Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A dedicated ereader: hundreds of dollars. A great story: priceless.

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...

-- Laura

*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.


  1. Laura, You bring up such a good point. It's amazing that people are willing to spend more on a cup of coffee than on a book they'll enjoy for hours, maybe days. Hm. e

  2. Not something I get either, E. I'm listening to Graceling on audio right now. I also have the hardback, which I bought when the book came out, and the paperback, which I bought so that I can write notes.

    When I like a story I want to experience it over and over, like a four-year-old who doesn't want to go to bed. : )

  3. The lack of physicality does impact a consumer's view of value, regardless of the quality of the product. So yeah. there's gonna be price resistance when it comes to ebooks.

    I remember going to a concert a few years back. I went to the concession stand and ordered two bottles of water. Four bucks a pop. The vendor then took the bottles and poured each into a plastic cup. Suddenly, I felt like an idiot for paying 8 dollars for two cups of water. It occurred to me that people's perception of value comes from the bottle, not the water.

    OTOH, lower prices will mean more purchases. If your mom is able to buy her mysteries for 5 bucks a piece on an ereader, she'll be more willing to try authors she's unfamiliar with and take a shot on all kinds of things she may ordinary eschew.

    In the end, I don't think consumers will accept ebooks that cost the same as physical books. Yes, it costs as much to originally create an ebook, but you can't get around the realization that, once created, the costs for each transaction do go way, way down. Without the "plastic bottle", you can only get folks to pay so much for the water. Unless you're me. At a concert. :)

    Jon Bard
    Managing Editor, Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers

  4. I wonder if ebook buyers are going to lump them all together, regardless of format. For example, it’s not that hard to port a text-based book over into the Kindle format. Compare that to a story app with all sorts of extra artwork, animation, and interactivity. Not that writing long form stories is easy, I’m just talking strictly about conversion-to-ebook. Then again, the interactive story app couldn’t exist in printed book form, so there’s at least one difference. So, what am I saying...? We need to educate readers, presumably.

    I can see buying multiple versions of some books, too.

  5. That brings us back to the whole problem of defining what a book actually is or will be, now that we have all these new devices to read on. There are expectations of interactivity with an iPad for example. But is an effects-and-animations-heavy app based on a book considered a "book" or a game or...what? And how much is the app or the game worth in comparison to a story without all the bells and whistles?

    And Jon, I think that lower prices do encourage more sales -- or license agreements, depending on your POV -- the way that paper sales have usually outpaced hardback sales. As a reader, I love the idea that I'm going to have so many choices at lower prices. As I writer, I squirm a bit to hear so many complain that five or ten bucks is too much to pay for a new book when they spend that much every day at their favorite coffee shops.

  6. As a very busy person, and also as someone who goes to library sales and gets hardcover kids' books at 50 cents apiece (often amazing nearly new award-winning books) and adult books at $1 apiece, I wouldn't at all consume more books if they were priced lower. I will still pay the big bucks for something desirable (and yes, it feels more desirable if I pay for it: high end designers and retailers understand this. A $200 tshirt isn't actually stunningly better cotton, it is so that the person wearing it feels special, and knows that the Walmart shoppers will not possibly be able to afford it).

    I think the less we pay for something (bought at dollarama) the less we value it and the more we over-consume (I have more library sale books than my son and I have been able to read in the five yrs since I bought them! I could use piles of them to build room divisions).... the price of those coffees mean the person doesn't glug down half of it and then dump the other half down the sink, they sip it slowly, relishing each sip.

    Some people might buy more ebooks if they are less expensive (and not necessarily read them) but many will just have the time to read the books they currently find time to read. Perhaps a $30 hardcover makes someone think twice about buying a book to read if they are on a budget, but most books at $10 are not left on the bookstore shelves because of their high price.

    Note: it is really inexpensive to burn a dvd, and people think nothing about shelling out $10-$20 for a mainstream film, so why should they expect to pay 99cents for a 400 page book?

  7. Thanks for the comment, Leanne. I was reading on another blog that some self-pubbed writers are worried that many of their 99 cent books, though purchased, are going unread. (Maybe like your library sale books?) So, yeah, I do feel as if price will influence how much we value a thing.

    "people think nothing about shelling out $10-$20 for a mainstream film, so why should they expect to pay 99cents for a 400 page book?"