I'm a lowbrow coffee drinker. I don't get the whole vente-latte-double-espresso-cappucino-half-soy-low-foam-caramel-spice thing. Especially when the vente-latte-double-espresso-cappucino-half-soy-low-foam-caramel-spice thing costs close to five bucks. A week of those, and I've already spent way more money than I'd need to buy a fabulous new release from a favorite writer. To me, a few cups of coffee just aren't worth that kind of money.
A great story, on the other hand, is something I'm willing to pay a lot for.
Not everyone agrees. My mom, a woman who buys truckloads of mysteries and thrillers each year, told me that she wouldn't spend more than ten dollars for a book, not even from one of her go-to authors. Amazon's on her side. Remember that last February, Amazon and Macmillan had a throwdown over ebook prices, which Amazon wanted to cap at $9.99, and which resulted in Amazon pulling the “buy” buttons off all Macmillan titles for a weekend*. (If you're like me, and can't remember what you had for lunch yesterday, you can refresh your memory at writer Scott Westerfeld’s blog.)
For others, $9.99 is still way too expensive. $4.99 would be more reasonable, they say. Or $2.99. Or 99 cents. I don’t know how many times I’ve read on this blog or that blog that ebooks should be dirt cheap** because there are no printing, warehousing, or shipping costs. Another argument for cheaper prices is that the value of a printed book is tied up in its physicality, and that ebooks are more ephemeral. That a "sale" of an ebook isn't a sale, it's a licensing agreement.
In response to a blog post on Teleread.com the commenter "Common Sense" put it this way: "As a consumer, I understand that I’m leasing an ebook and that I don’t own it outright. That’s the main reason the price should be so much lower, it just doesn’t provide the same value as a physical book that I can resell, loan as many times as I want to, or give away."***
Now, I like a bargain just as much as the next person, so if I could legally get Kate DiCamillo's or E. Lockhart's or Libba Bray's latest for 99 cents, I'd snap it up in a second. But, as companies like Amazon and Macmillan and Apple hash things out amongst themselves,**** more writers dip their toes self-publishing, "experts" debate sales vs. licensing, and other folks voice very real concerns that changing technologies could render today's ebooks unreadable tomorrow I worry that books are being devalued in the process.
Contrary to popular belief, the costs of creating an ebook aren’t that much less than the cost of creating a print book. Writers will still take months or years to write a novel. Editors, designers, and typographers are still necessary to produce a professional-looking piece that can be read on numerous devices.
And, in the case of interactive picture books and children's apps, the cost of production could actually increase. The more functionality you want in your app, the more art is needed for animations and effects. As Katie Davis mentioned in her first post, the cost of developing a good children's app can be astronomical, especially for the individual artist.
Even simple reprints of older titles require some investment. New cover art, file formatting and conversion, and the cost of any marketing or promotion.
So, is the value of a book tied up in its physicality? In its resale value? Or is the real value of a story in the experience of the story, whether you're reading it on a page or a screen?
How much is a good story worth?
The answer, I think, is different for different people. Which leads me to believe that there isn't any one price that will work for every title, every time. I can imagine first editions that are more expensive, such as enhanced ebook editions with "extras" like author interviews, videos, additional content and/or samples of other titles (even free titles that the publisher deems the reader may enjoy). Perhaps cheaper mid-priced editions with no extra content. Even heavily-discounted titles offered to cash-strapped libraries*****, or free editions supported by ads. All of this makes sense in a diverse marketplace in which people have varying budgets and varying levels of interest and need.
Or, if we could just get people to give up all that fancy coffee...
*Yes, this happened last year, but any ebook retailer could do it again at any time.
**And there are a few people who truly believe books should be free. Information wants to be free, they say, books are information, thus books want to be free. Plus, people are going to steal them anyway. Free the books! Free artists from the pressure of making art to suit a capricious market! Of course, I wonder how all these free books are supposed to feed all the "freed" artists.
***Then, is an audiobook more akin to a piece of music than to a book?
****Eventually, Amazon caved into Macmillan’s demands for what's called an agency model which allows Macmillan to set the price of the book rather than Amazon. But the kerfluffle exposed Amazon’s attempts to corner the market on ebooks by offering popular books at bargain prices (even if Amazon has to take a loss on each title, which they do).
*****Part of a librarian's mission is to create a collection that endures, so libraries often purchase "library editions" of new releases, that is, the most expensive edition sold. That doesn't make sense if a library is purchasing ebooks, though one wonders about how long files can endure.