eBooks vs. pBooks: A Lesson in Value

This past weekend, my son and I traveled to New York City for the annual Antiquarian Book Fair sponsored (at least in part) by The New York Review of Books, which is the one magazine about books that I highly recommend. As a subscriber to the Review, I was given a complimentary pass and because my wife advertises her art (see her website for beautiful paintings of the Hudson River Valley and portraiture) in the Review, she was able to get a second complimentary pass.

I mention the complimentary passes because the cost of admission to the Fair should have given me a clue as to what to expect. A daily pass cost $20 per person, so I should have known this wasn't like going to the local used bookstore. In addition, I am familiar with several of the vendors and know that they sell truly rare manuscripts. But none of the clues clicked and we went to the Fair.

The Fair demonstrated to me why pbooks are so much more valuable than ebooks. I'm not talking about convenience or that pbooks lack the interactive capabilities of some ebooks. I'm talking strictly money value.

eBookers know -- or should know -- that when they buy an ebook, they are buying a license; they are not buying the book in the sense that they buy a pbook. The ebook is intangible, a collection of bytes that are infinitely duplicable, which means there is no such thing as ebook scarcity. In contrast, there are limits to the number of pbooks produced. Even if, as in the case of the Harry Potter books, hundreds of millions of pbooks are produced, there is still a finite number that bear the first edition-first printing seal of scarcity.

I am a collector of first edition pbooks. As much as I prefer to read a book on my ereader -- the book is easier to hold; when I finish I can easily move on the next; I can adjust the type size for easier reading; etc. -- I still get enormous satisfaction out of being able to let my eyes scan across my library shelves and pause on a book that reminds me of the pleasure I had reading the book. There is an aesthetic beauty to the physical book that ebooks cannot duplicate. Scanning across my ebook library is a very sterile process.

As a collector, I am always looking for a "bargain." I initially thought that although there would be some expensive items for sale at the Fair, there would books that interest me and that would fit in my collection that I could afford. One of my favorite authors to collect is Sinclair Lewis, an American author from the early to mid 20th century, best known for his books Elmer Gantry, Main Street, and Babbitt. I have for years desired to add a fine copy of Main Street to my collection and have expected to pay several thousand dollars for such a prize.

This was my first shock at the Fair. Staring back at me from a display case was a wonderful copy of Main Street with a wonderfully preserved dust jacket, something that is not often seen. So I asked the price: $165,000. I assure you, $165,000 is not a typographical error. Needless to say, I didn't buy. Nor did I buy several of the outstandingly gorgeous "art" books that depicted drawings of birds and plants and that cost between $225,000 and $300,000. Alas, my budget was significantly more modest.

But that made me take a closer look at price expectations for other more recent books that were for sale. Before going down that path, however, let me say that if you ever want to see -- and touch -- books that have price tags in the $200,000 and $300,000 price range, this is the Fair to attend. Dealers came from Europe and the United States and had a vast array of beautiful manuscripts -- the books that make editors so pleased to be editors -- for sale in prices that easily climbed from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But back to the more recent popular books that were for sale. Familiar with Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games Trilogy? The books are only a few years old in hardcover, with the first book originally published in 2008. They were for sale -- first edition, first printing -- for $3,000. John Kennedy Toole's 1980 book A Confederacy of Dunces was available for $8,000. And the list can go on.

The point is that we often talk about the used book market being available for pbooks but not for ebooks, but the used book market is simply a way to recoup some of the purchase price; it isn't the same as the collector's market. I never thought that a good argument for a lower ebook price was that unlike pbooks, I can't resell ebooks on the used ebook market. But after visiting the Antiquarian Book Fair, I realized that the collector's market is a market that should not be ignored in the argument about value.

The bottom line is that an ebook is less valuable than a pbook. It is less valuable because it cannot be collected; it cannot provide the visual gratification that a physical library, like a piece of art, can; it is licensed rather than owned; and, most importantly, it has no ability to increase in value over time if properly cared for and curated because it has no rarity. The ebook versions of the Hunger Games Trilogy will never have an intrinsic collectible value of $50, let alone of $3,000. There will never be a scarcity of the ebooks.

I suppose one counter to this argument would be that a limited electronic edition could be created. I'm not sure what could be included that would make such an edition more valuable than a standard ebook or make it collectible, but one thing is for certain: even a limited edition could not become scarce because of the ease of duplicating bytes. It is so much more difficult, if not near impossible, to duplicate a first edition-first printing of a pbook. Ink and paper, for example can be analyzed and dated; pretty hard to do with bytes.

For the book lover, the person who not only has an insatiable appetite for reading but also wants to collect beauty and rarity, the pbook garners all of the value. The ebook is a loser in this battle. I expect that the collectible market will sustain pbooks for decades to come, especially as the number of book collectors is growing, not decreasing.

Do you agree?

6 Comments on eBooks vs. pBooks: A Lesson in Value

  1. I agree. In fact, I have a small collection of pulp era SF paperbacks (even though I have most of the titles as ebooks as well).

  2. You missed the most critical difference: ebooks are commodities valued only for their content. As a commodidty they don’t have value in and of themselves. Mo one is going to get sentimental about passing their thumb drive on to their grandkids, but we will about physical objects. I have an article coming out in Library Journal about this. It is basically an extension of my blog post found here: http://www.thebookmyfriend.com/1/category/book%20culture/1.html

    • Nice blog post. I will try to remember to look for your article in the Library Journal. I appreciate the link to my blog post in your article, although I wish you had linked to the original article at An American Editor rather than to the repost at Teleread.

  3. But as a kind of hybrid you could collect rare and valuable books as ebook facsimiles: http://www.ebooktreasures.org (full disclosure – my company develops these).

  4. It’s possible to contrive a scarce e-book: imagine an e-book where there’s only one copy of the bits, say on a USB thumb drive. You could encase it in a clear plastic vault and put it on display at a museum. Why not? Artists love to do such things, because they force you to question where the value really lies. (The answer is almost always in the story that surrounds the artifact, not the artifact itself.)

  5. Yes, there is a “scarce object” value in those physical books that will never accrue to electronic editions. The situation with “Main Street” also nicely illustrates a good bit of our electronic age: availability of the work for mere poor mortals. If you just want to read it, not own a first edition, Project Gutenberg makes it available for free. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/543 Hurray! It bugs me when some old book I want to read is so scarce that libraries don’t have it, and buying a copy (if one can even be found) is prohibitive, and yet there is no electronic edition, and there may never be. In the 21st century, if a physical copy of some book exists, there’s basically no good excuse for it not being made available electronically to someone who wants to read it.

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