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That $4 Cup of Coffee is Worth the Cost – Your eBook, Not so Much

Lots of people in publishing get upset when readers object to the price of some ebooks, and often times you hear a retort about a cup of coffee. Brent Weeks made just that remark earlier this week, and his tweet set a minor record for insider retweets.  But have you ever considered whether the comparison of ebook prices and the cost of a cup of coffee was a valid one?

I hadn’t, but lucky for me earlier this week one reader sent me a link to a blog post by Josh Lehman.  Josh takes a look at the differences in markets for Starbucks coffee and apps, and while an app is not an ebook a lot of his points do transfer over.

Fact: Starbucks Coffee is a Trustable Experience

This is coming from a non-coffee drinker, but people buy Starbucks because they know what it’s going to be like. It will meet their expectations, and while it’s an experience that won’t change their lives it will be the same every time. People know that each cup of coffee will be exactly like the last. And if it’s not, Starbucks will remake it until the customer is satisfied. Would you make that same guarantee with your ebook?

Fact: Your eBook is a Total Gamble

I don’t know what your ebook will be like until I start reading it. Unlike Starbucks coffee, ebooks can vary by quality, genre, and even style – and that’s just for a single author, not the ebook market. The problem grows when you factor in situations where readers find an author for the first time. The experience of reading your ebook is not trustable. I have dozens of ebooks sitting unread on my computer right now; why should I shell out $13 for yours? Why should I even shell out $8 to get one of the ebooks on your backlist? Frankly the risk is too high for a potential gain of nothing.

Fact: Starbucks Has No Free Alternative

We cannot get a free cup of coffee, and even the cheap alternatives to Starbucks aren’t as good. But I can find alternatives to paid ebooks virtually everywhere – legal ones, too, and sometimes even from the same publisher as the one you want us to buy.

Fact: Free eBooks Are Often A Great Alternative

There are far more good free ebooks available right now than I could read in a lifetime, and I’m not just talking about the dregs of self-publishing. Baen Books, Google Books, and Project Gutenberg stand as 3 examples of quality free ebooks. And then there are the many authors like Cory Doctorow who have released some or all of their work for free, whether as a limited time offer or under a CC license.

Fact: Cheap Paper Books Are Often A Great Alternative

Here’s a point which Lehman couldn’t make, but definitely affects the price and value of ebooks. The used book market hasn’t gone away with the rise of ebooks; instead it has grown with the rise of Amazon and other sites. Publishers not only have to t compete with paid and free ebooks from other sources, but they also have to compete with their own cast off and used titles.

Fact: My Existing Library Is A Great Alternative to Your eBook

I can also read the many ebooks I’ve bought over the years instead of buying yours. While they are not your ebook, they do stand as a viable alternative for the few hours of diversion I’d get for the $13 I’d spend on your ebook.

Is There Hope for the Paid eBook?

Yes there is. You just have to give readers a good reason to buy.

Speaking as someone who balks at paying more than $6 for a fiction ebook, I myself bought a $15 ebook from Bane Books this week. It was an advance reader copy of the next Bujold novel (which won’t be published until November). The sample, which I read online, ended at a cliffhanger. That ebook was an experience I was willing to risk my money on because the free sample was a worthwhile read and the itch to finish reading the ebook was so great that I didn’t mind paying a high price.


Thanks, Merrill!

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Mike Cane August 19, 2012 um 5:05 pm

Shorter version:

Nate Hoffelder August 19, 2012 um 5:18 pm

I posted that a few days ago but forgot. Thanks for reminding me.

d August 19, 2012 um 5:43 pm


I don’t see it mentioned often, but a great alternative to taking a chance on "buying" an ebook is to simply download a copy from your local library. That won’t work for many, but I’m fortunate enough to live in an area with access to two libraries with huge collections of ebooks.
I put buying in quotes because due to DRM they won’t really sell me the darn things so there’s no ownership involved and I acquire as many rights, admittedly for only a few weeks, by availing myself of the library offerings…Dave

Mike Cane August 20, 2012 um 10:57 am

>>>I don’t see it mentioned often, but a great alternative to taking a chance on “buying” an ebook is to simply download a copy from your local library.

I don’t know of any major eBookstore that doesn’t let you preview. If the first sentence, paragraph, chapter doesn’t grab you, why bother to buy?

becca August 19, 2012 um 7:35 pm

re: buying the eARC of the new Bujold book:

Bujold is a known quality anyway – even her lightest books never fail to be readable and re-readable, which is why I paid $15 for Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance myself – and I rarely pay more than $6 for an ebook – certainly won’t usually pay as much for an ebook as the paperback costs new. Except for Bujold.

Nate Hoffelder August 20, 2012 um 9:11 am

Yes, but I could have gotten it for less than I paid if only I had waited. But I didn’t want to wait, so in effect I paid the hardback price instead of the paperback price. My point was that it was possible for sell readers expensive ebooks.

Boris August 19, 2012 um 7:35 pm

As others are pointing out on twitter, you’ve got a massive entitlement complex.

May no one ever pay more than what a starbucks coffee costs for anything you ever do in your life.

Nate Hoffelder August 19, 2012 um 7:36 pm

Who says I have an entitlement complex? I haven’t seen any tweets.

Edit: Found one. LOL

Mike Cane August 20, 2012 um 10:58 am

Yeah, and he never replied to my tweet back.

GrowlyCub August 19, 2012 um 7:55 pm

Some charming person (@LyonRobby) attacked me and told me to get lost because I told Brent what a dumb PR move that original tweet was; gotta love 'civilized' discourse. Two more authors for the never-to-be-bought list…

Syn August 19, 2012 um 8:27 pm

Man that list has grown huge in the last 2 weeks too!

yuzutea August 19, 2012 um 8:21 pm

I don’t see why everyone is going so insane over this. Different people are willing to pay for different things. I wouldn’t pay $4 for a cup of coffee. For me to pay $13 for an ebook it would have to be from one of my favorite authors, and a fairly long book. That seems to indicate the only people who can get away with this are really well-loved/established authors (for fiction) or people in non-fiction who have very unique content.

Sweetpea August 20, 2012 um 9:35 am

I feel the same. Some books aren’t even worth the bits on which they are stored, while others are worth their weight in gold (wait….)

Even if you would pay me, I would never drink that cup of coffee… But let’s assume for a moment that I liked coffee… Why would I feel fine with paying $4 for something that will be gone, never to return (unless I pay another $4) within 10 minutes? If I buy that book for $10, at least I will be able to look at it again, taste it again, try it again.

yuzutea August 20, 2012 um 1:24 pm

I actually do not reread most books, so for me, that is what buying a book is like. I read it and generally don’t go back to it, because I have so many other books to read.

SonomaLass August 19, 2012 um 8:24 pm

"Entitlement" would be if you expected the book to be a certain price and demanded that the price be reduced. It’s not entitlement to say, "That ebook costs more than I am willing to pay, and so I will acquire it another way or forego the experience of reading it." That’s just being a smart consumer, and the reasons you lay out here are valid.

Most of us have a threshold of what we’re willing to pay for things. The creator/manufacturer/owner/operator has the right to set a price, but we all have the right to decline to pay that price and to express if we think (given the alternatives) that the price is unreasonable.

Peter August 19, 2012 um 9:05 pm

"Entitlement" is expecting consumers to bend over and take your $15 DRM-infected, region-locked, device-locked, scanned-by-a-spastic-chimpanzee and OCRed by a dyslexic ebook because hey! you’re just that awesome.

book reading August 20, 2012 um 5:55 am

I agree. I keep hearing that "e-books are not special snowflakes." and the fact they’ve joined the ranks of things people complain about shows that to be true. I complain about the price of shampoo, sheet music, apples, and yes, e-books.

There’s a reason I will balk at the price of a DRM restricted e-book, yet, if I know a book well and think, "I want to buy that, it’s my favorite book!", I will do so by buying a physical copy with less issue about whether or not I can afford it. More of a feeling that it is a book, MY book, rather than a component for my current gadget.

Also, in the spirit of the article itself: People will pay for things they know they will enjoy. Almost every book I have bought has been because I’ve spent time with the book before – library loans, a friend handed the book to me.

I try to be a smart consumer by making my money stretch for everything from necessities to frivolities. And yes, an e-book is a frivolity. Much like I don’t watch vary many movies first run at the cinema, but wait for the dvd rental instead.

I buy T-shirts for $13 and I expect them to survive hundreds of re-washings. Will I love a $13 e-book 3 times as much as a well loved $4 cup of coffee (if we want to get literal with numbers, in Canada the price of a Tall 'regular coffee is about 2.50)? Probably not.

Bob Myers August 19, 2012 um 10:57 pm

Most bookstores have the ability to download a sample chapter.

Xyzzy August 20, 2012 um 3:25 am

Exactly my thought regarding that point — I’m also not sure why one wouldn’t know what *genre* an author is writing in. Even if that particular author writes in more than one genre, it should only take a minute or two to look that much up online.

Nate Hoffelder August 20, 2012 um 7:05 am

Genre is a more nuanced word now than it used to be.

Peter August 20, 2012 um 3:28 pm

Except for Sony. And Kobo (well, technically they offer previews, but every "preview" I’ve ever looked at there amounted to "the indicia and copyright page").

Mike Cane August 21, 2012 um 9:46 am

If the book originates from Smashwords, you can go there for a likely longer preview (or in the case of Sony, *any* preview at all).

Peter August 21, 2012 um 2:46 pm

Sure, but if the book originates from Smashwords I’ll buy it there and get a multi-platform, infection-free file. I know several people who’ve given up on Sony and Kobo because they had to go to Amazon just to look at a preview, and if they’re there anyway, why not just buy the book as well?

Isles August 19, 2012 um 11:11 pm

I can understand the needs of today’s authors. Brand new eBooks by up-and-coming writers should be sold at a rate that allows them to profit from their success. If writers aren’t paid a FAIR wage, our literary future looks bleak.

My issue is with the horrible people at Penguin (and the Big Six) who have the world’s greatest literature under their control. Why should books written by dead authors like Hemingway or Steinbeck be $14 – $18 for an electronic version?!? Look on Amazon. A copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, published in 1941, is $18.99. The author died in ’83. Most of Steinbeck’s works, published in the 1930s and 40s, over $12.99. Hemingway’s short stories, $14.99, A Farwell to Arms, $12.99. These prices are ridiculous! I will never buy them until the price comes down, and I will continue to urge others to boycott the greedy publishers until the DoJ brings them to their knees. Okay, that might be a little dramatic but a DRM-encrypted, computer file eBook published 60 years ago by a dead author should NEVER be more than $4 or $5. $12.99 is nothing but pure greed.

Xyzzy August 20, 2012 um 5:22 am

I’d say that $13 is far too much for an ebook *or* paperback — but on the other hand, I also think that $4 is far too much for a drink. Halve the price of each, and then I can afford to consider it. Then again, I’m living substantially below the poverty line thanks to our society figuring that’s all disabled folk deserve to scrape by on, so I have to watch every dime and *everything* seems like it costs far too much.

Anyway, that guy’s argument seems pretty darn flawed:
–He says he values coffee because the store won’t give it to him for free (he’d have to obtain it illegally), but then he doesn’t value a book as much in part because the seller tries to keep him from obtaining it legally…? Hey, I agree that DRM the way we know it is bad, but I value things regardless of whether they’re free or not.

–The reason Cory Doctorow can release his ebooks for free as a professional author is because he started doing it back when merely releasing a book electronically (let alone doing it for free) was enough to drum up a ton of attention, and when only a tiny percentage of people read on a computer or handheld. Authors that try it now don’t get that attention or resulting sales.

–The guy claims that the style, genre, quality etc. are "unknown" until he buys the ebook, but we can learn or preview all of those on the web, just as we could "preview" books at the store by flipping through them.

–A bit of math… If $4 is fine for a beverage that takes perhaps 30 minutes to drink if you go slowly, then for $13 he’d only get a little over 1.5 hours of enjoyment, not "a few" hours.

So on and so forth… I’m too tired to keep going, but you get the idea; at this point, I’ve realized (as a sometimes-pirate) that each rationale for illegal copying is little more than a handy excuse to change when it no longer applies, and think that we should start being honest about our individual motives, not believing or feeding the public a bunch of bull.

Nate Hoffelder August 20, 2012 um 7:19 am

Um, just because you don’t approve of the decision tree people use to make purchases doesn’t mean they’re not using it or that it is invalid.

Mike Cane August 20, 2012 um 11:01 am

Some people think human beings work on logic. Like economists and their "rational actors." Look how well that delusional thinking has worked in the real worldwide economy.

T. J.Edison November 20, 2012 um 2:05 am

1.5 hours to read a book!!? When was the last time you actually read a book?

How many words an hour can you read? How long would it take you to read 120,000 words?

The average price of my e-books is $4.99.

The word counts range from 20 – 120,000. Trilogies, series, novellas, flash-fiction, nano fiction etc.

At the moment, 80% of my books are free to download at Amazon dot com or dot co dot uk up to the 22nd November.

Download them all.

While you are doing that you can drink a few Imperial gallons of (home brewed) coffee.

Dan Meadows August 20, 2012 um 11:57 am

This is kind of a false comparison because coffee is perishable, ebooks aren’t, so there is a different level of expectation for each purchase. I happen to love coffee, so its well worth the money to me, even being a one and done purchase. The ebook, however, even if I hit the jackpot and its a fantastic book, is still overpriced at $13. I might feel better about paying too much if its a great book, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still overpaid. I don’t think the people complaining that $13 isn’t too expensive really understand how many books are in the world and how cheap many of them are. I went to my local library book sale about a month ago and walked away with a grocery bag full of books and I paid all of $9 for 11 books. The problem is that we’re not really paying $13 for that specific ebook, we’re paying the higher price to prop up the hard cover business. I’m a motivated purchaser for coffee. I need a very convincing reason to buy an ebook at that price range. If you can’t give me a better reason to buy than "you pay $4 for coffee don’t ya?" then that’s a cockeyed comparison of goods and ultimately a losing argument. The entitlement here is on the author side, virtually demanding you pay whatever price they slap on it regardless of market forces. No matter what anyone says, just publishing a book doesn’t mean you deserve to get paid whatever you want for it. Convince enough people that $13 is a good buy, and you’ll get that. Complaining about coffee shops who have convinced people in great numbers that $4 a cup is a good buy is a loser bet.

NJamilla August 20, 2012 um 12:57 pm

When you buy a $4 cup of Starbucks coffee. I know what I’m getting, but I could also get a bad cup of coffee.

If I like Brent Weeks, I’m paying for his product and could also get a "bad cup". But isn’t his point that there’s value to his writing in excess of the effort to valuate a $4 cup of coffee? You can decry the price of his book ($1, $10, $50, $100, whatever), but it also demonstrates that you’re a cheapskate for complaining.

If a free e-book is better value for your tastes. Fine. But don’t begrudge an artist for saying that $4 and short lived buzz is not worth the value that resulted from hundreds of hours writing a novel, and hours of pleasure a reader may get from it.

Nate Hoffelder August 20, 2012 um 1:04 pm

I will begrudge the artist when he responds in a flippant manner, yes.

NJamilla August 20, 2012 um 6:18 pm

And that’s reason enough to begrudge you.

becca August 20, 2012 um 1:40 pm

I honestly don’t care whether an author took 2 years or 2 weeks to write the book. I’m not paying for his time, I’m paying for his talent.

NJamilla August 20, 2012 um 6:22 pm

That’s because you don’t look at the author as an artist, simply a producer. So in this case, you’re really paying him for his physical book, not his talent.

Peter August 20, 2012 um 10:56 pm

Well, in the case of a commercially-published book I’m not paying the author *anything*. I’m paying a product vendor, who in turn is paying a packager and promoter of product, who is then passing along a percentage to the original producer who was, in the vast majority of cases, selected on the likelihood of producing a marketable product. Let’s not over-romanticize the starving artist slaving away in a garret, hmm?

DavidW August 21, 2012 um 6:30 am

Anyone that writes predominantly pulp fiction is a word smith not an artist. There are authors that are artists, but Weeks is not one of them.

Mike Cane August 21, 2012 um 9:50 am

Do you give a damn about the Chinese who assemble your phones and tablets and computers? No. You want the best product at the lower price.

Do you care about whether or not anyone got screwed in the making of a movie? Or what its budget is? Why does a $1M indie movie have the same ticket price as a $100M movie? Do you want to pay more for the indie movie if it took four years to make over the one year it took the blockbuster to be made?


Karl August 21, 2012 um 7:05 am

I don’t see anyone addressing the real apple vs. orange problem with Weeks' statement. Unlike a cup of coffee, the price of a single copy of a book isn’t — by a factor of several bazillion — _supposed_ to pay the author for his years of work. The book exists in potentially unlimited copies, and _if_ enough copies are sold, _then_ the author will make decent money for his years of work. The price of a cup of coffee has to cover the cost of what’s in the cup, period.

On a totally superficial level, the two transactions seem comparable: Pay money, get product. But beneath the surface, vastly different economic processes are at work, and they simply don’t compare.

Nate Hoffelder August 21, 2012 um 8:07 am

I would have liked to, but the people who would throw around a comment about a cup of coffee aren’t the type to want to listen to a response based on logic.

But you are completely correct.

Mike Cane August 21, 2012 um 9:51 am

The new sales pitch: "Stop! Don’t buy that coffee! Think of the writers!"


Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity leeches away your time! August 24, 2012 um 3:03 am

[…] “That $4 cup of coffee is worth the cost – your eBook, not so much“. […]

Pricing fiction | 5th Black August 24, 2012 um 5:02 pm

[…] what price is worth paying for an ebook. There’s an interesting take on this debate over at The Digital Reader (arguing why an ebook for most customers is not the same as buying a Starbucks coffee). Stephen […]

Tip Jarhead December 19, 2012 um 11:33 am

Wow, why are you abusive towards writers in this ….this "blog"? I’m not a writer myself but to dedicate an entire article about this nickel & dime garbage? Maybe it’s because you "blog" for a living that you think three of four dollars is HEAVY CASH to pay for something. Or it bothers you that somebody else is asking for $4 for their work. And then you have your TIP JAR on the side here on this blog. TOO FUNNY! And $13 is NOTHING! That’s nothing. Not worth an 'article', not worth talking about. Can’t even get 2 Baconators from Wendy’s on that plus a drink. And even if you can…so what?

Nate Hoffelder December 19, 2012 um 11:35 am

This is an example of why I’m never writing on this topic again.

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