Why Printer Ink is so Expensive

Cost of inkLeo Tolstoy, wordy fellow that he was, used a lot of ink. He was also on the frugal side, eventually renouncing his fabulous inheritance, trying to free his serfs and opting to stay in his kid sister?s convent.

So you?ve got to wonder, if the Russian novelist had a home office, what kind of ink-jet printer would he use? It?s a question worthy of a great thinker?s consideration. After all, depending on which system you choose, the cost of printing a black-and-white page can range from 2 cents to 14 cents. Whether you?re printing a 1,400-page novel or your favorite borscht recipes, it adds up fast.

Maybe he?d go for the Kodak. Unlike its rivals, which sell printers at a loss and make huge profits on the ink, the photo giant has been marketing its ESP printer line with an appealingly contrarian pitch: a fairly priced printer that takes cheap ink. Yes, it costs 30 percent more than comparable models, but the cartridges cost less than $15, and per-page printing costs are among the lowest in the industry. When I recently tried printing ?War and Peace? using the Kodak ESP 5 and its $10 black cartridge, I got all the way up to page 317, where Rostov hears that the czar has been hit with a cannonball. Three cents a page works for me.

You?d think the line would be a surefire hit. After all, the cost of printer ink is an old sore spot with consumers. In a 2007 Ipsos survey, 69 percent of respondents said cheaper ink tops their home-printer wish list. And it?s a legitimate gripe. The average retail price of a milliliter of ink shot up 360 percent between 1999 and 2007. Meanwhile, a $30 ink cartridge costs just three bucks to make; suppliers could cut prices in half and still take in a nice profit, says Lyra Research senior analyst Andy? Lippman.

But for most manufacturers, the traditional model is too lucrative to change. HP, for one, says its $29 billion Imaging and Printing segment is its most profitable division, earning three times what the company does on personal computers. That?s because even while printer makers lose about $30 on every $100 printer sale, the typical customer spends more than three times as much on ink over a three-year period as he did on the printer. And often, the cheapest models require the most expensive ink. If you find yourself irresistibly drawn to, say, the $30 Lexmark Z611 printer, replacement cartridges will set you back $66 a pop.

So is Kodak revolutionizing the industry? Hardly. While the line launched with huge press fanfare, it sold just 520,000 printers last year ? a tiny fraction of the 85 million ink-jet printers sold overall. Analysts say it?s because consumers are too shortsighted to consider the cost of ink when buying a printer. But I suspect the real reason is a strange quirk in the law that makes it almost impossible to compare long-term ink costs. The 1966 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which requires manufacturers to state quantities on consumer packaging, allows just a few exceptions, including lighters, safety pins and ? you guessed it ? ink. Only one of the major makers, HP, offers page-yield information on its cartridge packaging, and you still have to calculate per-page costs. ?Consumers don?t have the right information to make the right choice,? says American Consumer Institute President Steve Pociask, who studies the ink market.

Actually, the information is available, if you know where to look. Two years ago printer makers agreed on a universal standard to test how many pages their ink cartridges produce. HP and Epson, bless their inky souls, link to this information from their product pages. Canon and Lexmark, meanwhile, bury it so deeply online that I had to call their press offices for directions. Once you?ve got the data, you simply have to perform a series of seven calculations to determine the three-year cost of ownership for any particular printer. Have fun! Personally, while Tolstoy may not approve, I think I?ll let my serfs do the work.