case open competition -- now?

I started my ebook comparison with an obscure but classic 1930's science fiction novella: "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell. Amazon's Kindle store describes: "A terrifying shape-changing alien at a frozen research station challenges its crew for survival in the most memorable sci-fi story of its decade." Amazon and Google approach reader reviews differently. Amazon customers post reviews in the Kindle store, while Google pulls them from social site GoodReads. I chuckled at the second Google ebookstore review, which begins: "I read the Kindle version of this short story." Oh, yeah.

I was most interested to see if Google would better Amazon pricing. After all, Google is king of free. I also checked pricing and availability at Apple's iBookstore and the Nook store. I expected that "premium-pricing everything else" Apple would ask the most for the novella? It's $6.99, and only available for iOS, which means iPad, iPhone and iPod touch, baby. But Barnes & Noble charges more: $7.19. Not even Apple could top the Nook ebook. Google does a little better than Apple -- $6.15. Amazon: $4.79. Well, hell on wheels. Amazon will get my money.

Perhaps old is unfair. So I searched for something more recent and more popular. Stieg Larsson's global bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ebook is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Google for $5.20. Ho. Ho. Ho. Equal pricing. But, whoops, for all Apple marketing blathering about convenience, the title doesn't show up in searches.

How about something really new and from the New York Times bestseller list: Decision Points by (cough, cough) former president George W. Bush. Once again, three ebookstores offer the title for the same price -- $9.99. I came up with nothing searching Apple's store. One more: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. It's available from all four stores for $5.99.

If this little exercise is any indicator, pricing won't be much of a differentiator among these four stores during the holidays. Google's entering the game isn't changing anything today. But shouldn't it? After all, the king of free pulls down prices and/or value pretty much everywhere else. Nearly uniform pricing is highly suspicious. Brick-and-mortar retailer book pricing does vary more, depending on initial discount, volume of inventory to sell (or unload if too many) and time on shelf, among many other factors. Remember: Ebooks don't grow old on the shelf. Retailers can't over-order or be compelled to offer overstock deals.

In looking at these four ebookstores, pricing is too similar. It stinks of publishers demanding prices be such and such to grant distribution. It wasn't that many months ago, that in a disagreement with publishers Amazon was forced to raise ebook prices and adopt an agency sales model. I have to wonder: Are major publishers fixing prices? (Or even the bookstores? After I posted, someone asked if I knew the ebookstores were using the agency model, which in theory gives them some discretion over price. Of course, I knew, which is why I expected more price variances. If there is little or none, the first question to ask is "Why Not?")

US Antitrust law looks harshly on price fixing, because it causes harm to consumers. They don't receive the benefits, lower pricing among them, of companies vying for the same customers. What's missing from my casual review is truly fluid pricing. I randomly selected another five titles, with similar result: Same prices across all the stores (and some more titles not available from Apple). The more recent, or more popular the title, the more likely all the stores sell the ebook for the same price. Does that sound right to you? Is that also your observation? Please respond in comments.

[Editor's Note: This analysis started out simply as a price-comparison story, assuming that prices would vary across ebookstores. Uniform pricing was unexpected.]

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