In the era of ebooks, what is a book worth (I)

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Some questions have no answer, or at least not a universal answer. This is true of this question: In the era of ebooks, what is a book worth? Yet, every day, ebookers are making that value judgement, including in their calculation of whether or not to buy an ebook what they believe is the worth of a book.

As there is no across-the-board, universally applicable answer to the question, we need to address value/worth broadly, beginning by separating books into two broad categories: fiction and nonfiction. From my point of view, nonfiction is worth more than fiction — again, I am speaking in broad terms — because nonfiction is intended by both the author and buyer to be referred to multiple times. Granted some nonfiction’s multiple times may be only twice, but at the other extreme, consider cookbooks, course books, and how-to books, which may be referenced dozens of times over the course of the buyer’s ownership of the book.

On the other hand, most fiction is of the read-once-then-shelve-or-toss-away variety. How many of us buy a novel and read it more than once? And if we do read it more than once, how many of us will read it more than twice? As with all else, there are exceptions. I can name a handful of novels that I have read more than once — To Kill a Mockingbird, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and a few more — over the course of 60 years of reading. Considering how many novels I have read in those 60 years of reading, the handful is a very tiny fraction of books I have read, especially compared to nonfiction.

With these thoughts in mind, I wonder what the true value of a book is today, especially considering all the restrictions that are applied to ebooks, the varied pricing of ebooks, and the pricing of ebooks compared to their print versions. I also wonder about the value, by which I mean the price to be paid, of fiction in any form. Why is a new Stephen King novel worth $15 or more in any form?

When valuing commodities, and books have evolved to be commodities rather than the luxury items they once were, in a true free market system, value is set by scarcity and production costs with a margin for profit. But ebooks have no scarcity value, unless we consider each author to be so unique that no other author can be substituted. Once created, the electronic file can be duplicated innumerable times, with each duplication being a precise and perfect clone of the original.

There are production costs, but these costs can be amortized over an innumerable quantity of duplications that cost virtually nothing to create once the master has been created. This is the essential difference between a print book and an ebook: Each copy of a print book has some measurable production cost – for example, the cost of paper, the storage and shipping costs, the minimum print run cost — but the ebook lacks these measurable costs once past the creation of the master file. It isn’t that the cost of the master file isn’t or shouldn’t be amortized over the duplication run, but rather that the duplication run doesn’t add measurably to the cost of the master file, unlike with print books where many of the costs of the initial print run are incurred again with the second printing and again with each subsequent printing.

The one criterion that changes ebook to ebook is that of the author. Although Stephen King and Dean Koontz write similar books in a similar genre, one is (supposedly) not a perfect substitute for the other. Notwithstanding marketing claims to the contrary, a bar of soap from Ivory is a near-perfect substitute for a bar of soap from Kiss My Face. We may have a preference for one brand or the other, but the two bar soaps are really interchangeable in the marketplace — they are near-perfect substitutes, one for the other. Although King and Koontz are similar, it is claimed that they are not near-perfect substitutes, one for the other.

Or are they? Perhaps we have been drilled over too many years to believe that each author is so unique that one author cannot be substituted for another, that we actually believe author uniqueness to be a truism. Perhaps there is a shade of gray to that statement. Consider this: Do readers of Stephen King only read horror genre books written by King? Do they read other horror authors while waiting for the next King novel to be published? Is Tolkien the only fantasy author Tolkien fans read, especially knowing that there will be no more Tolkien novels forthcoming?

If we read other authors in a genre, are we not really saying that it is the genre that we like more so than the author, and that King and Koontz are at least near equivalents? I accept that there are tiers of authors; that is, some authors are better than others and that some are first tier, whereas others are third or fourth (or even lower) tier. But I also accept that authors in a tier are, for the most part, interchangeable for each other. Perhaps scarcity, in the sense that each author is unique and not interchangeable with any other author, is not truly a criterion applicable to books even though we have been indoctrinated to believe otherwise. Consider that other authors are hired to complete books in a series because of the original author’s untimely death. Isn’t that the publishing world’s equivalent of saying Brandon Sanderson is interchangeable with Robert Jordan?

If we accept that books are commodities and that same-tier authors are interchangeable, the current equation for determining the value of a book is undermined and needs to be rethought. Alas, this is a complex problem that cannot be resolved in just one short article; consequently, the discussion will continue another day in part II.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog

15 Comments on In the era of ebooks, what is a book worth (I)

  1. Sounds like you’ve effectively marginalized the author to nothingness, Rich. And if consumers don’t care about authors, what do they care whether those authors get paid for their work, or whether their work gets downloaded from the Darknet and the authors go fish?

  2. The fundamental premise here is just silly: Fiction vs. non-fiction — which is worth more?

    Obviously it is fiction because it has entertainment value; the other is utilitarian. How much does a really good movie actor get paid vs. a really good plumber? The value is not derived from “using it many times”.

    The second premise is equally misguided: books are merely commodities and any old author will do.

    We value, historically and in the present moment, content on a case-by-case basis. It is not acceptable to substitute Agatha Christie for Erle Stanley Gardner … Elizabeth George for Ian Rankin … or Stephen King for Dean Koontz.

    Prices of books are based on, in a small part, production costs (editors, marketing, legal, printing) and distribution (booksellers, shipping), but prices are mainly based on the content provider costs (author, agents). The only true variable is the author — every other cost is “predictable”.

    Basically, publishers charge what they can get away with. That is based on the market appeal of the author and his/her previous work, as well as general market guidelines. (I might read Shakespeare’s Sonnets every year and Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein once … but try to get the public to pay $100 for the former and $10 for the latter.) Consumers have been trained to pay in a range of prices depending on the format the content is delivered in (and how new it is).

    Next time you go to your supermarket, pay for a broccoli, and get home to discover you have in that bag brussels sprouts instead, ask yourself how “commoditized” green vegetables are.

  3. If we accept that books are commodities and that same-tier authors are interchangeable, […]

    This seems to be the way Harlequin looks at things, and it seems to work for them. I know lots of people who have subscriptions to specific Harlequin lines, and will read anything within the line as it comes out.

    But this isn’t the way I read at all. For me, same-tier authors are *not* interchangeable. Nor do I read by “brand” – I have no idea whether favorite authors are published by Penguin or by HC. I don’t go reading a Steven King book if what I want is Lois McMaster Bujold. (or, to stay within genre, I won’t read David Weber when what I want is Bujold).

    I find new authors (Hello, Patrick Ruthfuss!) based on recommendations by fellow readers or blog reviews that I trust. If I want romantic suspense, I won’t necessarily buy any indy author in that genre, without some sense of what I’m getting. So far I haven’t found sampling gives me that same sense that solid book reviews or recommendations do.

    I think this is one of the problems with Borders, and maybe B&N – I know less about them than I do Borders – books are seen as “product” to get out on the shelf, not as individual items that people will have preferences for: brussels sprouts when you want broccoli.

  4. This is the kind of article that I find a true test of my emotional self control when commenting. Avoiding hyperbole is straining every sinew of my body when I read the utter … silliness … of this article. When I reflect on the kind of intellect that generates this kind of content I have to distract myself with a stroll and a few deep breaths before deciding whether to comment at all. I am sure after reading it, quite a few will wish I had decided differently …

    Firstly it is surely self evident to any rational person that the value of any commodity, physical or digital, is determined by one simple factor. How much do people want it and how much are they willing to pay for it ?
    Asking “what is a book worth?” and then responding “there is no across-the-board, universally applicable answer to the question” is something I would expect from a 12 year old’s essay on the subject.
    ” value is set by scarcity” Well sometimes yes it is … but neither paper books nor eBooks suffer from scarcity issues except for first editions or antiques.

    You might as well ask “what is a painting worth?” “What is a sculpture worth?” “What is a song worth?” “What is a music CD worth?” Whether it is an original or a copy is irrelevant.

    The question is a meaningless one and an unanswerable one. Every book is different; every song, every sculpture, every painting. Each one is unique and has it’s own individual value based on how much people want it and are prepared to pay for it.

    “There are production costs” Production cost has absolutely nothing to do with value. A buyer is unconcerned at how much the creator/producer of an item spent. What matters to the buyer is how much he wants it ! and how much he is willing to pay for it ! I was in a shop in Italy a long time ago and was in a shop looking at beautiful floor rugs. The assistant regaled me on the quality, the hundreds of hours of hand weaving that went into it. The cost of bringing it to Italy. I offered him 35 euros. He wanted 250 euros. I knew I could get something vaguely similar in a local hardware shop for 30 euros and anyway I don’t really like rugs that much. I came home without a rug.

    “Alas, this is a complex problem that cannot be resolved in just one short article; consequently, the discussion will continue another day in part II.”

    I can hardly wait.

    No, Mr Adin. This is most definitely not a complex problem. Not a complex problem at all. This is a NON problem. And your earnestness in tackling it speaks more about you than the issue at hand.

    The consumer is the arbiter of value. The consumer decides how much they want each individual book and each individual eBook and title. The numbers of consumers who value a title highly, versus the number who value it much less is the see-saw of market value. An author will write a wondrous title at the peak of his talent and follow it with a complete lemon. A reader of science fiction will often only read one or two specific writers, like me, and not others in the same genre. I bought more than 15 copies of each of Mitch Albom’s first few books and distributed them to friends across Europe over the course of five years or so. I know for a fact that several of those friends did the same thing. But when I bought his last title I binned it before I got half way through and warned all of them to do the same.

    Trying to extract broad, sweeping and blunt rules out of a facet of life where utter inconsistency and individuality and uniqueness is instead the rule, is futile and pointless and dumb.

  5. Alexander: Is your evaluation of fiction vs non-fiction supposed to be in jest or are you serious?

  6. I think that we need to have a poll of some kind on Teleread, to address this whole “people don’t read books more than once” nonsense, because it’s often taken as received fact.

    I have trouble remembering which books I haven’t read more than once.

  7. From his articles on the subject of what he reads as well as his analysis of books and readers, Rich appears to be suffering from the literary equivalent of being tone deaf. He can’t tell good from bad writers or tell the difference between authors in the same genre.

    I’ve seen the same problem in some of the students I’ve taught in various literature classes.

    He also seems to be suffering from the lack of topics for his blog because his nonsense factor is becoming increasingly high.

    Perhaps, he needs to take a blog hiatus or to widen his topics field.

  8. Suggesting that the quality of the work or the times intended to be referenced to be the basis of the value of the book is plain silly. Quality of written work, fiction or non-fiction, is subjective. I could name authors whose work is insipid, yet they have contracts and make millions. On the other hand, I know unpublished authors who are brilliant and have shopped around for years. Subjectivity.

    In the case of times referenced, you are quite leaving out the realm of the literary scholar (as a basic example of one who refers to non-fiction extensively).

    The authors you named, Stephen King and Dean Koontz, have no control over the price point assigned to their novels. They are under contract of publishing houses that determine all of those details. Subsequently, they make the deals with e-book platforms and set a price there as well. As household names, they get away with prices such as $15 though the actual “data” is worth no more than any other e-book out there.

    Authors are emphatically not interchangeable. And neither are readers. Assuming that readers as a whole choose to only indulge in one genre is insulting to the literate.

  9. I got so irritated, I typoed. I intended to say that, literary scholars refer to FICTION innumerable times.

  10. If it’s an author I have never heard of, then to me, they ARE interchangeable :) That may not be a popular thing to say, but it’s true. If I have nothing to read and just tooling around for whatever looks interesting, and I am faced with two possible books which are unknown to me, and one is $9.99 and one is $0.99, I will go for the cheap one every time.

    If I do want to read the latest Stephen King (for instance) then that book is not interchangeable with any other one because it stops being a general product (‘book’) and becomes a specific item.

    It’s like visiting a strange town and deciding you feel like having Chinese food for dinner, but you don’t know enough about the local choices to know where to go. You’ll look around, see what looks affordable and reasonably decent, and eat there. And that’s fine for that meal. But if you have a specific restaurant back home that you plan to go to for your anniversary because you know it and love it and have a specific association, that’s a different story.

    The tricky side, as far as this relates to pricing a book, is that every reader will have a different ‘Stephen King’ who is not replaceable to them :) My stepfather is an avid Tom Clancy fan, for instance. I myself can’t stand those books…

  11. Anon asked: “Is your evaluation of fiction vs non-fiction supposed to be in jest or are you serious?”

    It was in jest — and riffed off the original poster’s claim: “From my point of view, nonfiction is worth more than fiction … because nonfiction is intended by both the author and buyer to be referred to multiple times.” He goes on to talk about cookbooks and I can only imagine he believes a Betty Crocker how-to to be “worth more” than Macbeth — and hence we ought to pay more.

    I don’t agree. And the premise is … well … disagreeable.

  12. If I have nothing to read and just tooling around for whatever looks interesting, and I am faced with two possible books which are unknown to me, and one is $9.99 and one is $0.99, I will go for the cheap one every time.

    not me. I’ll look at the book descriptions, look at the reviews, maybe even read a sample of each before I decide. someone here (I think) said “life is too short for bad books” and I agree.

  13. It is impossible to add anything to Howard’s response. His comment is stellar. Well done, sir.

  14. I agree with Joanna: the proposition that ‘books are now commodities’ is only true of some books. Name brand authors like Stephen King are not commodities, a notion proved by their sales. Harlequin, which publishes the modern day equivalent of nickel- or dime-novels, does produce commodity books (at least, we can say that the Harlequin books are commodities within the Harlequin brand, and mostly interchangeable, one unread Harlequin to another; comparing Harlequin to another house’s romances might show that the Harlequin imprint has some value to a reader above, or below, that other house).

  15. A book can only be a commodity if readers would be happy buying a bulk package of 20 books, sight unseen, and be equally happy to read though those books without any advance interest whatsoever in the plot, style or author. Even friends of mine who are Mills and Boon fans are very selective of which ones why read. Books are never commodities.

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