An American Editor

September 13, 2010

Are eBooks a Bargain?

A common conversation point in recent months in discussions about the merits and demerits of ebooks has been “ebooks are a bargain.” Are they really?

I grant that my reading habits are probably atypical. It has been at least a dozen years since I read a book from the top 10 general fiction bestseller lists. (I have no idea whether any of the science fiction or fantasy books I have read were on bestseller lists in their categories.) So when the pricing wars were on and bestsellers were selling for $9.99, my response was a decided ho-hum.

Besides, what makes a bestseller? It’s the number of copies wholesaled to bookstores, not the actual number of copies sold to consumers. Granted that sometimes there is a correlation between the two, which becomes evident when you can’t buy a first printing copy and need to settle for a 13th printing edition. But most books don’t get out of the first printing — bestsellers or otherwise — and the bestseller lists are momentary lists, that is, they don’t reflect the fact that many of the books printed end up on the bargain/remainder tables within a couple of months of release.

I, for one, would be much more impressed with bestseller status if I knew that the status reflected consumer buys and not bookstore borrows. And my time is coming because of ebooks.

eBooks don’t require print runs. A single digital file given to Amazon substitutes for the 5,000 print copies. Consequently, one day bestseller lists will be more meaningful because they will reflect sales to consumers.

This has been a roundabout way of getting to the question at hand: Are ebooks a bargain? Like what is really a bestseller, ebooks equaling a bargain is a complex question. The answer is a resounding maybe. Let’s set aside all the limitations of ebooks that do not encumber pbooks, such as first sale impossibilities, DRM, the inability to share with acquaintances, lack of permanence — all attributes pbooks have over ebooks — and concentrate on the price question.

Dollarwise, ebooks that are not published by the upper tier traditional publishing houses can be significant bargains. I don’t see it as a bargain if a book published by Del Rey or Bantam sells for $8.99 as a pbook and $7.99 as an ebook. On the other hand, when I buy a book at Smashwords for $2.99, I view that as a bargain if the book is readable. And that is a key consideration — readability. I assume, and not always correctly, that a Bantam book is at least readable. I might not like the book, but the book is readable. I don’t have to recognize that the author meant “there” not “their” each time “their” appears in the text. That is, I don’t have to act as interpreter.

Increasingly, that is becoming less of a problem with the ebooks I find at Smashwords. It’s not that the problem has disappeared — it hasn’t — just that it is less. Of course, when I spend only $2.99 for an ebook, I have to be prepared to do a little of the work myself. It is the tradeoff. I suspect that the quality of less expensive ebooks will continue to rise (certainly, they cannot decline very far) as readers turn away from the expensive to the inexpensive ebooks.

I expect to see a dichotomy in the publishing world. I expect to see fewer fiction pbooks published in coming years, with the concentration for fiction being in ebooks. I also think that nonfiction books will be the primary pbooks, at least for the next decade, until the devices used for ereading are capable of handling the demands of more than text. I am aware that ereading-capable devices like the iPad may be suitable for nonfiction, but are these the devices that serious readers who sustain the nonfiction market will want to lug around? I think devices capable of straddling the needs of readers and nonfiction books are still in the planning stages.

With that shift of fiction to ebooks and away from pbooks, ebooks will become bargains. But until that shift occurs, the bargain ebooks are ebooks not published by traditional publishers; they are the ebooks published by authors directly to consumers and by small ebook-dedicated publishers.

It is possible to spend a lifetime reading ebooks that cost less than $2.99; in fact, it is possible to spend a lifetime reading ebooks that are available free. All you have to do is not want to read either pbook “bestsellers” in ebook form or not read ebooks by the traditional top-tier publishers. From experience, I can tell you that it is easy to avoid those high-priced ebooks; I rarely spend more than $2.99 for an ebook and have been quite pleased, overall, with what I have purchased.

To answer my question, yes, ebooks are a bargain if you buy smart.

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