Authors and their representatives have warned that books are being devalued to the point of "disaster", following news this week that Sony and Amazon are selling selected e-books, including frontlist titles, for just 20p.
Novels including Peter James' Perfect Strangers and Man Booker Prize-winner Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child, both recent paperback releases (7th June and 24th May respectively), are among 10 titles being sold at the rock-bottom figure, with Amazon moving to match a price point set by competitor Sony.
Sony, which has been publicising the 20p book promotion on its homepage, said the Reader Store offer "is not time limited" and that the titles will "change frequently".
Crime writer James commented: "On the one hand the price is a great way of promoting a book and getting it out to a wider number of readers. On the other hand, I think all authors are nervous about it, and the biggest concern is the long-term effect this will have." He added: "We have tried to learn from the music industry, where they decided the only way to make people pay was to make the product so cheap it wasn't worth pirating. It's scary to think the same thing could happen with books."
Alan Hollinghurst's agent Antony Harwood said: "I don't think any of us like seeing books sold at that kind of price. It does devalue a book. But they are using it as a massive loss leader and they can afford to do it. It's clear that e-book pricing is something we have to address."
Kate Pool, deputy general secretary of The Society of Authors, warned: "If the public expects books to cost 20p, that way disaster lies. It is getting to the stage where people will go into a bookshop and spend £3 or £4 on a greetings card, but soon they will baulk at paying half of that for a book. But lots of books are deeply researched, or highly illustrated, and need editing and lots of other processes‚ they cannot be sold for nothing." She added: "If the value falls out of books, where is the loser? On a simple level, it's publishers, and the effect on the rest of the industry is that quality falls, and that means people will buy fewer books."
A spokesman for the Sony Reader Store said: "We at Reader Store recognise that there is a concern about a perceived devaluation of e-books. In fact, this concern is part of the reason that Reader Store has chosen a price point of 20p for some e-books as we see this to be such a significant discount off of list price that consumers can appreciate it is not the 'new price of e-books'. We do believe that with e-books, just as with physical books, UK customers should have the opportunity to purchase at great prices."
Sony said that publishers whose titles are being offered at the price, including Pan Macmillan, Quercus and Canongate, had expressed "enthusiasm for our efforts to bring their titles to an ever growing audience".
Amazon, Macmillan and Quercus declined to comment. Canongate did not respond to a request for comment.
Monday to Friday Man by Alice Peterson (Quercus) is highest of the 20p titles on the Amazon bestseller list, currently at number four in the Kindle paid-for chart, behind the Fifty Shades trilogy. It also stands at 11 on the Reader Store chart, with Perfect People at number 13, both advertised as being more than 90% off list price.
Evidence of the effect of the pricing on print sales is inconclusive, with five of the 10 books in the promotion seeing a four-week increase in sales, and five a drop-off.