An American Editor

January 15, 2010

The eBook Wars: Adding “Extras” to Shore Up Price

Publishers are thinking about different ways to encourage consumers to equate ebooks with value and value with a higher (relatively speaking) price. The questions ideas like the Vook (a blend of a book with a video) raise are numerous, but in the end all boil down to this: Are consumers willing to pay a premium price for an ebook with “extras”?

Publishers look at DVDs as a model but fail to look further than the initial DVD release. (What are they thinking now that DVD sales are tumbling?) Perhaps the lesson to be taken from DVDs is not the value of “extras” but the constantly declining price. DVDs often start at a suggested price of $21 but a real-world selling price of $14, rise temporarily to $18, then begin a steady, dramatic decline to prices as low as $5, and sometimes lower.

The one thing not answered in the DVD example is the question: Do the “extras” influence consumers buying of the DVD at any point in the sales cycle? How many consumer sales are made because of the presence (or absence) of the extras? I wonder because I own several hundred DVDs and not once was my decision to buy influenced by the presence or absence of extras. In addition, I checked out the extras on fewer than 5 DVDs. What influenced my decision to buy was, first, my interest in the film, and second, the price: The lower the price, the more likely I was to buy; however, I admit to having stopped buying DVDs when the format wars started and haven’t resumed buying.

Am I willing to pay a premium for ebooks with “extras”? I have given that a lot of thought, and my honest answer is very rarely — never in the case of fiction and occasionally in the case of nonfiction ebooks. If I were buying a book that had complex directions on how to repair something, I might be glad for a companion video; however, I’d probably be a lot happier with better and more detailed instructions and illustrations. I certainly wouldn’t be willing to pay even a nickel more for an interview with the book’s author. If the book’s author can’t convey his or her message within the book’s text, then the author has failed and an interview to clarify the text means I shouldn’t have bought the book to begin with. Similarly, I wouldn’t be willing to pay a premium for a travelogue showing the locales of the novel, or for a movie trailer, or for someone’s literary analysis.

The fundamental problem with “extras” is that they are afterthoughts. They should not be necessary to the book, certainly in the case of fiction. If they are necessary to the novel, then the novel itself isn’t worth buying. When extras are needed to explain the book, it signals poor authorship. (Extras can, however, add value to select nonfiction.) I have tried to think of what extra that would accompany a novel that would be so compelling that I would pay a premium for it. I haven’t yet come up with one.

If a novelist knows how to tell a story and is good at it, then the novelist will paint with words everything I need to see to understand the book. A good novelist doesn’t need a video to convey the bright lights and dark alleys of Broadway at midnight; a good novelist describes a character’s appearance so well that the reader knows what the character looks like. Isn’t that what distinguishes the written word from the picture (moving or static) —  the ability to self-imagine. Of what value is a novel that thwarts the reader’s imagination?

Is there any reader of the Lord of the Rings who doesn’t “see” Gandalf based on Tolkien’s description? Do readers need to see Peter Jackson’s vision of Gandalf to know what Gandalf looks like? I suspect that every young reader knew what Rowling’s Harry Potter looked like long before the first movie came out. Are publishers really saying that the novels they publish are so badly authored and edited that the only way to justify a their price for the ebook is to provide extras?

I can see a travel book using extras to help the traveler find a restaurant or know precisely which bolt in the Eiffel Tower Emile Zola touched. I suppose that in a fiction book there could be added information about the time or the locale of the story, but how many readers either care or would make use of the extra? More importantly, how many readers would view the extras as sufficiently valuable that they would willingly pay a premium for them? Yes, there will be some readers, but I suspect the vast majority are unwilling to pay a nickel more for extras, which means publishers are adding to their production costs but still not surmounting price issue.

So, how do publishers add value to an ebook that might warrant charging the type of prices that consumers are currently rebelling against? I guess I’m back to my original suggestion: improve quality. A poorly edited ebook, an ebook rife with typographical errors, an ebook with unreadable illustrations — basically a poor quality ebook — cannot command the kind of pricing that publishers are trying to push, with or without extras.

Readers buy a book to read and enjoy for the written words. That’s probably why they are called readers.

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