An American Editor

April 27, 2011

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

The 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 me, and several of the commenters compared an author’s uniqueness and a book’s worth to a painting.

Collecting original paintings is one of my hobbies. I was somewhat pressed into collecting by my wife, who is a professional painter as well as a collector. (For those of you interested, some of my wife’s paintings can be seen at her website,, and in an earlier An Art Interlude: Portraits.) But paintings and books, especially ebooks, are different, and I do not think comparable at all.

Consider that an original oil painting truly is unique. There is one and only one of it. That it can be copied doesn’t change the uniqueness of the original. Unlike that original painting, there really is no “original” ebook that can be identified, auctioned, or made distinguishable from a copy. There is nothing particularly unique about the bytes that comprise the ebook master file. eBooks do not increase in value (in the collectible sense) over the course of years, unlike print books which can increase in value as fewer pristine print copies of the first edition, first printing remain. A first edition, first printing, in fine condition of a print copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is worth significantly more today than when it was first published — because a copy in such condition is scarce and Hemingway is considered an important writer.

Yet that same book, in ebook form, will never increase in value because there is nothing unique or scarce about the bytes that comprise the book. Everyone who wants a copy can have a copy at a cost of pennies for duplication. There is no limit to the number of copies and every copy will be an exact clone of the master. The same is not true of that first edition, first printing print version: that bit of uniqueness, as minimal as it may be, cannot be duplicated on demand. The text may always be the same, but subsequent editions and printings will be just that — subsequent, not first.

Commenters also pointed to the entertainment factor, comparing books to movies. When I go to see a movie, I go as part of a small social group, as do most theater goers. We usually do not go to see movies by ourselves. Part of the “adventure” is the social intercourse. How many times have you said to yourself, “I want to see that movie,” but ended up not going to the theater because you would have had to go alone?

Unlike the social experience of theater going, reading is generally a solo adventure. Yes, some of us belong to book clubs and discussion groups, even online communities for this purpose, but when we read a book, we still read it alone. Reading as reading is not a social activity; discussion of what we have read is a social activity.

In the sense that Stephen King is a wordmaster and I am not a wordmaster, King’s writings are worth more than mine. But we are of different tiers of skill. In the case of Dean Koontz and Stephen King, I think neither is worth more than the other because both are of the same tier. In addition, I see them as interchangeable — if I am in the mood for a new King novel but none is available, I easily shift to a new Koontz novel. It isn’t that their writing styles are so similar; rather, it is that their writing styles are not so dissimilar.

It was pretty clear from the comments made to the first article that many readers do not believe and do not accept that same-tier authors are interchangeable. But I do think there are several pillars that support interchangeability.

First, consider books written by an author in association with a second author — the Tom Clancy or James Patterson with XYZ type of book. Second, consider books that are of the same world as an author’s books but written by others — for example, the David Weber Honor Harrington Universe that is populated by stories written by other authors, such as Eric Flint and Steve Miller. And third, consider the incomplete-at-author’s-death series or manuscripts — for example, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series with Brandon Sanderson completing volume 13.

In each of these instances, the original author is being substituted for by someone the original author (or the author’s heirs) thinks is an equivalent or near-equivalent author and one whose writing will give the original author’s fans the same or nearly the same reading experience. That is, the original author thinks he or she is interchangeable with the substitute authors, even if only subconsciously.

Something else to consider: If Stephen King writes a new novel every 3 years, what do his fans do for reading between novels? If there was no near-equivalent horror writer to Stephen King, the reader would simply have to wait for the next King work to arrive. Yet most horror fans find other authors to read while waiting and have the same expectations for those other authors as for King. King may be preferred but King is not exclusive — King has near-equivalents that horror fans read.

Why is this interchangeability important? Because it broadens the choices available and makes a particular author’s work less unique and thus less valuable in the marketplace. If Koontz and King are not interchangeable, then there should be a great disparity in publisher pricing of their books. Yet pricing is, like the authors, near-equivalent.

The question becomes whether these books, particularly the ebook forms, are being priced at their worth or in excess of their worth by the publishers.

We all know that ebooks are shackled. The iron bindings of DRM schemes and format wars should have a greater effect on the worth of an ebook than the current pricing would indicate. (Yes, I know that DRM can be removed and then formats converted, but let’s limit our discussion to compliance with the law so that all readers are addressing this on equal footing.)

Interchangeability eliminates the notion of author uniqueness. In the absence of uniqueness, what justifies the pricing of an ebook. To say it is what the market will bear is inaccurate. Since agency pricing entered the pricing scheme, the idea of market forces working their magic on pricing appears to have dissipated like the sands of time. Certainly, the laws of supply and demand do not exert much force on ebook pricing, especially pricing by the Agency 6, because the supply of an ebook — unlike of a print book — is infinite and it is long-tail demand that matters most to book publishing. Perhaps publishers are failing to see that the long-tail demand for their products will be in electronic form rather than the traditional print form, and that failure is driving their pricing decisions.

Whatever the reason, it appears that ebooks are being overvalued and overpriced by traditional publishers, and that the traditional publisher’s pricing scheme is influencing the self-publishing author’s pricing — all to the detriment of ebookers and ebooks in general.

(Alas, there is still more to say, so discussion will continue yet another day in Part III.)

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