Earlier this week Slate published a piece which claimed that people were paying more for digital content than physical media, but the article left out a few key details.
Tell me if you can guess what they are:
Imagine, for a moment, that you want to buy The Complete Works of Primo Levi edited by talented translator Ann Goldstein. If you were to buy a new version of the hardcover collection on Amazon, the price is $58.40. If, however, you decided that rather than adorning your shelves with Levi, you wanted to download it to your e-reader, saving yourself paper and time, you would need to pay $59.49. It would cost you more not to physically own the books.
Of course, it’s just a difference of $1.09. But spend some time on Amazon and a trend becomes clear: Many (though certainly not all) digital versions cost more than their physical counterparts. The Blu-ray Disc of the Christmas classic Love, Actually costs a very reasonable $8.68, but to download and buy the HD version on Amazon Video costs $14.99. (To download and rent it costs $3.99, while a used version is only $2.37). Download Beyoncé’s Lemonade from Apple to your iPhone for $17.99, but get the CD on Amazon for just $15.76.
Certainly this is far from the case in every instance—there are lots of examples of the digital version being cheaper than the physical. But the list will only get longer, raising the question: Why are we increasingly paying more money to not actually have the thing we’re buying? Amazon and Apple acknowledged receipt of but did not respond to requests for comment. But while we cannot know their official answers, we can nevertheless speculate as to why we’re now paying more to own without physically owning.
Skate cites high prices, but what Slate forgot to include in their article was evidence that people are actually buying the digital content at those high prices.
Yes, the digital prices are sometimes higher than the prices for the related physical media, but that doesn’t tell us whether people are, as the subtitle said, “increasingly paying extra to get the digital version of a book or movie”.
It just tells us the sale price for the digital copy is higher, not that people are “increasingly” paying that price. And that distinction is important, because in the case of ebooks consumers are _not_ paying the higher price.
The print book is more popular by at least an order of magnitude, so no, people aren’t “increasingly paying extra to get the digital version of a book”.
They’re buying the print edition instead, but of course that will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed publishing industry revenue stats over the past year.
The AAP has been telling us for the past year that the Big Five’s high ebook prices have lead to steadily decreasing ebook sales. The most recent data (from May 2016) showed that traditional publishers’ ebook sales had dropped 18% from last year.
So yes, ebook prices are high, but consumers aren’t “increasingly paying extra to get the digital version of a book”.
They’re buying the (used) print book instead, or getting it from the library.
Speaking of which, Slate also failed to consider whether high prices might be driving consumers to borrow more content from the library, or perhaps use a subscription streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.
But that doesn’t really matter, given that Slate failed to supply any factual basis for their speculation.
This piece rests on the claim that people are paying more for digital content, and as we can see from ebook revenue stats that is simply not true.
And that renders moot any speculation as to _why_ people are paying more for digital.
image by Mosman Library