An American Editor

April 16, 2012

eBooks vs. pBooks: A Lesson in Value

Filed under: Books & eBooks,On Books — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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This past weekend, my son and I traveled to New York City for the annual Antiquarian Book Fair sponsored (at least in part) by The New York Review of Books, which is the one magazine about books that I highly recommend. As a subscriber to the Review, I was given a complimentary pass and because my wife advertises her art (see her website for beautiful paintings of the Hudson River Valley and portraiture) in the Review, she was able to get a second complimentary pass.

I mention the complimentary passes because the cost of admission to the Fair should have given me a clue as to what to expect. A daily pass cost $20 per person, so I should have known this wasn’t like going to the local used bookstore. In addition, I am familiar with several of the vendors and know that they sell truly rare manuscripts. But none of the clues clicked and we went to the Fair.

The Fair demonstrated to me why pbooks are so much more valuable than ebooks. I’m not talking about convenience or that pbooks lack the interactive capabilities of some ebooks. I’m talking strictly money value.

eBookers know — or should know — that when they buy an ebook, they are buying a license; they are not buying the book in the sense that they buy a pbook. The ebook is intangible, a collection of bytes that are infinitely duplicable, which means there is no such thing as ebook scarcity. In contrast, there are limits to the number of pbooks produced. Even if, as in the case of the Harry Potter books, hundreds of millions of pbooks are produced, there is still a finite number that bear the first edition-first printing seal of scarcity.

I am a collector of first edition pbooks. As much as I prefer to read a book on my ereader — the book is easier to hold; when I finish I can easily move on the next; I can adjust the type size for easier reading; etc. — I still get enormous satisfaction out of being able to let my eyes scan across my library shelves and pause on a book that reminds me of the pleasure I had reading the book. There is an aesthetic beauty to the physical book that ebooks cannot duplicate. Scanning across my ebook library is a very sterile process.

As a collector, I am always looking for a “bargain.” I initially thought that although there would be some expensive items for sale at the Fair, there would books that interest me and that would fit in my collection that I could afford. One of my favorite authors to collect is Sinclair Lewis, an American author from the early to mid 20th century, best known for his books Elmer Gantry, Main Street, and Babbitt. I have for years desired to add a fine copy of Main Street to my collection and have expected to pay several thousand dollars for such a prize.

This was my first shock at the Fair. Staring back at me from a display case was a wonderful copy of Main Street with a wonderfully preserved dust jacket, something that is not often seen. So I asked the price: $165,000. I assure you, $165,000 is not a typographical error. Needless to say, I didn’t buy. Nor did I buy several of the outstandingly gorgeous “art” books that depicted drawings of birds and plants and that cost between $225,000 and $300,000. Alas, my budget was significantly more modest.

But that made me take a closer look at price expectations for other more recent books that were for sale. Before going down that path, however, let me say that if you ever want to see — and touch — books that have price tags in the $200,000 and $300,000 price range, this is the Fair to attend. Dealers came from Europe and the United States and had a vast array of beautiful manuscripts — the books that make editors so pleased to be editors — for sale in prices that easily climbed from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But back to the more recent popular books that were for sale. Familiar with Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy? The books are only a few years old in hardcover, with the first book originally published in 2008. They were for sale — first edition, first printing — for $3,000. John Kennedy Toole’s 1980 book A Confederacy of Dunces was available for $8,000. And the list can go on.

The point is that we often talk about the used book market being available for pbooks but not for ebooks, but the used book market is simply a way to recoup some of the purchase price; it isn’t the same as the collector’s market. I never thought that a good argument for a lower ebook price was that unlike pbooks, I can’t resell ebooks on the used ebook market. But after visiting the Antiquarian Book Fair, I realized that the collector’s market is a market that should not be ignored in the argument about value.

The bottom line is that an ebook is less valuable than a pbook. It is less valuable because it cannot be collected; it cannot provide the visual gratification that a physical library, like a piece of art, can; it is licensed rather than owned; and, most importantly, it has no ability to increase in value over time if properly cared for and curated because it has no rarity. The ebook versions of the Hunger Games Trilogy will never have an intrinsic collectible value of $50, let alone of $3,000. There will never be a scarcity of the ebooks.

I suppose one counter to this argument would be that a limited electronic edition could be created. I’m not sure what could be included that would make such an edition more valuable than a standard ebook or make it collectible, but one thing is for certain: even a limited edition could not become scarce because of the ease of duplicating bytes. It is so much more difficult, if not near impossible, to duplicate a first edition-first printing of a pbook. Ink and paper, for example can be analyzed and dated; pretty hard to do with bytes.

For the book lover, the person who not only has an insatiable appetite for reading but also wants to collect beauty and rarity, the pbook garners all of the value. The ebook is a loser in this battle. I expect that the collectible market will sustain pbooks for decades to come, especially as the number of book collectors is growing, not decreasing.

Do you agree?

4 Comments »

  1. I agree, but confess to being staggered by the prices! Some are higher than the most valuable fine art, which has greater reproducibility issues than print books. I wonder if the six-figure amounts are a knee-jerk reaction to what’s going on in publishing today, and over time those prices will come back down. How many people browsing through the Fair actually plunked down money for those books?

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    Comment by documania2 — April 16, 2012 @ 5:45 am | Reply

  2. Again, it is a niche to own a 1st edition or a rare book, like owning an original painting. Isn’t the purpose of a book to be read? If owned and hidden away then….

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    Comment by marie — April 16, 2012 @ 5:59 am | Reply

  3. I’m thrilled to see that the print-book world still generates value, and that book collectors are increasing their ranks despite the world of ebooks (I’d love to know how many of the high-ticket books actually were purchased). Maybe one reason is that print runs are lower in the face of ebook competition? That’s just a guess, though.

    I’ve never considered collecting rare books partly because I’ve never had that kind of money to spend, but mainly because I can’t have a book in the house if I’m not going to read it, which – for me – means dogearing corners, folding back the spine and marking typos; things you can’t do to a collectible or rare book and wouldn’t do to an expensive one.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — April 16, 2012 @ 9:48 am | Reply

  4. I think if anything, the rise of ebooks will make print books more rare and thus even more valuable. But frankly, the “value” in a first edition is only because people with money want it. The book itself, as an object, has no real intrinsic value. Collecting for love is fine, but collecting as an investment runs the risk of losing money rather than gaining it. Who knows when the market will shift?

    People might buy print books to collect, but they don’t buy ebooks for any reason other than to read them.

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    Comment by carmen webster buxton — April 16, 2012 @ 1:14 pm | Reply


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