An American Editor

July 8, 2010

Valuing eBooks: Is it a Sensory Problem?

This topic has been broached before (see, e.g., Valuing a Book: How Do Publishers Decide on Value?, On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (III), and The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (IV) — Value) and is likely to be broached many times in the future. It is a worthy topic that just won’t (can’t?) go away.

What brought it to mind again was the confluence of several events: I had to replenish my tea supply, a Smashwords July sale was being promoted, I read an article about the price of coffee, I went to see a terrible movie (and also a good movie), and a few other similar events.

Like many coffee drinkers who believe Starbucks is the barista and who are willing to pay $4 for a cup of joe, I like my tea with breakfast and the newspapers, and I don’t hesitate to spend a premium price for a premium cup of tea. Yet the pleasure that the coffee/tea brings is fleeting. A few moments after imbibing and the thrill is gone (as B.B. King would say).

Similarly, I saw 2 movies over the holiday weekend, one very good and the other exceedingly poor, yet these, too, were fleeting entertainments.

Yet, books are different. The thrill of a good read doesn’t disappear after an hour; a good story can captivate us for many hours — not only as we read the story but as we think about it long after we have finished reading it and as we discuss it with friends or recommend it to others. Nonfiction books may be books that we regularly return to for some factoid. Books do have a fading quality, but that fade occurs over a long period of time, unlike that luscious cup of tea with breakfast that fades quickly.

We all recognize this, even if only subconsciously. We often think about a book we read as a child or in high school, and we can still recall some of the characters and much of the plot — even if we haven’t reread the book in 50 years.

But in the pricing scheme of things, books, particularly ebooks, are significantly more price sensitive than our coffee. We who are willing to spend $10 a day on a couple of cups of coffee, hesitate to buy an ebook for $10.

There are lots of excuses — who knows if the ebook is really any good, the ebook has DRM (Digital Rights Management) that limits our use of it, publishers are greedy, and on and on. Aren’t the same excuses, however, applicable to that cup of coffee? How do we know in advance that the coffee isn’t too strong (or weak or burnt)? Isn’t our drinking the coffee like DRM — once drunk you can’t share it with a friend? Isn’t $4 for a cup of joe a greedy price when once can buy other coffees for half that price? And, besides, we know it doesn’t cost $4 to make that cup of coffee.

Doesn’t the same hold true for movies? Even the price of a movie rental is often more than the price that many ebooks. And we rarely go to see a movie alone, so the cost really adds up. And we willing pay the movie price — whether box office or rental — even though we know we can’t duplicate the movie, we can’t share it with friends over the Internet, and we can’t watch again in 3 weeks without paying again, and paying the same price as we did originally.

What makes ebooks different? That’s what I don’t understand. If anything, I would think the values should be reversed. The transience, for example, of the cup of tea versus the long-life of the ebook should indicate a reversal. But it doesn’t.

There was a time when books were so valuable that only the very wealthy could afford them. The books were gilded in gold and silver, painstakingly hand crafted, and highly sought objects of art. Although this esteem diminished with the advent of the mass-produced hardcover followed by the even more mass-produced paperback, the aurora of esteem didn’t wholly disappear — until the Age of eBooks and the inability to of a reader to see a finely crafted book and to hold it in his or her hands.

Perhaps that is the problem — ebooks lack a sensory touch. The cup of coffee exudes smell, a smell that pleases (hopefully), along with a taste that pleases (again, hopefully). Plus there is the sense of touch, of holding the cup in our hands and knowing that we are holding a cup of coffee that is desirable. Similarly, movies appeal to our visual and aural senses. But to what sense does an ebook appeal?

Really none. The traditional sensory reactions that we have toward a print book — the smell, the feel, the sound, the look — all disappear in the current incarnation of ebooks. Most readers agree that cover design and interior design of a pbook are important parts of the experience of reading, yet both are missing from the ebook experience.

I’ll grant that it shouldn’t matter — after all, aren’t we reading for the pleasure of reading and stimulating our mind — but the lack of the traditional sensory experience, the sensory experience that we grew up with, is, I think, the cause of our discontent with ebook pricing. All else, I suspect, is just our way of expressing that discontent because we don’t really recognize the root cause.

Of course, this will change over the next decade or two as ebooks become the standard reading method and readers lose their connection to the print book, but for those of us trying to make that transition, I expect we will continue to undervalue ebooks (and concomitantly overvalue other transient experiences) because we miss the sensory experiences we have become accustomed to associating with reading. I think readers need to become more accustomed to the ephemeral experience of ebooks. Once readers do and once readers recognize that ebooks are valuable simply for the mind stimulation they provide, then ebooks will be valued in the marketplace as they should be, with a lessening of the pressure on very low pricing.



  1. […] with permission from his An American Editor […]


    Pingback by Valuing eBooks: Is it a Sensory Problem? | The Digital Reader — July 8, 2010 @ 7:05 am | Reply

  2. This is an interesting angle of approach to the topic. I’d never considered it before. Thanks for posting.


    Comment by Carolyn — July 8, 2010 @ 10:32 am | Reply

  3. I made a comment at Teleread, but I will make the same one here.

    If I really love an e-book, I will likely buy it again in paperback, and I will not buy e-books if I know I will want to read the book over and over. Why? Not for the ephemeral “sensory experience”, but for the utility.

    I have no faith that in 10 years I will be able to read that e-book. Hell, I have no faith that I will be able to read the e-book next year, (thanks Fictionwise, for teaching me that although you promise to have the books always available, they are really not). I can’t lend the book to a friend to read, and I know it won’t be “on my bookshelf” so to speak, for years to come. I can’t even sell it if I decide I have too many books.

    While I appreciate the convenience of e-books and have spent, according to Quicken, over $500 on them over the last 2 years, until the permanence issue is sorted out, I will NEVER pay the same as a paper copy. Never.

    And just to respond to your point about the comparative “value” of things we buy, by your argument we should pay far, far more for music than we are seemingly willing to. A good CD (or download) will give me pleasure every day if I want for years to come. (And I make my own coffee, thank you.)


    Comment by Ginna — July 8, 2010 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

  4. Reading all the different articles about not being about to shareBooks with others, maybe there is a solution. From what I understand the reason is that authors do not get any royalties once an eBook has been downloaded plus publishers are able to sell more books. Plus, from what I understand, publishers are not making any money on their eBook publishing due to having to digitize each book for the 5 or 6 different digital eBook formats.

    We are back to the old bets/VHS debacle of many years ago for taping video progams where the two were going to fight to the end to win . . . and now it can be done on discs, hard and virtual drives. Well, if both the publishers and the makers of eBooks cannot get it down to 2 formats — one being pdf, the other whichever they agree upon — the same thing may happen to them and someone will come up with one program that will allow eBooks to read any digital format.

    I find it unreasonable and without any logical reasons why eBooks cannot be shared. Previouls to buying my Sony 505 27 months ageo, when I was reading pbooks I often shared them with family and friends and visa versa. I would like to be able to do the same with some of the 56 ebooks I’ve read but, alas, because of DRM, I cannot.

    My suggestion to break the logjam, is to have a link where either the current eBook owner or the person the eBook would be shared with, is asked to pay a transer fee (maybe between $1.00 to $3.00) With the receipt for the fee with the name of the book would come a “one-time release number.” Subtracting the transaction fee, the balance would be split between the publisher and the author or, maybe, all would go to the author. That detail would have to be worked out.

    I know that since it sounds so simple, it is probably would take some doing to come up with the program to accomplish what I’m suggesting. However, once it is done and is shared by all publishers, the cost would be small compared to the amount of dollars it would generate for authors and, even, publishers.

    What I can’t believe is that the approach I suggested has not been thought of or considered already but I have not heard or read about it. Hmmmmmmmm?

    Alan J. Zell Ambassador of Selling, Attitudes for Selling


    Comment by Alan J Zell — July 8, 2010 @ 3:20 pm | Reply

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joaane. Joaane said: Valuing eBooks: Is it a Sensory Problem? « An American Editor: But in the pricing scheme of things, books, p… […]


    Pingback by Tweets that mention Valuing eBooks: Is it a Sensory Problem? « An American Editor -- — July 8, 2010 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

  6. […] Are we unwilling to pay more than $10 for ebooks because we don’t perceive them in the same way we do physical books? […]


    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: Each week, I’m convinced that I won’t have enough links to bother with linkity… — July 9, 2010 @ 2:02 am | Reply

  7. We love pbooks because we recall ourselves using them. We don’t recall ourselves using ebooks, so we don’t love them that much. Same reason why I can’t help but think the 80’s were amazing, even though my brain tells me we actually had a horrible taste for haircuts.

    Also, people is sensitive about the price of print books. That’s why there are paperbacks and libraries.

    I think people is linking ebook buying not with pbooks, but with mobile phone bills. They have been trained for years to expect bad surprises when buying/using digital goods, and anything above the typical mobile app price/SMS micropayment makes it even worse.


    Comment by Fran Ontanaya — July 9, 2010 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

  8. […] vs. Fantasy in Expectations Valuing a Book: How Do Publishers Decide on Value? and most recently: Valuing eBooks: Is it a Sensory Problem? Adin brings up a good point with his latest post: “We often think about a book we read as a […]


    Pingback by On Borders, and what ebooks are missing « The Value of Books — July 10, 2010 @ 5:29 pm | Reply

  9. Consumers are not stupid. If someone can print, bind, ship and sell me a kilogram of printed paper for, say, $10, then I’m quite capable of doing the sums and working out that transmitting the content of the paper direct to me can’t possibly cost them more than $6.

    If it’s costing you more to sell an eBook than a printed book, then you’re doing it wrong.


    Comment by jonjermey — July 12, 2010 @ 5:28 am | Reply

    • Exactly, jonjermey! I will never buy an ebook that is priced higher than a mass market paperback. In fact, I’ll only buy it if it is significantly cheaper. My current line in the sand is $7, and even that is a rarity. I’m finding so much neat new stuff out there in the $3 – $5 range, I don’t mind passing up the “popular” authors.

      And like you, Ginna, I make my own coffee. I always have. I rarely go to see movies out, eat at restaurants only on special occasions, and don’t even own an ereader (I use the Kindle app for my work phone). So there are those of us who do have limited disposable income, and I for one am not going to spend much of it on anything ephemeral, be it fancy coffee, dinner and a movie, or an ebook that I will likely only read once and cannot swap at the local UBS.


      Comment by Fran — August 14, 2010 @ 12:35 am | Reply

  10. […] Valuing ebooks: Is it a sensory problem? […]


    Pingback by Friday Link Love 7/16 | Brad's Reader — July 16, 2010 @ 11:08 am | Reply

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