An American Editor

April 25, 2011

In the Era of eBooks, What Is a Book Worth? (I)

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.

12 Comments »

  1. “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?”

    Perhaps the value can be measured in EVs (entertainment values). After all, a six pack of my favorite craft beer is $7 to 8; a two-hour movie can run ten dollars. Neither has the EV of a book like Justin Cronin’s _the Passage_ or Paolo Bacigalupi’s _the Windup Girl_ or Neil Stephenson’s _Anathem_. Just a thought for a new metric?

    Comment by James Davies — April 25, 2011 @ 9:01 am | Reply

  2. a couple notes:

    1) value and price are not interchangeable terms.

    2) distribution and production costs are fixed and always were. ‘margin for profit’ is the true price of a book — an ethereal thing posed by creativity, art and ideas. that part is the ‘worth’ and completely disassociated from price.

    3) ‘fans’ see much more value/worth in the art and creativity and ideas of their favorite authors. therefore, they will pay a higher ‘price’ for similar material.

    4) the single, most important thing an author can do is build a fanbase and enable the extended pricing structure.

    5) non-fans do not value an author’s work and will not pay for it and an author cannot convert them to fans at any price point using only their talent and creativity. these people should be ignored and energy must be spent on stoking the fires of fandom in their true fans.

    m3mnoch.

    Comment by m3mnoch — April 25, 2011 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

  3. You can drink beer while watching a movie, so I don’t see those as contrastable. We could ask whether people would rather spend 2 hours on a movie, 10 hours on a novel or 20+ hours on a videogame – but again, those are far from being perfect substitutes, so a simple dollar/hour equation for entertainment is a myth.

    Interestingly, many of my friends say they feel ebooks should be cheaper than print books “because they don’t cost the publisher as much”. That actually ought not to be relevant to the reader, assuming s/he values digital and print media equally. For example, I prefer to read fiction in paperback, so the hardcover is not worth more to me even though it undeniably costs the publisher more to produce. (And the truth is, the hardcover is not more expensive because of production; it’s more expensive because it’s selling to the readers who must have that author’s book right now.)

    Interesting discussion. I’m looking forward to the next part.

    Comment by Dave Morris — April 25, 2011 @ 1:55 pm | Reply

  4. [...] In the Era of eBooks, What Is a Book Worth? [...]

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  6. ‘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.’

    It’s not the ‘book’ that we value as much as the thoughts and ideas contained in them and the style in which they are elucidated and conveyed – not to mention the effect (or lack thereof) they have on the reader. That differs from writer to writer.

    Comment by Tony Williams — April 26, 2011 @ 10:37 am | Reply

  7. [...] first article in this series of musings, In the Era of eBooks, What Is a Book Worth? (I), brought a lot of comment, particularly on blogs that reprinted it. Most commenters disagreed with [...]

    Pingback by What is the real value of ebooks? | eBookanoid.com — April 27, 2011 @ 7:44 pm | Reply

  8. 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?

    This strikes me as a very odd assumption. Most of the people I know who read a lot of fiction re-read favorite books endlessly. I can think of books I have probably read more than a hundred times, and I can’t even begin to count the number I have read more than ten times. Very few nonfiction books are in that category (a few biographies and memoirs, perhaps, and of course some reference books see a lot of use).

    Comment by HelenS — April 30, 2011 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

    • Helen, from the FWIW (For What It’s Worth) department regarding rereading: Over the years and recently on one ebook forum, readers have been polled on the question of rereading novels. Interestingly, fewer than 10% of respondents say they reread novels (the questions focused on novels, not on forms such as short stories and poetry) and of those who do reread, very few reread a book more than a couple of times. Of course, there are always exceptions — in terms of both readers and novels. Perhaps I should poll An American Editor readers and see how things shakeout here.

      Comment by americaneditor — May 1, 2011 @ 5:48 am | Reply

  9. Re-reading is a relatively easy measure… but is it the best measure of a books value? I’d argue that I’ve re-read/re-used several non-fiction books, but far fewer of them have had the affect on me that some fiction has – even if I’ve re-read those novels less total times. Since that affect is not easily measurable/quantifiable, it’s harder to use in figuring a value metric. But I suspect it’s a major reason why some books contain more value than others….

    Comment by Scott — May 23, 2011 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

  10. what would my book of reminiscences by clara e laughlin be worth

    Comment by susan shatto — January 29, 2012 @ 1:23 am | Reply


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