washington.jpgSeveral events in the past few weeks suddenly converged in my mind, causing me to realize that in the discourse about ebooks, especially about what constitutes fair ebook pricing, the unbridgeable divide is between believe and know.

The first events were discussions about ebooks and what constitutes fair pricing for an ebook. Three types of people participated in those discussions: those who admittedly had no direct knowledge of the costs involved in publishing an ebook, those who did have direct knowledge, and those who believed they knew. As is typical of such discussions, those who admitted not knowing were open to learning and the other two types were trying to teach. But between the teachers there was no room to compromise; those who believed they knew — the believers — simply would not consider or accept that believe and know are not synonymous, that there is a chasm between the two words.

Then came the New York Times Magazine article, “How Christian Were the Founders?”, which discussed the efforts by pressure groups in Texas to shape the secondary school curriculum by requiring textbooks to reflect their view of history. This pressure was previously applied to the science curriculum, the Kansas school board fight having made national headlines.

The article and the ebook fair-pricing discussions brought to mind this war between two words: belief and knowledge. The core problem in the discussions about both pricing and textbook content is the chasm between believe and know.

Believe, although having some slim foundation in evidence, signifies something unprovable (or perhaps less provable), and thus less firmly based in evidence, than know, whose foundation is firmly based on the provable and demonstrable. For example, we may believe there is minimal cost to creating an ebook of a pbook, but we do not know what that cost is — we can’t prove it or demonstrate it. The same concept holds true for any belief, whether economic, cultural, religious, scientific, or something else.

Unlike know, believe covers a wide range of credulity. Know is more constrained; its verity must be demonstrable. Believe needs no more than the statement “I believe” something to be true, leaving it to the listener to supply the factual base — no matter how slim or wobbly — for where to place the belief on the continuum that ranges from pure speculation to pure fact.

Believe denotes the acceptance of the truth or actuality of something, that it is real, even if it may not be real. For example, the belief that because an ebook is a digital file of the pbook, there is no cost to creating the ebook. Know, on the other hand, has its basis in experience rather than acceptance, such as the experience of smelling a rose. Having never smelled a rose, I could say that I believe the rose’s fragrance is similar to that of a skunk; but having smelled both a rose and a skunk, I could say I know that the rose’s fragrance is dissimilar to the that of the skunk.

A belief statement might ultimately prove correct, but then believe would transform itself to know. The know statement, however, cannot be transformed from know to believe. Once I have smelled both the rose and the skunk, that I know doesn’t change. What I know might change, but not that I know.

Believe embraces the possibility of doubt: No matter how firmly one believes something, by describing that conviction as a belief, one ascribes some doubt, albeit infinitesimally small, as to the verity of that belief. In contrast, know doesn’t permit that possibility of doubt; it doesn’t permit any doubt: I believe the rose smells like a skunk, but I know it doesn’t.

It is the improper use of these two words that leads to the ongoing cultural wars that are reflected in the battles over what should and should not be taught in school and what is or is not a fair price for an ebook. Too many people equate believe with know. They are neither the same nor does each include the other. It is when believe transforms to know that fact is possible, but until that transformation occurs there is always some doubt.

Interestingly, know not only cannot transform to believe, but it cannot embrace believe as a component of itself. To do so would be to weaken know and impose that element of doubt that distinguishes it from believe. In this instance, know must stand aloof and by itself.

Would proper use and understanding of these words deflect any of the passionate discourse that surrounds “I believe” statements in the cultural and ebook pricing wars? I doubt it would matter. There are some things that we grasp and cannot let go, that are beyond believe and know in the sense of a willingness to transform from the former to the latter; after all, we invented these words as a method of describing those immutable beliefs and distinguishing between possibility and fact. But proper use and understanding might shine a different light on the divide and permit a coming closer together. Unlike conflicting knowledge, it is impossible to reconcile conflicting belief, which is why we can expect the question of what is fair ebook pricing to remain unresolvable.

Editor’s Note: Rich Adin is an editor and owner of Freelance Editorial Services, a provider of editorial and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor blog. PB


  1. The fundamental (or perhaps fundamentalist) flaw with this argument is the assumption that identical knowledge will result in identical beliefs.

    Just because I know what both roses and skunks smell like doesn’t necessarily mean my opinions about those smells will be identical to yours. More topically, two people may both know to the penny the fixed production costs of a book but have radically different beliefs about how the recouping of those costs should be distributed between the hardcover, “trade paperback”, mass-market paperback, and electronic editions.

  2. The analogy between the two situations is not quite a clear as you imply. “Belief” can be shaped by “Know” provided “Know” shares the knowledge.

    For example, in the school history issue, there has been years of transparently documented knowledge that will when considered in an evidence based manner can provide a proper basis for “Know” (though as you point out, the individuals who can’t open their minds will never be swayed from their belief).

    Unfortunately, when you try to apply this to the publishing industry, the analogy fails because there is NO transparent knowledge that the believers could even use to become the knowingers since the knowledge is hidden at best and corrupt at worst. This seems to be endemic for most media industries given the many lawsuits and obfuscation used in the music and movie industries. Most suspect and believe that the same exists in the publishing industry. When asked about costs, most authors raise the privacy flag and publishers just ignore it.

    When the knowledge is hidden and not freely transparent, a “Belief” never has the opportunity to become a “Know”.

  3. The contrast between believe and know is an interesting one and ultimately not relevant in this discussion. The ultimate costs of producing a book or an ebook are irrelevant. What matters is the perception of value to the consumer. The simple fact of the matter is that most readers believe that e-books are worth less than the paper book equivalents. In capitalist system that point is far more important than how much it actually costs to produce the product (Which actually is a concept that tends to exist in controlled economies).

    Now, the publishers can protest all they want about how they can’t lower the prices on ebooks because the costs are too high to justify it, except some publishers, Baen for example, do in fact release their e-books for substantially less than they charge for their hardbacks (You can pick up the latest book in the Honor Harrington Universe for $6.00 as an ebook and can even get an advanced copy of the next book as an ebook for $15.. but its price once it is published will probably also be $6.00 or maybe $7… while the hardback will be between $20 and $30). Now Baen has been doing this sort of thing for years. If they can do it successfully, it effectively undermines all the protests of the other publishers.

    Final thought… lets assume that the publishers are giving us the truth. That their business need e-books to be expensive for them to survive. Does that change anything? Not as far as I can see. The publishing industry is rife with inefficiency. The first company that realizes that it needs to change the way its doing things on the production side will ultimately be the one that benefits the most in the next few years.

  4. I would like to add to Bill’s comments that there are prime examples of smaller successful ePublishers (Samhain or Loose Id or Ellora’s Cave) out there already who have set reasonable prices for their primary product which is eBooks while maintaining editing staff and cover artists etc.

    PLUS they give the authors a much larger percent in royalties than the the traditional publishers are even willing to discuss.

    Those epublishers are not arguing about these issues they are DOING.

    So the whole argument becomes one that the “Big 6” traditional publishers wants you to believe maintaining their “legacy pricing and rotting business model” is more important than reasonable eBook prices for the consumer.

    That does not hold water and never did no matter how long they stand there stamping their feet.

  5. @Bill McHale

    You are exactly correct sir! A publisher could go into great depth about why they think an e-book should cost $15, but if the consumer doesn’t want to pay $15 any argument the publisher can muster is moot. Are the production costs higher for a Cadillac than they are for a Chevy? Probably, but if consumers don’t perceive any better value then they won’t be willing to pay the higher cost. Any producers price suggestion is exactly that, a suggestion, ultimately consumers have the final say with their pocketbooks. Is a pound of gold more valuable than a pound of wheat? It’s all a matter of perception.

  6. “Baen for example, do in fact release their e-books for substantially less than they charge for their hardbacks (You can pick up the latest book in the Honor Harrington Universe for $6.00 as an ebook and can even get an advanced copy of the next book as an ebook for $15.. ”

    But isn’t the argument about how much Amazon charges for an ebook? Baen, in that situation, is publisher, wholesaler and retailer – three tiers of ‘traditional’ cost conflated into one. Amazon is currently conflating wholesaler and retailer and (especially for self-publishers) seems to think it fair and reasonable that they take a huge chunk.

    I’d be quite happy for publishers to put out their own ebooks on the Baen model. Cut out these wretched middlemen like Amazon altogether! But…it’s tedious having accounts at all these different publisher sites. And there’s books coming from smaller publishers where I’m only ever going to buy one book from them. Or just not be aware of their existence. It would be so much more convenient to have a middleman site, some place where all the publishers could hock their books. Yes, I guess it would cost a little more, but the publishers would still get the biggest cut, right? Except now that site is so powerful, and so many people are tied into it because of a related ereader, that that site is dictating terms to the publishers about how much the ebooks will be, and taking a larger and larger share of the profit…

    The whole argument is pretty circular, just like the “consumer’s perceived fair price”. If the consumer perceives $1 to be a fair price to pay for a product which costs $2 to make, all you eventually achieve is that product no longer being available.

    I personally ‘perceive’ “always less than the current physical copy price” to be a ‘fair price’, but even that is complicated by the deep discounting on bestsellers.

  7. Illukar,
    No, this is not about how much Amazon charges for an ebook. This is about how much the publishers want Amazon and others to charge for ebooks. This is about them arguing that an ebook should cost as much as a hardcover, despite the fact that the purchaser of an ebook can’t sell the book, or in some cases, even use it on the device of their choice. Its about the fact that ebook prices often remain high long after a book is released as a paperback.

    Yes I imagine that Baen is able to make a nice profit at their low prices in part because they run their own bookstore… but several other publishers actually also publish ebooks through Baen, and for the most part (except for the few books published by Tor) they also are priced in the $6 range.

    Consumer perceived fair price is all that ultimately matters. Yes, if customers believe that books are not worth what it costs to produce them, then ultimately no one will produce anymore books. But, I don’t believe that is going to happen. Ultimately companies like Baen, smashwords and others will gradually expand to fill the role of companies that were unable to adapt to the market.

  8. The publishers _aren’t_ arguing that ebooks cost as much as a hardcover.

    They’re arguing that new release ebooks have a premium price (which is still $10 less than a new release hardcover) and that the ebook price drops as it becomes less current.

    And comparing the price of a deeply discounted hardcover is why I said that there’s complications. Because new release hardcovers do not cost $15.

  9. Actually I think you will find that newly released hardcovers can often be found much closer to $15 than their MSRP would have you believe. Borders and Barnes and Nobles routinely give deep discounts on new Hardcovers (30% I believe is normal). I was looking at Amazon, and they found a book that is going to be released in June with an MSRP of $27 for less than $18. So ultimately the deeply discounted hardcover is the rule not the exception.

    So are the publishers arguing that ebooks should cost as much as hardbacks? Maybe not explicitly, but that is effectively what the agency model is doing.

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