There’s an interesting thought I’ve had bouncing around my head for over a month now, and all the more lately as a result of several other articles and blogs I’ve read that unknowingly touched on the topic in a way, but … how do we value an e-book?
I find that it’s an interesting question with a lot of variety in what I would suppose would be answers … though technically, these are supposed based on what other people online have stated and said about ebooks. But I still find it an interesting thought: what value are we placing on our ebooks?
I ask because as a whole, it appears that to most, the answer is “little.” Most commentary I’ve seen from online, or been the recipient of, is that an ebook is inherently of little value by nature of being an ebook. While a hardcover or a paperback copy of something such as The Wheel of Time is generally seen as holding an intrinsic value, the ebook of the same will often be derided as “overpriced” or “too expensive,” even though the ebook is already slightly cheaper.
Now, I’m not going to get into the whole debate of “But an ebook should be so much cheaper because it’s not physical” because that particular point has been trounced so thoroughly by authors and industry professionals much better than I that it’s no longer a dead horse, but rather a meaty, ground-up paste that was once a dead horse on the floor. There’s no point in discussing that. The majority cost of the physical aspect of a book has not been the actual tangible costs in a long time. It’s time, editing, marketing, etc. Just like a restaurant is not so much the cost of the ingredients as it is the time and preparation skill. So, if you were already planning a comment discussing that, don’t. You might as well be arguing that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.
Back to the topic at hand, considering the idea that customers aren’t holding an ebook to be of similar value, I find this a fascinating conundrum to consider: Why does the public hold this view? It’s an odd, strange view to take, in light of the rest of society’s embracing of the digital. But in ebooks, there’s this strange idea that an ebook does not have value. In fact a few weeks ago I encountered one poor, confused soul who declared that since ebooks tended to pay an author a higher royalty, the prices of an ebook should be adjusted to compensate, and then volunteered their own numbers (pulled out of a sunless place) to declare that ebooks should cost no more than 10% of the cost of a physical book because that was fair compensation.
Obviously, this is laughable. And I and a few others did have a good laugh about it later at LTUE, because that’s again one of those arguments that doesn’t understand it’s beating a dead horse. But the point remains, and this is what I haven’t stopped wondering about over the last few months … Why? Why is it that a public that seems to have the understanding of “I’m paying for content” with so many other products doesn’t get this with books at all?
Because, let’s face it, in other market areas where space is shared by digital and physical, there’s not a huge assortment of people crying for reduced prices. You don’t see articles from music sites talking about how MP3 downloads are worthless and shouldn’t cost more than ten cents. You don’t see game review sites asking how dare Steam or Origin have a digital game on launch day cost the same as its physical compatriots.
So why in the book industry is this such a problem? Why is it that a person will look at a digital MP3 download from their favorite artist and buy it without a second of remorse, but then look at a digital book from their favorite author and send them an angry message about how that ebook shouldn’t be more than a dollar?
I don’t actually have an answer to this question. All I have are theories based on what I’m reading and hearing from other people around the internet. Maybe you’ll agree with some of these, maybe you won’t. But all of these are things I’ve heard expressed in one way or another.
1- We value the material the book is printed on, its physicality, more than we do the actual book.
Let’s face it, the true content of a book is the words inside of it, but more and more whatever those words are seems to matter less and less to buyers. For whatever reason. I’ve seen posts from people online saying that it’s not about the story, it’s about the stuff it’s printed on.
I find this one curious. Yes, there is a certain tangible luxury to creasing pages in my hand and feeling the spine of a book creak a little when I open it. But … I’m not valuing that experience above the words contained within the pages. As often as I’ve seen this point brought up and made an emphasis, I can only imagine that there’s a whole host of “readers” out there who’re sitting around in a circle passing a book around, each taking turns cracking the spine, ruffling the pages, and taking deep sniffs of that new-book scent with their eyes rolling back. And at that point … well, you might as well buy a cookbook. After all, if the words in the pages aren’t as important as what it’s printed on, who cares what you’re buying, right? Just go to the clearance bin at Barnes & Noble and have a blast.
On a more serious note, however, I think that part of the blame for this movement comes from the book publishers themselves, most of whom have historically not been very enthusiastic about ebooks (mostly because a lot of them were caught completely off-guard and have been on a back foot ever since). A lot of publishers have been very vocal about “the push for real books.” Heck, in the past month I’ve seen multiple “studies” or publicity posts on r/books from big publishing houses discussing how the public is en mass turning away from ebooks and embracing the physical book once more.
Now, I might believe that more if I didn’t see the exact same type of article every few months from them while book sales across the board don’t show any signs of this supposed “development.” That, and the same articles showing up again and again with slightly different wording bears far to much similarity to other industries where the once-leaders are behind the curve and trying to catch up.
But in a way, I can’t help but wonder if it’s working, if, in a manner somewhat akin to the music industry and their newfound love of Vinyl records (they’re hip), these articles are fueling a mentality among readers that “ebooks are not valuable because the story isn’t valuable. Only the printed pages are valuable.” Of course, this is easily reinforced by a sub-observation that …
1A- Physical books have physical difficulties that imply value to their purchasers.
Yes, this much is true. While the story inside the pages remains the same, the trick with an ebook is that it’s hard to compete with an observation of value when looking at one. A physical book? Well, for one, you can pick it up and feel the weight of it, which, to most people, does imply a value. But you can also flip through it, jostle it, check a few pages, see how long it is.
You know what’s interesting? We can do all these things with an ebook. You can flip through it and read a sample. You can see how many pages there are. You can even check reviews—something you can’t do at a bookstore.
And yet … people don’t value that either. And why? Because it’s easy. It’s fast.
Think about it. To examine a digital book, all you need to do is open its Amazon page. Click. Boom, that’s done. You only need to click once to open a sample and browse through it. You can see the number of pages right there, check reviews … it’s all easy.
And, oddly enough, that’s part of the problem, I think. We equate easy with “low value.” If you buy a book from a bookstore, you have to drive/walk/take transit to the store itself, you have to browse the shelves, you have to pick up the book, carry it to the register … All these things give the book physical weight. A real-world presence that causes you to give it value because you exerted effort in just acquiring it. Even if you order it, there’s a period of shipping and then a tangible thrill when you tear open the box.
Ebooks have none of that. We’ve made it easy, oh so easy, to get your hands on our stories. Ebooks can be bought an downloaded, ready to read, in seconds, from anywhere with a cell signal.
And because of that, people are taking them for granted. Because it’s so easy to acquire, readers think that in turn, it must be just as easy to create … even if it’s the exact same book they’d happily pay $15 for a hard copy of. And so, people are asking that a price represent what they’ve perceived to be a low cost … even though no such low cost exists.
2- There’s a race to the bottom
There’s another thing that’s not helping the image of ebooks that I’ve noticed, and that’s loss-leading.
Basically, the idea behind loss-leading is simple. You have a product that cost X amount of dollars to produce and market, but you sell it for less than X and eat the loss, hoping to make your money back on related products before the losses made by selling X eat you alive. It’s a risky, risky proposition in business, because with each sale of a product you are losing money in the hopes that you’ll make it back in the long run.
Take the Xbox-360 video game console for example. When Microsoft launched the 360, they did so eating heavy losses on each one sold, because the cost of just the parts alone that went into it was far above what the machine actually cost, to say nothing of the millions upon millions of development cost they’d sunk into the machine. Every console they sold, even at launch prices, was done at a loss of, IIRC, around $400 a machine … and that was just in parts.
The goal was, however, to get the public entranced with their machine. The gamble was that if they could sell enough machines, they’d start making money back through game sales and other materials not sold at a loss related to the product, that they would eventually make up for that loss. And eventually, they did. The hardware got cheaper, and after four or five years, Microsoft turned a profit.
Of course, for every company that succeeds at this … there’s a bevy of skeletons left on the road that couldn’t turn a loss lead strategy into an actual lead.
Now, what does this have to do with ebooks? Well, right now, one of the things impacting the price of ebooks is a “race to the bottom,” buoyed by the belief that a loss-lead will at some point turn into a profit. This is why so many ebooks come out at $3.99, $2.99, or even $0.99. There’s a pressure from authors (especially competing ones) that any book over $4.99 isn’t worth the money, that it’s too expensive. Every book has to be below that magic price point. And readers, seeing prices dropping like rocks, are buying into it.
The problem? It’s a loss-leader scenario. Ebook authors drive their prices rock bottom, and in return their profits bottom out. The return becomes minimal, the loss too great. Because despite all the claims to the contrary, real life economics are not a textbook, and the person who says “It’s science that if you halve your price, you’ll sell three times as many books and make more money” most likely still won’t buy your book, and doesn’t realize that a mathematical formula for economics is called an economic theory for a reason.
Right, so ebook prices are being driven down … and then what happens? Authors aren’t getting the return they’d hoped for since prices are so low … so the solution is to cut the amount of work they do. Hence, now we’re seeing ebooks for $2.99, $3.99, and even $4.99 that are below that “magic” price point so many push for … but are also much shorter to compensate. They “cheap” price point is still shouted, but where before authors were trying to write 300-page plus novels … now they’re churning out 100 page and less novellas priced at the “low” price of $3.99 (I’ve even found some selling thirteen page stories for $2.99 and doing pretty well).
But then eventually that whiplashes back to the reader, who comes in to buy an ebook and gets an e-novellete for the same price, and is disappointed. They don’t leave a review (studies suggest that love it or hate it, by percentage around 1 in a 1000 readers leave a review). They just stop buying ebooks as often, or, burned, view them with far more suspicion because so many ebooks are driving for the same price, and yet they don’t seem to be delivering.
The loss-leading with ebooks? If you’re going to write one ebook and want to make back what you spent on it ten years down the line, and aren’t worried at all about the financial risk (ie, your book is not paying bills, it’s just a little bonus here and there), a loss-lead can be a good way to build buzz, but at the current rate and the low prices involved … it can be a long time before you’ve paid off the cost of the book.
A story for you, a true one: A long time ago, when the BiC pen was first introduced, they floundered. Sales were abyssal. No one wanted their product. And the CEO of the newly-founded BiC just couldn’t get it. They’d done demos, they’d given away samples, they had salesmen pushing their new pen as hard as they could, and despite the fact that they were a far better choice than their competitors (they were marketing, after all, the first real pens against ink-wells) … they weren’t selling at all. So they hired a consultant.
The problem the consultant found? They’d ruined their image by selling the pens at far too low a cost. The CEO of BiC and his sales team had decided to sell low to appeal to customers, but the problem was, the consultant explained, that people do not associate low costs with a desirable, quality product, but with something cheap and undesirable. The solution? BiC raised it’s prices to over five times what they had been asking, and above their competitors.
The result? They crushed their competitors. BiC pens flew off the shelves and became a household product … because the price implied a value.
The rush to the low price point? On my list as hurting ebooks. I’ve seen numerous new authors talking about selling at a loss so that they can entice a reader to buy their book over one from a big publisher. But all that says to a consumer, subconsciously, is “This book is clearly not as good as the one produced by this big publisher, because the seller doesn’t believe it is.”
Do we need to be following BiC and raising our prices above big publishers? Of course not, and a lot of us agree that those prices are, in many cases, too high.
But racing to the bottom, to sell a book of the length and depth of a ten-dollar bestseller for two … that only hurts the public perception of ebooks, and the one selling.
One last note. Regardless of what I’ve written above on this point, there will be those who claim that a book must be cheaper to sell better because of supply and demand curves. The truth is, however, that what all those people seem to be missing (likely because they never took an economics class of any kind) is that those graphs, the real ones, have horizontal lines on them for each product they’re discussing that show the actual point at which that graph stops being applicable. There is a low point and a high point. Dropping a book a dollar does not automatically triple sales. In fact, below or above that line, sales will stay the same or worse, decrease.
Ebooks, it appears, have long since dropped below that bottom line.
3- The entitled reader
There’s one last thing that I’ve noticed quite a bit more in the last few months, though they’ve always been there, that’s driving the value of ebooks down.
The entitled reader.
Authors out there know what one I’m talking about. The reader that believes they have a right to read your material, and that they in turn should need to pay as little as possible for it.
This is, I think, in part driven by the mistaken belief that the physicality of a book is what amounts to 90% of a book’s cost, but the end result is the same: these are people that loudly crow to anyone who’ll listen that books should be as cheap as possible. Three dollars. Two. Ninety-nine cents. Free.
Crud, one such believer outright told me that authors shouldn’t count on being paid, nor should they be writing a book to make money. They should write a story for people to enjoy, and that enjoyment should be all they expect to get from it, and asking to be paid was just rude. I’ve been told this more than one time by different people.
Now, when put out in a spotlight like that, I think most would agree that this is ridiculous. Authors don’t magically acquire cash with which to pay rent and buy food, nor should their form of entertainment be given away for free while others are sold.
But the issue I see here is that the gist of what these “readers” (because let’s be clear, they’re never actually going to buy many books, if any at all) spout reinforces others into thinking “Well hey, maybe six bucks is too much.” And then, without really being sure why, you have a reader that suddenly agrees that three dollars is a far more “fair” value for this book they really loved … even if they happily paid fifteen for it when it came out.
It’s a toxic ideology, that readers have the “right” to read an author’s books and be entertained by them, but an author is a fool to ask for compensation. Yet I run across it at least once or twice a month online, upvoted on Reddit, in blog comments, or just in chat or writing conversations. And I have no doubt it’s hurting the value of ebooks for authors everywhere. And I’m sure it feeds right into ebook piracy, something so massive and profitable for the pirates that even my lesser-known books are pirated less than 24 hours from release.
Do I even need to expound upon this further? If there is insufficient material recompense for writing books, well, guess what. There will be no more books. Authors are not swimming in golden swimming pools or relaxing on a beach with models. Most of us are spending 8-10 hours a day at a keyboard, working, just like everyone else, to try and make rent, food, etc, and maybe work out ways up to a little luxury in life. Most of us are also working extra jobs on top of that because right now … we aren’t making that rent, food, etc.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for an answer to all of this … I don’t have one. I don’t even have a solution. All I see is a problem, one that seems to be growing. We’re not valuing the arts enough, I think we’d agree, but inside that already limited, cracking sphere, ebooks seem to be getting the short end of the stick.
And for something that is likely going to be the next MP3 analogue … that’s not good. I believe we need to change this mindset, to get people to stop placing the value of a book on the paper it’s printed on rather than the story contained in those pages. To find ways to show the value of an ebook. To stop badgering authors to loss-lead and drive their prices lower than is possible or profitable. And to speak up when someone defends their piracy by saying “Well, the author should just be glad I read it, free publicity” or claims that authors should just be writing for “the joy of the audience” rather than expectations that they be paid.
The trick is, of course, actually getting that to happen. But one thing’s for sure, we can’t keep going the way we are and expect things to stay sunny. Everything has a value, and at some point, we need to decide what that value is going to be.
Thoughts? Comments? Ideas? Post ’em below.
32 thoughts on “The Question of Value”
As someone who grew up with 5 buck paperbacks, I think that physical books these days are too expensive in general. I also think that ebooks should be cheaper than physical books simply because they (most likely) won’t last as long. The books on my shelf have a good chance of still being in my library twenty years from now. My ebooks? Much less likely. Unless I take extra care to update and preserve them of course. How much anyone else actually thinks about that sort of thing is kind of up in the air. I’ve long since learned that using myself as a yardstick for measuring people’s behavior at large is a losing proposition.
As for value, that’s tricky. Lower prices get more impulse customers, higher prices imply better product. A big problem is just that a lot of the ebook authors don’t think like business people and are trying to follow simple ‘rules’ when economics is one of the least understood and most complicated subjects around.
As for one of your examples, I will now comment based entirely on my subjective memories. Music did kind of go through the same thing. Nowadays you can get songs for a buck a piece. Before digital music you were stuck with buying a full CD for 15+ bucks for 10-15 songs. These days even full albums are in the 10-15 buck range if you buy all the songs at once. Music also has the benefit that it isn’t perceived as a physical good nearly as much. Radio and just the fact that you listen to your music all through one device (stereo and Walkman back in the day) means the product is very much separated in the mind of the consumer.
Whereas the book is very much a part of the physical object. Something you can hold in your hand, show someone else, see on a shelf, etc. For hundreds of years the idea of a story has been either something told from person to person, or bound into a physical object that holds it while you aren’t “using” it. So the digital conversion impact on the perception of a book is much more dramatic than it has been for other media. A lot of it is just the zeitgeist is convinced that the cost of books is related to the physical nature of it, either in printing or shipping or whatever. Not helped by the hardbacks costing so much more when they only cost a bit more to make. If the industry had been really on top of things, they would’ve pushed ebooks that way, as first out of the gate way convenient versions before even the hardbacks. But… that’s only tangentially related to the subject at hand.
The main problem is that the concept of value is really nebulous at the best of times and ebooks managed to get grabbed by the self-propagating “lower is better” thought. Not helped by the fact that most people see the life of an author as much easier than most jobs. Which, to be fair, it is in a lot of ways. But how easy/hard the job is doesn’t actually affect the author’s expenses. I mean, a waiter might have and easy job or a hard job, but that doesn’t affect their rent or grocery bills. Yet most people if you asked would say that an author has an easier job than an overworked waiter. The ebook just enhances that by removing the perception of book-related expenses. Not to mention the always difficult thing that everyone has at least a minimal skill at writing, so they don’t see writing a book as that big a skill.
Once again, I have to support you about the annoying entitled readers. I pirate the occasional book. Well, actually, I haven’t in a while since like 90% of my reading these days is fanfiction and the other 10% is gifts and books I already have. Back when I was reading more published stuff I would occasionally pirate a book (still have a 95% rate of paying for books I pirated after the fact, but that’s still not 100% so it counts) and even I know that an author deserves to get some form of payment for their work. Just gets tricky when digital copies are so easy to make. Which is one of the reasons I prefer crowd-funding over sales-based support, but that’s an entirely different topic. Heck, in my head it isn’t even a matter of paying for what you read. It’s a matter of I want to encourage authors I like to write more stuff. A more forward-looking view than most ebook readers it sounds like.
I actually replied to a similar comment over on my other blog that had the same misconception. Physical books actually are less hardy than an ebook. Both, if treated equally well, will last the same amount of time (an ebook is just as good on a shelf as a physical book), but if exposed to everyday circumstances, a physical book actually becomes far more vulnerable. The books I owned in Hawaii, for example, are all water damaged from the humidity, and some almost fell apart. My ebook reader, however, which I acquired while there? Zero problems. It held up better than my regular books did. Far better, in fact.
Meanwhile, you can lose an ebook and simply redownload it, since you pay for a license, rather than a one-time physical copy, with most ebook transactions. If I lose my reader tomorrow, I can reacquire all my books, even read them in my browser if I wish (since I can share them across my phone, reader, and computer) where as when someone borrowed my copy of Alloy of Law and didn’t return it, I just lost it (and yes, you can loan ebooks now).
As far as backwards compatibility goes, it’s been much more of a concern in the last decade, and as a result I’ve yet to hear of a book being lost because of backwards compatibility issues. And with a digital license, where a book can vanish if the publisher stops selling it, a digital book can still be available for those who have purchased it to redownload when the publisher pulls it.
There are some exceptions to this, of course, like some of the big pubs, where they’re moving to make ebooks long-term rentals rather than purchases … but that doesn’t effect what I sell, nor do I think it will catch on.
Oh, not a misconception. In the short term (5-10 years) I totally agree with you. It isn’t a matter of durability. But long term formats and how much computer hardware changes means that I expect that long term the printed book will win. I can’t use many twenty or thirty year old pieces of software. Yet there is a reason why most of my reading is digital formats. It might change, but until ebooks have been around long enough for proper comparison I’m still sticking with the software comparison for long term viability.
Well, if you have a reader, it’s still going to work as long as you don’t break it. Old Game Boy’s can certainly last a long time, I think e-readers will be similar. I still use my gen-3 Kindle because it works fine, despite being pretty old in hardware terms.
I’m fairly sure that ebook formats won’t take the same path as computer software used to either, because while the readers themselves might change, they’re still trying to read the same books. Kind of like how GoG makes sure that their stuff works for all modern systems, so that the owners can always have them. The reader might change, but the old formats are still compatible.
True. That is a possibility. Too early to tell, honestly. The oldest kindles aren’t even ten years old yet after all. I don’t have any electronics from 20 years ago either. On the other hand I did install Warcraft 3 on my current computer this morning. It is almost 15 years old and still mostly works. So who knows. Even if I’m right about ebooks not lasting the test of time, it comes down to what the customer values, choice between better in most ways now and near future or greater chance you will still have it to pass onto your grandkids. Given that lots if people just read for fun and don’t really keep huge libraries I’m their homes, probably would make sense for the eBook version to cost more given the convenience. On the other hand that is pricing it for customer experience and not effort/resources to create or get it to the customer. So we are right back to value is freaking complicated.
Oh, I’m still for keeping an ebook around paperback price—I honestly think that they’re going to mostly eat into the paperback market over the next decade or two. It’s more that so many people want an ebook to be $3, $2, $1, or even free that’s really out there.
Yeah, I’ve come to that realization myself. I’m all for short stories for being cheap, and all for having the first of a long series be offered free, but in general novel length ebooks should be low paperback range. With further thought I think another problem is that specific marketing techniques, loss leaders for instance, have somehow gotten into people’s heads as an entire marketing strategy.
Paperback price for e-books would be fine with me. The thing that gets me is the way that most publishers set their price for new-release e-books sky high. (After outright breaking the law to be able to force those price increases on Amazon.) In fact, since Amazon can discount hardcover book prices, frequently the hardcover costs less than the e-book.
Baen has the right idea when it comes to e-book price—its new-release titles are $9.99, and eventually fall to $8.99 and then $7.99. But even they sell the occasional book early as an advance EARC for $15—and when it’s something I really want to read, I’ll buy it at that price.
Ah, but there’s a distributed cost here:
Lose or mangle a paperback, and you’ve got a hundred more.
Lose or mangle a Kindle, and you can lose your entire library.
…there’s lots of good ways to back up your library, of course, but if in a decade or two Amazon goes obsolete, in one way or another, and much of your content is DRMed… then tying so much of your library to one type of device is… well, I wouldn’t want things to come to that 🙂
I also feel that ebooks should be less expensive than their physical counterparts. For me the main reason is because I can’t easily lend it to a friend. I have 1 kindle. If I want to give a story to someone to read now I have no kindle. For me it is objectively less valuable. Having said that if you sell the paper book for $8 and tell me the ebook is $6 I’m happy with that. From the article I may be in the minority.
If your friend has an Amazon account (ie, has bought anything from Amazon, ever), you can actually most kindle books to him digitally. Just check the top of the book’s page (right next to where it says “you purchased this on X date”) and with most books, if the publisher has okayed it, you loan it to them and they can read it on their kindle, computer, phone, whatever. All of my books can be loaned that way.
IF the publisher has okayed it, and then only ONCE. You can’t give it away. You can’t leave it to your heirs. You can’t donate it to a library or Good Will. You can’t sell it. You don’t, in fact, OWN an ebook, you only “license” it. As long as the right of first sale doesn’t apply to ebooks, they are simply not as valuable as paper books.
It’s not only once, at least, not for all of them. It’s a limited number per 90 day period.
And who says you can’t pass it on? To the best of my knowledge, has anyone tried yet. Especially in the case of a DRM ebook file, which does come with more expanded rights.
Again, the whole point isn’t that ebooks shouldn’t be more expensive than paperbacks or hardbacks, but that they are valued far lower than just below that.
[…] NOT WORTH THE PAPER THEY’RE NOT WRITTEN ON? Max Florschutz takes a deep dive into the value of ebooks at Unusual […]
I’m totally onboard with ebooks being priced in the $5-15 range; I agree with you that wanting to push prices to the floor is harmful to the industry and to the readership. Entitled readers are no fun
That said, I feel like you’re missing a lot of the specifics of what you’re arguing against. I love ebooks, but there are a lot of downsides to them. In many ways, ebooks feel like disposable books — cheap, convenient, but kind of a paper plate compared to actual dishware. That’s a vague generality, which is where the argument comes from, but it’s backed up by a whole lot of specifics.
You can’t lend ebooks. This is *huge,* because sharing media is a huge part of socializing, especially for book-lovers. You read a book, you want to talk about it, share the experience, see what other people thought. You want more people around who have read the same books you have. And no number of glowing reviews matches up to a friend putting a book in your hand and saying “You have got to read this.”
That doesn’t work for ebooks. If you love an ebook and want to talk about it with a friend, you literally need to make a sales pitch. You’re better off buying a book you love in paper, just so you can lend it around.
On a similar note, other people can’t see your ebooks. I don’t know about you, but when I visit a friend, I make a beeline to the bookshelf. When I’m on the bus, or at a convention, or just walking around, and I see somebody reading a book I’ve read, I instantly have something in common with them. If they’re reading something I haven’t read, but looks interesting, I might have something to talk to them about (politely, if appropriate :P). My very first romantic relationship started with a classmate at uni coming up to me and asking “Hey, is that Song of Ice and Fire?” Two weeks ago, I was with my kids at a park, and met a philosophy teacher who came up to me because my book’s title was a clear Plato reference.
Physical books are visible, and that can have immense value. ebooks aren’t.
You can’t browse ebooks. If you’re looking for a quote or a scene that you loved, if the story mentions a plot point you’ve forgotten and you want to flip back and refresh your memory, if you’re not quite sure where you left off and you’re looking for your place – it’s a cumbersome process, alternating between text searches and single-page flips. You can’t see anything more than the page you’re looking at now; that makes browsing, skimming, riffling, hard.
It’s much much worse for any kind of reference or non-fiction book, where half the value is being able to return to particular points of interest later. In a physical book, it’s very easy to narrow right in on the general topic and then quickly find the precise place you’re looking for. In an ebook, that can be incredibly difficult.
ebooks get lost. Not lost as in “you can’t find them.” Lost as in “It’s deep in some forgotten folder or collection and I will never see it again.”
Here’s the thing: books have physical presence, so if you have a book, it’s there, on your bookshelf. You run in to it. You don’t forget its very existence.
On an ereader, though, you can have a thousand books, with no particular order or presence. The ones that get shuffled later in the list — say, in the “World Science Fiction” collection, or the ones falling back in the “Most Recently Viewed” list, or the 30th entry in your “TBR” folder — you just won’t stumble across them, unless you go looking for them specifically.
This has a dark synergy with the various specials, discounts, freebies, book bundles. The moment you pay $15 for a bundle of ten books, BAM, you now have 10 new books on your TBR list. Probably not ALL things you’re burning to read, but your TBR list is still getting longer and longer. It starts blending together – and you’ve ALWAYS got new material coming in. Sure, every book lover buys more than he can actually read – but with ebooks, it’s an order of magnitude more. The result is, many books you buy have a very low chance of actually being read in the foreseeable future.
(I’ve sworn off bundles and specials for this reason – much better to buy a book for $10 when I actually want it, than buy ALL the books for $2 each but never read most of them. And I still have this problem with the scads of short fiction and anthologies I have, because even a single e-anthology is a good dozen discrete stories that I can easily break away from at any point.)
DRMed ebooks aren’t yours. This should never be a problem, but it could be. Amazon’s pulled ebooks and deleted the files from readers’ devices. Amazon has locked entire accounts it considers as infringing or violating TOS – and who knows what their criteria for that might be.
Long story short? ebooks are fantastic for convenience. They’re delivered to your device with mere clicks; they make reading easy and readily accessible; your books are stored and backed-up and searchable and whatnot.
But a convenient reading experience is not all one wants from one’s books. Books also have social value, reference value, accomplishment value, sentimental value. Not all books. Maybe not even most books. But the books that matter most.
Which brings me back to paper plates and disposable silverware. ebooks are really great for something you’re going to read once, and never share. They’re great for things you might read, and want to keep handy if you do, and then again you might never get to. They’re great to build up an immense, easily accessible library of material (but that doesn’t make each individual book valuable in its own right), and they’re great for making available a wealth of fantastic material that wasn’t viable in print (but also a wealth of crud and sludge, that also wasn’t viable in print).
I think all that is worth my ten bucks. But… seeing an ebook as less valuable than a physical book? Oh yes. I can definitely see that too.
[…] funny thing is, Schutz himself might agree that a lot of e-books are too expensive. In one of the comments, he […]
Both hardback and paperback books are priced too high, because they don’t take into consideration MY hidden costs in purchasing it. I have to either go get the book, or I have to wait for it to be delivered, and that costs me money. Then I have to store the book. That costs me money as well.
Ebooks need to be priced commensurate with what it costs the publisher to replace them. I’d expand on that, but a cat is sitting on me, and I may want to blog on it later.
Here’s my take on the theory of ebook pricing: The publishers would like us to consider the contents of the book to be what we are valuing, not the container. When they release a brand-new hardcover (or trade paperback, or mass market paperback), they are putting the book into a particular price category based on the price of other books of that type. From their perspective, the price of the ebook should be comparable to the price of the equivalent print container being sold for the book. However, many HC and TPB are discounted by the retailers, MMPB, not so much. Therefore when the publishers price the ebook (since they’re setting the price now instead of using a wholesale price and letting the retailers decide to price like they do with paper books), in order to maintain this concept of price equivalence, they’re forced to discount the ebook price of books from the cover price of the HC or TPB when they are the only ones in print. Since many book buyers are used to the publishers charging more for the recently released HC, they understand they need to wait until the cheaper paper editions come out for there to be a price drop. If we’re lucky, the publisher might put the ebook on sale for a day, or a month at the bargain price of somewhere between 99 cents and $4.99 (usually at $x.99).
However, the paper book market has resale venues unavailable to the ebook buyers, the used book market. This market generally has a couple of price points depending on the age of the book, the market venue (for example, used bookstore vs charity shop), that work out to be something like 50 cents, a dollar, or half the MMPB cover price. As long as the ebook remains in print by a publisher, it generally will never drop below the price of a new MMPB. However, if the rights revert to the author, and the author self-publishes, the self-published title tends to be priced close to the used book prices.
There are many ebook buyers who argue that the ability to give their book away or resell it is a tangible value, and that the ebook should always cost no more than the equivalent print edition minus that resale value. Likewise, ebook readers have have less tangible benefits, like instant delivery, the ability to change fonts (e.g., large type books), and the ability to carry one’s entire library in a single reader. Whether these all cancel out, I can’t say, except that I am personally peeved if the (new) print book is priced cheaper than the ebook, and not thrilled about paying TPB prices for some long dead author’s backlist “classics”. I’m also really peeved when the publishers put ebooks on sale at Amazon only, after going to far as to commit criminal conspiracy to try to diminish the influence on ebook prices by Amazon and using DRM to effectively lock most of Amazon’s customers into only buying from Amazon, but that’s probably not so germane to this topic.
I really like the feel of a physical book I like to hold it. That said I have not purchased a physical book since Dec 10, 2015 since that time I have purchesd on Amazon or Baen some 30eBooks.
So what i prefer is not where I spend my money. As a matter of fact if you are an aurthor I REALLY like I have been known to QUITE FREQUENTLY by the eARC electronic advanced readers copy on Baen for $15 much like in the past I would shell out for a hardback release instead of waiting for the paperback,
I think it is wise to bear in mind that books or at leas the content are not “widgets” and pricing is an Art, If you are not pricing to optimize your profits, ie what you get paid, Why not stand on a corner and pass out dollar bills?
There is for any transaction a sweet spot where you get to put in your pocket more than if you price higher or lower, Now I have been a capitalist for about 50 years so I do have some real life experience
And one lesson that should be kept in mind is there will ALWAYS be those who want to buy what you want to sell for a lower price,.
But as you can see from the amount of books I mentioned bying the last 3 months there are alos people like me.,
\And I have been buying books for 50 years too,. Not as many some years as recengly but I have put beans on the tables of quite a few authors
And I am not uniqu
Well, I’m all for robust prices so authors can be fairly compensated. Ultimately, you’re paying for the work of art, not the format and THAT’S what people value. Or feel is worth their money. A bad book at $1.99 is junk while a great book at $8 digital or $20 hardcover is great. But I think people expect ebooks to be cheaper than physical books for the many reasons you hint at. And in all the other areas you mention — music, movies, video games — digital usually IS cheaper. So people don’t complain about digital costing the same or more for the simple fact that it doesn’t. Physical singles in music don’t exist anymore for most consumers, but digital singles have almost always been cheaper than cassingles and CD singles etc. Movies available digitally are usually out weeks earlier than physical copies and are cheaper to boot. Similar things happening with video games. People expect digital to be cheaper for the obvious technical reasons and because they’ve been taught to expect a discount for digital based on all those other areas of entertainment and of course the introduction of ebooks by Amazon via Kindle when ebooks were dramatically cheaper than hardcover but available at the same time. Nowadays ebooks often cost the same or more than their paperback equivalent (for big titles from major houses) and that’s silly given how less versatile an ebook is to a paperback you can resell, loan, give away, donate to a library or keep proudly on your shelf.
The catch is with this observation … by how much? A quick check on Amazon shows that it’s usually only by a dollar or two … at most 40% cheaper for an MP3, but usually around 20 to 30%. Movies are in a similar boat, and games are rarely less (usually the same) because in the game industry a lot of the licensing is really good, and the buyers will admit all the advantages the digital brings.
This isn’t the case in books. We have people crying for costs that are 50%, 70%, even 90% of the original costs, and making arguments against that ironically apply moreso to other digital venues. I’ve seen a number of people in response to this post (not just here), for instance, argue about how they don’t think ebooks are worth any money because the license means they don’t share the same rights and ownership of them … but mention that they’re reading from an iPad, which by license you never actually own, just rent from Apple, and then talk about how they have better licenses with digital music—which again, if you’re buying from iTunes, you don’t have any ownership of at all, just rental).
Off that tangent and back to the core of it, it’s not just that digital is usually priced a bit cheaper, it’s that the demand is for it to be a LOT cheaper by comparison, set at a price that defies both logic and sense.
I can’t resell any of the games on my Steam account. Nor can I give them away or donate them. Same for any of my digital music, though it is digital music that is DRM free (so not rental). At most, I can leave those accounts to someone when I die, and then they will have all of it … but somehow, these industries get a pass from people while books don’t (and used game resale was a billion-dollar business worth more than most industries a decade ago, before digital got started, and yet …)
Granted a lot of what I’ve seen in response to this is simple misguided understanding of what various ebook rights are, so there’s that as well. Definitely a big post coming Monday once I’ve read through and analyzed all the comments at different places.
I was just ignoring silly people who are yelling for ebooks to cost little to nothing. They also think they should have access to music for little or nothing and be able to watch Game Of Thrones whenever and whever they want, whether or not they subscribe to HBO.
Putting the dummies aside, does it make sense for ebooks to cost a little less than hardcovers when both available at the same time? Sure. And when paperback comes out, does it make sense for ebooks to again cost a little less? Yes. But now with big titles you see ebooks sometimes costing more than paperback, which is absurd and only happens because they’re overreacting to having control over pricing again.
You also raise the very different issue of ownership and rights which is very different from pricing, in my opinion though you may be arguing since it’s only a license….etc. To me, the legalese people are forced to “agree” to simply to buy a book or album or iPad is not reasonable. I fully expect we’ll have a case head to the Supreme Court that determines — multi-national desires and never-ending copyright aside — when people pay $15 for an ebook or album or digital movie, they do in fact own it and should have all the rights of ownership. But it will take a court case (perhaps revolving around someone’s library being willed to another?) to get there.
As for which format lasts longer, I’d put my money on print, since digital formats are so easily superseded, obsolete or otherwise silo’d.
Finally, if I had my druthers it would work like this:
New novel by Stephen King is released: full price includes hardcover, ebook and audiobook, with publisher realizing it’s OK if you hand over ebook or audio or print to someone else. (Remember, there’s always the library so don’t sweat it.)
When paperback comes out, it too is bundled with ebook and audiobook.
At every step, if you just want an ebook/audio bundle you pay a little less. If you just want ebook OR audio, you pay a little less than that.
Why not make buying a new novel as attractive a proposition as possible? Why force people to decide in advance if they wanna read a book in their car, on their e-reader or physically with a copy they can put on their shelf? Imagine if you had to decide in advance, OK I wanna listen to this album while jogging OR on my home stereo OR in my car. But if I wanna hear it on my stereo AND in my car, I have to buy it twice? That’s the situation today with books. Buy “Zootopia” when it hits home entertainment and it will probably be bundled with BluRay, DVD and a digital copy. If you JUST want digital or DVD, guess what? You’ll pay a little less.
Self-published authors of course can’t likely offer such bundles (or even have audio or print necessarily). They will as always be forced to be savvy businesspeople who more dynamically price their books, raising prices when they can and finding a sweet spot to maximize audience and long-term profits. For them, the right price is a moving target. For major publishers, charging the same for an ebook as for print is just dumb. Since ebooks ARE cheaper for them, they should want to exploit that margin with a smaller price because it gives them bigger profits.
MIchael, I won’t go into detail about copyright and ebooks, but you should read the following articles that explain “The Doctrine of First Sale” and the reason why “used” ebooks are a writer’s and readers’ worst nightmare. Other articles on various copyright subjects can be found by clicking the copyright label.
I wasn’t arguing the fairness of it or that I didn’t care about unintended consequences of this argument and how ideally there might be some accommodation recognizing the difference between a digital copy and a physical copy. Nonetheless, the idea that someone doesn’t own a copy of Casablanca because their copy is digital and someone else’s is BluRay is I think specious. I know it will raise all sorts of new issues, but nonetheless…. However, the entire debate may be superseded by the next generation thinking access is just fine rather than “owning,” making my fuddy duddy complaints moot.
I suspect, based purely on my own opinion and not backed by anything even close to data, that it might be a result of the publishers fighting against self-publishing when it started to get big.
Digital in other areas is cheaper (though not by much as our esteemed host mentions), games are not often cheaper list price, but cheap indie games are much more popular and almost all of my purchases these days through steam are during sales. Which happen so often that as long as you are willing to wait a few months you can pretty much consider the effective price of a game to be the sale price. The other part is that the digital transfer of music in general happened before the internet became a huge thing. Books are different in that the internet as distribution platform and the digital versions happened at the same time. Music had those two things a bit offset, and video games on computers have always been digital.
My opinion is that people don’t generally consider what the author does to be ‘hard work’. So when the publishers are all ‘we provide lots of value not present in self-publishing’ it got mixed all up together, along with that ebooks can be self-published for cheaper and still make money, that on an unconscious level people don’t consider that a book without a publisher to actually have any value in a commercial sense.
Of course at this point it is somewhat self-sustaining as most annoying trends become. So the initial reasons don’t matter nearly as much as how do you snap the general populace out of the feedback loop.
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You paint with too broad a brush regarding music fans. Yes, if you’re talking about the buyers of single songs to load on their pop music infested iPod, you’re right. They pay the price that supports an industry that enriches executives while leaving most artists destitute. On the other hand, there are buyers like me. I don’t buy single songs, I buy albums of music. Most, if not all, my current music buying is done through Bandcamp, where I can routinely download an entire and current album of music for no more than $7 — often just $5 or “name-your-own-price”. When I do buy from sites like CD Baby, the download price is usually $10, far below the price of the physical CD.
If you search out artists and try to buy from them directly via Bandcamp, you are to be congratulated and, sadly, very rare. I think when it comes to music the most telling issue is not the price of a digital song or album vs CD but the fact that no one is buying music in any form whatsoever and just paying a too-low price for streaming subscription. For most people, they expect $9 a month to give them access to every song ever made. Artists of course get a distressingly minor amount of even that money. Rihanna has the number one album this week and she only sold 14,000 copies both physical and digital. That’s insanely low. Personally, I don’t think $1 or $1.30 is too low a price for a digital single; given most pop albums generating singles have 10-14 or more songs, a $1.30 per seems reasonable. That can add up damn quickly for an artist with even a standard contract. But people aren’t buying digital singles or albums any more.
This conversation has been going on for almost fifteen years, and I’ve been a part of it. (I was an ebook pioneer.)
What I’ve seen is that much of the nonsense the pirates and those entitled readers you mention has become an accepted part of the conversation, and most of what they say makes no sense whatsoever, or it’s based on a total lack of knowledge on how publishing and writing work.
One major point I’ve noticed is that these people don’t love books, they rarely read books, and they really, really hate writers. The amount of contempt I’ve seen over the years is truly amazing. Part, I imagine, is the standard anti-intellectual garbage. The rest only Freud with waders on could figure out by walking through their mental sewers.
I’m afraid you are really wrong about the size of books and price. The shorter books and novellas were a way for writers to make more money with Amazon’s per book payment system. Amazon has since changed their formula to a per page system so longer books are now more the norm.
Much cheaper books do have their value for people who write series novels. I know I’m now buying each new book in over a dozen series I started via a free book courtesy of BookBub and Fussy Librarian.
The big publishers have realized the value of this method because they are now offering huge discounts on the first books of their established authors.
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I loved this post Max! It inspired me to write this post on my blog: http://geekinggoddess.com/2016/04/04/print-books-i-summon-your-power/
You had some great points though I still love my print books infinitely more.
Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Just checked out your own post to see what I thought!