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.

4 Comments »

  1. Dear American Editor,

    Adding extras to already well-known books can be a waste, but I think you oversimplify what your “book readers” enjoy about books. I doubt that I’ve ever met someone who, for every book, is only ever interested in the story contained in the book itself. For example, I’ve been a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut for a long time. If I had a choice between buying an anniversary copy of Slaughterhouse-Five and buying the same book with a CD/DVD that contained live interviews with Kurt Vonnegut talking about his WWII experiences, I’d find the extra bucks to get the extra media. And anyone who doesn’t think the CD that comes in the back of Wm. Burroughs’s Word Virus is worthwhile just doesn’t like Burroughs in the first place.

    My point is that book-lovers don’t just love books, they (can) also love the process of book writing — physically, emotionally, intellectually. I think this is shown by the fact that more than a few well-known writers of fiction have published successful nonfiction books about writing (e.g., Bradbury, King, Lamott, Quindlen)

    Yes, a good story is a good story, but the book’s story isn’t the only story. There’s the story behind the story. Those extras are the same things that literary analysts and high school English students study to help them understand the impact and importance of the story. Pairing, say, a documentary about the hidden problems of high society during the Roaring Twenties with a copy of The Great Gatsby may be overkill for the casual reader, but would be a great pairing for the student of literature.

    (Love the blog, by the way. Even though I don’t always agree with your conclusions, just getting me to think about your conclusions and how I feel about them gives this blog merit.)

    Like

    Comment by 4ndyman — January 28, 2010 @ 9:48 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, 4ndyman. I’m glad that you like the blog and I certainly do not expect people to always agree with me. The purpose is to make people think.

      Extras or enhanced ebooks DO have a place in publishing but it is a limited role. Publishers are looking to “enhance” every book as a way to justify a high price (relatively speaking). Yes, there are times when I would pay a premium for a book — I do it all the time when I choose, for example, to buy the hardcover version rather than the paperback or ebook version of a book. And I paid a premium price ($125) for Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life. But that is the extraoridinary and not the ordinary. Publishers should not look to extras as the justification; rather they should make ebooks intrinsically valuable.

      Like

      Comment by americaneditor — January 29, 2010 @ 4:23 pm | Reply

  2. Setting price aside for a moment, what would you think of classic literature as an e-book that is pre-annotated with notes to help people understand the text? Imagine taking the content from CliffsNotes and integrating it into the e-book text as a study aid that defines difficult words, points out foreshadowing, literary allusions, etc. while you’re actually reading the book. Would that have enough value added that you would pay a little even for text that is public domain and already free?

    (Full disclosure, I work for CliffsNotes.com.)

    Like

    Comment by 4ndyman — February 3, 2010 @ 7:58 pm | Reply

  3. A new (as of mid-April) Alice in Wonderland iPad App — it’s like a pop-up eBook. It’s thinking like this that can really turn people on to eBooks — especially for the iPad: http://gizmodo.com/5515612/the-cleverest-ipad-book-yet

    Like

    Comment by 4ndyman — April 15, 2010 @ 2:03 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: