Been there, read that, passed on the t-shirt: The ebook pricing false comparison

As a follow-up to the ebook pricing discussion, here’s a piece from Digital Book World that makes a completely false case for society’s undervaluing of ebooks. Why false? Because you could have exactly the same debate about print books. “Why are T-shirts more valuable than Ebooks?” asks Beth Bacon, and she instances her brothers-in-law’s new t-shirt sales website that “sells comfy, cool T-shirts for $25. I fully support their entrepreneurial launch. But I couldn’t help thinking about it in comparison to publishers, selling ebooks for a just couple of bucks. It struck me as odd that our society values ebooks at a fraction of the price of a T-shirt.”

Well, yes, few ebooks sell at $25. But the same applies to the vast number of print books. Take the debate back 20 years and the same would still be true. The average mass-market paperback sells at nothing like $25, and to that degree, reasonably high-quality t-shirts have always commanded higher prices than cheap paperbacks. And we haven’t even started on the Dover or Wordsworth Classics paperbacks that disseminated the great works of literature for prices far closer to the $2.99 that Beth Bacon bemoans as the sweet spot for ebook pricing.

“I settle into the uncomfortable conclusion that our society simply values things like clothes higher than books,” she complains. “Why else would we shell out $25 for a T-shirt but balk at buying a mystery for that price?”

Well, as it happens, the situation is even more dire than that. Because Project Gutenberg is offering, with Amazon and most other ebook platforms following suit, the truly deathless monuments of world literature, for free. Follow Beth Bacon’s argument, and this should show that society places no value on them at all. Is it really so? Perhaps rather our cultural heritage should be free like the air we breathe. It’s that important.


16 Comments on Been there, read that, passed on the t-shirt: The ebook pricing false comparison

  1. But you CAN buy t-shirts for a dollar each at the charity shop, and indeed also on EBay:

    …which pretty much knocks the whole argument into a cocked hat.

  2. Pricing is value. When the same ebook is 99 cents, $3.99 or free it’s just as good as a read. That’s marketing.

    Gutenberg is run by donations and volunteers (and many parts that I’m not aware of) because those people contributing (time and money) feel there is value in this and that there is no copyright on those books any more. Many physical copies of those old books are still at the book stores and still cost money (and sometimes not very cheap).

    T-shirts have a lot of marketing too. Have you tried to buy one at a concert? Sometimes it’s more than the ticket.

    Don’t even get me started at the price of a Coke at most movie theaters….

  3. I screwed that up in the first sentence. Should be “Pricing is NOT always value.”

  4. I see now that the eBay site is a bait-and-switch trick, and the cheapest t-shirts are actually $4 with postage. My apologies; but the point about charity shops remains.

  5. On the used market, both books and t-shirts have remarkably similar prices. This past Saturday I went to a library-sponsored used book sale. Paperbacks were 50 cents and hardbacks were $1. Then I went to a thrift store, where I picked up some quite nice t-shirts for 50 cents and a pair of black pants for just 99 cents. All discerning shopper go first to thrift stores.

    I’ve got several ebooks on the market. I don’t regret their 99 cent to $2.99 prices. I’m just ticked off that Amazon pays me just 35 cents for the 99 cent ones while Apple pays 70 cents. Amazon demands that I not price ebooks higher elsewhere and then pays half as much.

    That’s what’s unfair about ebooks. Boo, hiss Amazon.

  6. Michael,

    That’s crazy on the commission pricing. Will Amazon let you price LESS at other places?
    I’m assuming that you sell significantly more eBooks via Amazon than via Apple. I don’t know anyone who purchases from Apple for books, but most of people I know had an eBook reader first so on their Apple devices they run the app so they can get the same books.


  7. T-shirts you wear over and over. A book you read once. If you only wore the t-shirt once you wouldn’t pay $25. But I agree that books sell for less or we find places like libraries to get books to read for nothing. This is a sad fact of life.

  8. What about the price of ebooks compared to eating out? A dinner course at an Indian restaurant will probably cost from $12 to $16 plus $3 for naan and $4 to $6 for a beer. That’s well over the price of most ebooks.

    Even fast food can push towards (or over) $9 if you get a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a pop.

    So why is there such a brouhaha over ebook costs? The cost of a dinner will be more than the price of a new biography.

    I think there is something to be said that some people don’t value a book.

  9. I think the right price varies by book and by author. The benefits of eBooks is it allows a lesser known author to sell their book for less money and increase their exposure.

    With physical books there was (still is) a bit of money tied up in physically creating those books and shipping them out and hoping they’ll sell and accepting returns.

    You can’t print 10,000 copies of a book and distribute them less per book than an author that gets 100,000 copies printed (and will likely be sold and reprinted). So how do you sell the lesser known author for less? With eBooks, distribution is pretty much the same no matter how many copies you get from Amazon (or wherever). My numbers above are made up, I’m just trying to make an example.

    For eBooks if an author wants to lower the price for a few days to generate some sales or to get people interested since book 4 of the trilogy came out, they can. You can’t do that with print copies as easily.

    You can make the first eBook in a ten eBook series 99 cents (or free) so that people get hooked on the series. While you could give away a physical copy of book one, it gets cost prohibitive for all the people that don’t read it (or get hooked); people take free stuff. Give away a 1,000,000 copies of the eBook and the costs are still pretty low even if none get read. But for everyone that gets read you might have a new reader.

    Diane Duane and Peter Morwood each gave away copies of the first books of each of their series’ a few weeks ago (on free book day). They didn’t even make you register for their eBook site, it was a just link to a file on their dropbox.

    I’ve seen a few authors do first books for free on Amazon too. I’ve seen them rotate book 1 between 99 cents, free and 3 or 4 dollars.

    Books are the new drugs, the first one is free :)


  10. My response to the original article was:

    “I own maybe 50 t-shirts and until they wear out I have no need to buy more. At least half of these shirts were gifts, hand me downs or purchased as a fundraiser.

    I read 2-10 books a day, have a physical book collection of over 6500 books, and a 3000+ ebook collection. I have given the publishing world far more money than any clothing store, and if they raise books prices, it will just mean I will not be able to afford the 5-6 new releases I buy a week. It would also put a stop to me buying the ebook versions of of my existing paperback collection.

    There is also no good reason for an ebook to be the same price as a paperback, it should be at least $5 cheaper, if not more. They don’t need to use paper, ink or glue, and there is no warehouse storage or transport involved. Also, like mentioned above you are only buying a license to read the book.

    My books are some of my most valued possessions, but it’s simple, if ebooks are cheaper, I will buy even more than I do now. If t-shirts were cheaper, I would still only buy as many as I need.”

    As far as I’m concerned t-shirts, restaurants and most ebooks are all currently overpriced.

  11. Who buys ebooks from Apple? I do. And from Amazon. It depends on which is cheaper. And yes, Amazon is not always the cheapest.

    What’s that saying about anecdotes and data?

    The only data I could quickly find on how many books Apple sells in a year was a year old (I’m sure the data is out there somewhere but I don’t have the time at the moment to dig) and claimed they’d made over a billion $US the previous year. On ebooks. Not exactly a small amount. So someone, of the 300 million plus iOS device owners must be buying more than music from Apple.

  12. I guess I should check book pricing more often (between Amazon and Apple), but I like to read on my eInk Kindle and syncing it with the iPad app keeps them on the same page and I don’t need to take my iPad with me (I actually just keep my eInk Kindle in my car so it’s always with me). But I supposed if a book is significantly cheaper, I could read a different book on the iPad than in the car (that’s they way I used to do it: one book in car, different one in house).


  13. I’ve thought a bit about this topic as it relates to music since many people argue even if music is free (via piracy or general devaluation) fans will still buy t-shirts which will subsidize the market. I don’t really buy that t-shirt sales can make up for lost revenues but this does raise an interesting question: why are t-shirts are so valuable? When you think about it, 25$ is an insane price for t-shirt. Why is a t-shirt with a logo any more valuable that a plain white shirt?

    I don’t claim to know for certain but it seems to have something to do with our ability to define ourselves socially. If I walk around with a Grateful Dead t-shirt I’m communicating quite a bit about who I am, my likes/dislikes etc. I probably make myself more approachable by like-minded people and I ward off people I don’t want to interact with (an admittedly close minded approach but one we’re all guilty of.) T-shirts are a kind of social lubricant. So are books and music (I’ve certainly struck up conversations with strangers over a book in their hand) but books and music aren’t quite as obvious as a t-shirt.

    Anyway, I think this kind of not-so-obvious psychology plays a lot into how we value things.

  14. “social lubricant”, I like that. Enough to where I checked and someone already has the domain name :)

    At big concerts, $25 would be a bargain for a t-shirt. After you bought the album and the tickets, they still get you with the shirt…

    “I’ve certainly struck up conversations with strangers over a book in their hand”, that doesn’t really happen any more, that’s sad now that I think about it. Every book looks the same from the back of the Kindle or iPad…

    Maybe I need more t-shirts to fill that ‘conversations with strangers’ gap.


  15. heh – well, I don’t think I originated the phrase so I’m not surprised it’s taken.

    You might have stumbled onto a great idea for an alteration to Kindles: a front cover screen that shows the current book being viewed, and enables these kinds of “I love that book!” conversations.


  16. @wil, except that many people read on Kindles because of the anonymity. They don’t want the people around them to know they are reading light genre fiction or erotic romance.

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