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, www.carolynedlund.com, 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.)

April 25, 2011

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

Some questions have no answer, or at least not a universal answer. This is true of this question: In the era of ebooks, what is a book worth? Yet, every day, ebookers are making that value judgement, including in their calculation of whether or not to buy an ebook what they believe is the worth of a book.

As there is no across-the-board, universally applicable answer to the question, we need to address value/worth broadly, beginning by separating books into two broad categories: fiction and nonfiction. From my point of view, nonfiction is worth more than fiction — again, I am speaking in broad terms — because nonfiction is intended by both the author and buyer to be referred to multiple times. Granted some nonfiction’s multiple times may be only twice, but at the other extreme, consider cookbooks, course books, and how-to books, which may be referenced dozens of times over the course of the buyer’s ownership of the book.

On the other hand, most fiction is of the read-once-then-shelve-or-toss-away variety. How many of us buy a novel and read it more than once? And if we do read it more than once, how many of us will read it more than twice? As with all else, there are exceptions. I can name a handful of novels that I have read more than once — To Kill a Mockingbird, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and a few more — over the course of 60 years of reading. Considering how many novels I have read in those 60 years of reading, the handful is a very tiny fraction of books I have read, especially compared to nonfiction.

With these thoughts in mind, I wonder what the true value of a book is today, especially considering all the restrictions that are applied to ebooks, the varied pricing of ebooks, and the pricing of ebooks compared to their print versions. I also wonder about the value, by which I mean the price to be paid, of fiction in any form. Why is a new Stephen King novel worth $15 or more in any form?

When valuing commodities, and books have evolved to be commodities rather than the luxury items they once were, in a true free market system, value is set by scarcity and production costs with a margin for profit. But ebooks have no scarcity value, unless we consider each author to be so unique that no other author can be substituted. Once created, the electronic file can be duplicated innumerable times, with each duplication being a precise and perfect clone of the original.

There are production costs, but these costs can be amortized over an innumerable quantity of duplications that cost virtually nothing to create once the master has been created. This is the essential difference between a print book and an ebook: Each copy of a print book has some measurable production cost — for example, the cost of paper, the storage and shipping costs, the minimum print run cost — but the ebook lacks these measurable costs once past the creation of the master file. It isn’t that the cost of the master file isn’t or shouldn’t be amortized over the duplication run, but rather that the duplication run doesn’t add measurably to the cost of the master file, unlike with print books where many of the costs of the initial print run are incurred again with the second printing and again with each subsequent printing.

The one criterion that changes ebook to ebook is that of the author. Although Stephen King and Dean Koontz write similar books in a similar genre, one is (supposedly) not a perfect substitute for the other. Notwithstanding marketing claims to the contrary, a bar of soap from Ivory is a near-perfect substitute for a bar of soap from Kiss My Face. We may have a preference for one brand or the other, but the two bar soaps are really interchangeable in the marketplace — they are near-perfect substitutes, one for the other. Although King and Koontz are similar, it is claimed that they are not near-perfect substitutes, one for the other.

Or are they? Perhaps we have been drilled over too many years to believe that each author is so unique that one author cannot be substituted for another, that we actually believe author uniqueness to be a truism. Perhaps there is a shade of gray to that statement. Consider this: Do readers of Stephen King only read horror genre books written by King? Do they read other horror authors while waiting for the next King novel to be published? Is Tolkien the only fantasy author Tolkien fans read, especially knowing that there will be no more Tolkien novels forthcoming?

If we read other authors in a genre, are we not really saying that it is the genre that we like more so than the author, and that King and Koontz are at least near equivalents? I accept that there are tiers of authors; that is, some authors are better than others and that some are first tier, whereas others are third or fourth (or even lower) tier. But I also accept that authors in a tier are, for the most part, interchangeable for each other. Perhaps scarcity, in the sense that each author is unique and not interchangeable with any other author, is not truly a criterion applicable to books even though we have been indoctrinated to believe otherwise. Consider that other authors are hired to complete books in a series because of the original author’s untimely death. Isn’t that the publishing world’s equivalent of saying Brandon Sanderson is interchangeable with Robert Jordan?

If we accept that books are commodities and that same-tier authors are interchangeable, the current equation for determining the value of a book is undermined and needs to be rethought. Alas, this is a complex problem that cannot be resolved in just one short article; consequently, the discussion will continue another day in part II.

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