How low can Amazon go?

Amazon lowers prices on some e-books to $7.99.

When Amazon first started offering e-books at prices as low as $9.99, it seemed to many publishers and other booksellers that things couldn't get much worse. Then they did. Yesterday Amazon pushed prices on pre-orders of electronic versions of several big titles down to $7.99.

The e-tailer made headlines yesterday when it announced that customers who pre-order e-book versions of Stephen King's “Under the Dome” and Sarah Palin memoir “Going Rogue” will pay only $7.99. (The two books were released in hard cover in November, but their publishers had delayed the electronic versions of both books till Dec. 24, hoping to encourage big holiday sales of the physical books.)

Today, industry newsletter PublishersLunch notes that Amazon has further lowered the price tags of e-book versions of other popular titles. These include: "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel ($8.80); "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett ($7.60); "The Girl Who Played with Fire" by Stieg Larsson ($7.99); "Pursuit of Honor" by Vince Flynn ($8.00); "What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures" by Malcolm Gladwell ($9.00); and "Beautiful Creatures" by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl ($9.00).

(Barnes & Noble prices are now comparable.)

Where does it go from here? Amazon may be winning customers over to e-books, say some industry experts, but they're not making money on rock-bottom prices for books. Amazon is "losing money on every [e-book] sale, and that can't continue forever," Ned May, lead analyst at research firm Outsell, told USA Today.

But what will continue – and flourish – will be consumer interest in e-books. Readers in the USA spent $15.9 million on e-books in September, up 171% from Sept. 2008, according to the Association of American Publishers. About 3 million e-readers were sold in the US this year, and it has been predicted that the number will double to 6 million next year.

The response of some major US publishers – this week, anyway – has been to announce that they will delay electronic versions of some of their big titles by a period of months, hoping to encourage consumers to buy hard cover copies in larger numbers.

It's a move that's not currently winning the publishers a lot of good press. "It won’t work in the end and is likely to cost you a lot of good will," Cary Sherburne told participating publishers today in her blog.

For 2009, perhaps the brightest hope of booksellers and book producers alike is to at least close the year with strong holiday sales. But when it comes to 2010, those who follow the industry had better strap on their seat belts. It's sure to be a bumpy ride.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. You can follow her on Twitter at

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