In the Era of eBooks, What Is a Book Worth? (I)

5145995754_3e9e6d0dd7_bSome questions have no answer, or at least not a universal answer. This is true of this question: In the era of ebooks, what is a book worth? Yet, every day, ebookers are making that value judgement, including in their calculation of whether or not to buy an ebook what they believe is the worth of a book.

As there is no across-the-board, universally applicable answer to the question, we need to address value/worth broadly, beginning by separating books into two broad categories: fiction and nonfiction. From my point of view, nonfiction is worth more than fiction — again, I am speaking in broad terms — because nonfiction is intended by both the author and buyer to be referred to multiple times. Granted some nonfiction’s multiple times may be only twice, but at the other extreme, consider cookbooks, course books, and how-to books, which may be referenced dozens of times over the course of the buyer’s ownership of the book.

On the other hand, most fiction is of the read-once-then-shelve-or-toss-away variety. How many of us buy a novel and read it more than once? And if we do read it more than once, how many of us will read it more than twice? As with all else, there are exceptions. I can name a handful of novels that I have read more than once — To Kill a Mockingbird, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and a few more — over the course of 60 years of reading. Considering how many novels I have read in those 60 years of reading, the handful is a very tiny fraction of books I have read, especially compared to nonfiction.

With these thoughts in mind, I wonder what the true value of a book is today, especially considering all the restrictions that are applied to ebooks, the varied pricing of ebooks, and the pricing of ebooks compared to their print versions. I also wonder about the value, by which I mean the price to be paid, of fiction in any form. Why is a new Stephen King novel worth $15 or more in any form?

When valuing commodities, and books have evolved to be commodities rather than the luxury items they once were, in a true free market system, value is set by scarcity and production costs with a margin for profit. But ebooks have no scarcity value, unless we consider each author to be so unique that no other author can be substituted. Once created, the electronic file can be duplicated innumerable times, with each duplication being a precise and perfect clone of the original.

There are production costs, but these costs can be amortized over an innumerable quantity of duplications that cost virtually nothing to create once the master has been created. This is the essential difference between a print book and an ebook: Each copy of a print book has some measurable production cost – for example, the cost of paper, the storage and shipping costs, the minimum print run cost — but the ebook lacks these measurable costs once past the creation of the master file. It isn’t that the cost of the master file isn’t or shouldn’t be amortized over the duplication run, but rather that the duplication run doesn’t add measurably to the cost of the master file, unlike with print books where many of the costs of the initial print run are incurred again with the second printing and again with each subsequent printing.

The one criterion that changes ebook to ebook is that of the author. Although Stephen King and Dean Koontz write similar books in a similar genre, one is (supposedly) not a perfect substitute for the other. Notwithstanding marketing claims to the contrary, a bar of soap from Ivory is a near-perfect substitute for a bar of soap from Kiss My Face. We may have a preference for one brand or the other, but the two bar soaps are really interchangeable in the marketplace — they are near-perfect substitutes, one for the other. Although King and Koontz are similar, it is claimed that they are not near-perfect substitutes, one for the other.

Or are they? Perhaps we have been drilled over too many years to believe that each author is so unique that one author cannot be substituted for another, that we actually believe author uniqueness to be a truism. Perhaps there is a shade of gray to that statement. Consider this: Do readers of Stephen King only read horror genre books written by King? Do they read other horror authors while waiting for the next King novel to be published? Is Tolkien the only fantasy author Tolkien fans read, especially knowing that there will be no more Tolkien novels forthcoming?

If we read other authors in a genre, are we not really saying that it is the genre that we like more so than the author, and that King and Koontz are at least near equivalents? I accept that there are tiers of authors; that is, some authors are better than others and that some are first tier, whereas others are third or fourth (or even lower) tier. But I also accept that authors in a tier are, for the most part, interchangeable for each other. Perhaps scarcity, in the sense that each author is unique and not interchangeable with any other author, is not truly a criterion applicable to books even though we have been indoctrinated to believe otherwise. Consider that other authors are hired to complete books in a series because of the original author’s untimely death. Isn’t that the publishing world’s equivalent of saying Brandon Sanderson is interchangeable with Robert Jordan?

If we accept that books are commodities and that same-tier authors are interchangeable, the current equation for determining the value of a book is undermined and needs to be rethought. Alas, this is a complex problem that cannot be resolved in just one short article; consequently, the discussion will continue another day in part II.

reposted with permission from An American Editor

image by kodomut

8 Comments on In the Era of eBooks, What Is a Book Worth? (I)

  1. For me, the best novels are those where at the end of the story, I feel that I have made an emotional connection with the main characters. The thing is, the quality and range of that connection varies considerably, author to author, so I don’t think I agree that within a given a tier, authors are interchangeable.

    If you are not familiar with it, a site called eReaderIQ.com offers a way for readers to be notified when the price of a specific ebook drops by a specified amount. I think the fact that this site exists says that readers want books by specific authors, but not all fans of an author are willing or able to pay what the publisher is currently charging. Newness is as much a part of the pricing formula as format, and publishers would be wise to pay attention to sites like this. If they insist on agency pricing, they should devote more time to monitoring and adjusting the price of their digital wares as they age.

  2. curiosity killed the.. // 25 April, 2011 at 9:39 am // Reply

    this article reminds me so much to what the art world has had to transition into over the past 20 years with the ever expanding digital art verses traditional art.
    traditional art can be both singularly 1 physical version and a billion digital copies or a billion physical copies and a billion digital copies.

    but 2d digital works rarely become physical except as some merchandising that happens to have that print plastered over a coffee cup t-shirts etc

    but certain digital works like 3d models they are becoming a new way to sell physical forms because of the ever increasing ability to print 3d objects there are whole markets now that people build 3d objects in modeling software for the purpose of selling physical versions to the masses.
    its hard selling digital art people take it for granted right clicking any image online can result in the ability to copy most images w/o much hassle.
    obviously the people that truly love the art will pay to have high quality prints of 2d work but 3d art can have so many other layers to it given the fact it is usually modeled completely in 3d space meaning all angles can be viewed with the right software its naturally a marriage between the digital and physical worlds when sold as figurines. that’s powerful stuff to take something purely digital and turn it into something you can physically hold touch and examine from all angles.

    so obviously the quality of a work is much more visually noticeable for art they can within seconds know weather its something in their taste. books have that ability to a degree with the description but you cant really judge a book by its cover can you.

    the underlying theme is that quality of the work should define the worth to others.
    unfortunately as you pointed out digital versions are a dime a dozen and with little to no overhead cost to sell to others. you’ve mentioned before the similarities to the digital music world. the art world has faced its own battles as well but we are at least inventing ways to keep a physical version at the top of the economic food chain. if physical books are to survive they need to clearly define themselves from the digital some way.

  3. Good points, but when setting the price for a book, don’t forget that you don’t have to go to the library to get a book any more. The library is (or will soon be) only a download away. In other words, you only need to buy the relatively few books you want to read again.

  4. Fiction is worth more than non-fiction because it has entertainment value; the other is utilitarian. How much does a really good movie actor get paid vs. a really good plumber? The value is not derived from “using it many times”.

    And the premise that books are merely commodities and any old author will do seems iwldly misguided.

    We value, historically and in the present moment, content on a case-by-case basis. It is not acceptable to substitute Agatha Christie for Erle Stanley Gardner … Elizabeth George for Ian Rankin … or Stephen King for Dean Koontz.

    Prices of books are based on, in a small part, production costs (editors, marketing, legal, printing) and distribution (booksellers, shipping), but prices are mainly based on the content provider costs (author, agents). The only true variable is the author — every other cost is “predictable”.

    Basically, publishers charge what they can get away with. That is based on the market appeal of the author and his/her previous work, as well as general market guidelines. Consumers have been trained to pay in a range of prices depending on the format the content is delivered in (and how new it is).

    • How much does a really good movie actor get paid vs. a really good plumber?

      But there are more plumbers making a (good) living wage consistently than actors. You don’t have to go to the movies, but the minute your toilet breaks, you’re calling a plumber.

      Nonfiction is more valuable because of the knowledge that went into the writing of it that is helpful and useful to people.

  5. Reading is my entertainment. I don’t watch TV and I rarely go to the movies. I read fast and I read a lot.

    Since the agency model was implemented, I found that it was rather easy to substitute cheaper indie books for the more expensive agency books and I enjoy them just as much and get far more books for my money. There may be a book or two that I’ll give in and get if the ebook price is ever close to the paperback price, but am quite content with the hundreds of other books I have to read.

    I have discovered new favorite authors for whom I anticipate new books that I know will be affordable. I have expanded my reading into new genres that I didn’t read before. There are also authors who understand the new market and obtain the ebook rights to their backlists, making them available for $2.99 (usually).

    I have more ebooks than I could read in a lifetime. If traditional publishers and authors want me back as a reader of their material, they’ll need to substantially lower their prices.

  6. A book, e or p, is worth what people are willing to pay for it. Just like anything else.

  7. The physical cost of a book is irrelevant to the value of the book. We don’t buy a book for it’s physical container but for the text that it contains. A typical hardcover book costs around 3-4 dollars to produce, but if I wanted a couple of pieces of cardboard and a hundred sheets of paper I could get it for less. A book is a collection of information that represents a fixed expression of an author’s thinking during the time that he wrote that book. It is intangible and it’s value will vary for each reader for a variety of reasons. Some people won’t read books if you give them to them for free. Someone else might be willing to pay $5; yet another might be willing to pay $25.

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  3. Digital vs Paper: who wins? – culturaleconomicsblog 2015-16

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