In Defense of eBook Pricing

Philip HarrisBooks, Meaty MondaysLeave a Comment

This is the latest in a series of Meaty Monday posts – longer posts where I ramble on about writing related topics. You can find the first Meaty Monday post here.

Authors are almost legally required to hate ebooks. After all, those cold, soulless packages of bits and bytes can’t compare with the tactile and olfactory delights a real book provides. In a lot of ways that’s true and as my heavily overloaded shelves will attest, I’ve always had great difficultly resisting the lure of the bookshop. In fact, until a couple of years ago ebooks held no interest for me at all but then I bought my wife a Kobo reader for her birthday and then I borrowed it to read William Gibson’s Zero History.

I was hooked.

Sure, the first generation Kobo reader is slow and doesn’t have wireless or any other bells and whistles but it was so convenient and – for some unknown reason – fun.

I quickly bought myself a Kindle and I’ve never looked back. I do still buy physical books, usually Subterranean Press or Cemetery Dance limited editions, or books by my favourite authors (Caitlin R Kiernan, Haruki Murakami etc.) but generally I choose the digital version if I can. The biggest advantage of doing that of course is that I can buy as many books as I like without taking up any more space in our apartment.

And buy I have.

I now have well over two hundred ebooks, most of which I would never have bought if I’d needed to dedicate shelf space to them. The insubstantial nature of ebooks has released me from any guilt I might feel about cluttering up my home and unleashed a ravenous book buying fiend. I’m buying books 4-5x quicker than I read them – a habit that has followed me from the physical bookshops I might add.

Not only am I buying more books, I’m reading more too. The convenience and simplicity of having so many books at my fingertips has reignited my love of reading and the ease with which I can buy the next book in a series or try out a new author at exactly the point where I’m about to start a new book makes it easier to keep up my momentum.

Of course, some of this is because of the profusion of very cheap ebooks – I’m a sucker for 99c sales – but a couple of days ago, for the first time, I paid more for an ebook than the equivalent paperback – Dan Wells’ I am Not a Serial Killer.

There’s a general expectation that digital products cost less than their physical counterparts. In part, that expectation is driven by the downward pressure on ebook prices being created by the army of self-publishers taking advantage of the digital revolution to try to hook readers with a cheap taster of their work in the hope it will prompt them to buy the next few books at a more realistic price.

The other factor in this sense of fiscal entitlement digital readers feel is purely a matter of economics – it has to be cheaper to make these virtual products. After all, there’s no manufacturing, no shipping, no warehousing. That saves the publishers money and surely, all those savings should be passed on to the reader.

There’s a fundamental flaw with that thinking.

Yes, ebooks don’t have those physical costs associated with them so yes, they are marginally cheaper to create than their physical counterparts but that’s not what you’re paying for when you buy a book. You’re not paying for the paper they’re printed on, the ink or the trucks used to get them across the country and into your hands. You’re not even paying for the professional editing or the other work the publisher does on behalf of the author.

You’re paying for the story. You’re paying for the unique combination of creativity, talent and craftmanship the author used arrange those specific words into that specific order to create a world you’ll immerse yourself in for hours and, with luck, remember for the rest of your life. The fact that you’re experiencing that world via a virtual product rather than a physical one makes no difference. The pleasure you get from a book will be the same, however it’s delivered.

The combination of extreme price competition and readers expectations are rapidly driving down the price of eBooks. On the surface that sounds like a good thing but in reality, if this kind of aggressive price war continues it’s the reader that will lose out. “Writer” is already a precarious choice of occupation and it’s tough for anyone to earn a living writing free books. Of course, there’ll be a stream of new writers coming on the scene who will be prepared to follow the drug dealer business model and give away a few hits to build that fan base but they’ll struggle to build a professional career if they can’t earn a professional income and they’ll soon be forced to move on to more lucrative employment – working in a bookstore perhaps. The end result will be less professional writers and a dearth of new, high quality, fiction.

The rise of ebooks seems inevitable. I can foresee a world where most fiction is only available as an ebook and the kind of luscious limited editions created by Subterranean Press and Cemetery DanceThat does make me a little sad but I still hold out hope that the convenience and accessibility of so many stories will inspire future generations to devour those books just as it has me. I just hope the true worth of those stories isn’t lost along the way.

After all, the value of a great book comes from its story, not the dead tree you hold in your hands.

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