In case you missed the MacMillan/Amazon ebook price crisis over the weekend, you can catch up on the details (along with a very cogent analysis) at agent Nathan Bransford’s blog. There are several posts over at Dear Author as well.
Hidden in the midst of all this controversy, however, is the question that really interests me: how much are books worth? And by “books,” I mean not the paper and ink on which they’re printed or the computer bytes on which they’re stored, but the actual dollar value of STORY they contain, however packaged. In other words, when you buy a book, are you buying it for the storage medium or for what you perceive its entertainment/informational value to be?
I’ll be honest–I’m still a primarily paper book reader. This is a function of a combination of factors, including the fact that I don’t feel ready to invest in an ereader as I think the technology is still too fluid and the prices for the devices too high for what they do. I worry about amassing a library of ebooks in formats that will become obsolete and unreadable, something I know will never happen to my paper books (well, unless my house burns down). That’s not to say I can’t be converted–and in fact, the groaning of my bookshelves argues I should hope to be converted soon–but I’m just not there yet.
That said, I have bought ebooks, though usually these are books that aren’t available in print format. I don’t dislike ebooks by any means, nor do I feel they’re intrinsically less valuable than print books. Yet I know many, many people DO think ebooks are instrinsically less valuable (in the dollar sense) than print books for a number of reasons, including the fact that there is no physical object, the digital file cannot be legally shared or resold, and (in the case of Kindle) the file can be removed remotely by the vendor. And then there’s the whole DRM thing (something I’ve honestly never encountered because I don’t believe I’ve ever purchased an ebook that had it).
Okay, so I do agree that a physical book has slightly greater intrinsic value than a digital one because, once purchased, it cannot be repossessed and it can be legally shared or resold. Obviously, it also costs more per unit to produce paper books, which argues for a higher price than digital books. But how MUCH more?
A large part of the MacMillan/Amazon kerfuffle was driven by publishers’ fears that setting prices too low for digital books would act to “cannibalize” hardcopy sales, especially of hardcovers, and also set consumer expectations that a digital book is NEVER worth more than $9.99. MacMillan would prefer to have more flexibility in establishing the core value of the CONTENT of their books than Amazon’s pricing structure would have allowed, even though (according to Nathan Bransford’s analysis), the Amazon structure actually results in the publishers receiving about $2 more per copy sold.
The thing is, I sympathize with MacMillan’s position even though I don’t know that I’ll ever be willing to pay much more than $9.99 for a digital book. Certainly, the high end that’s being discussed for digital books in the “agency” model of $14.99 is WAY more than I’d ever pay. But that isn’t because we’re talking about DIGITAL books. It’s because, as a book-buyer in ANY format, my price range for a single title novel is no more than about $10, with an absolute ceiling of about $14, and I’ll pay that only in VERY special cases. (If I want to buy a book that’s only in trade paper, I’ll wait for a coupon or a special 3 for 2 deal to come along to make the unit price more tolerable.) I never buy hardbacks, not only because I think $20+ is outrageous for a book, but because I find them heavy and unwieldy.
So, basically, I don’t see my price tolerance for books changing all that much based on whether it’s digital or print. I don’t tend to pass on my paper books to other people very often (most of the folks I know IRL don’t share my taste in reading material), so the whole “I can share/resell it” thing doesn’t factor into how much I’m willing to pay.
In the final analysis, I’m willing to pay for a book what I think the story contained within its pages or bits and bytes is worth. For me, that’s around $10. But that doesn’t mean I begrudge publishers for wanting to establish higher prices for their books. Maybe I’ll adjust to those prices or maybe I won’t. Only time will tell. But I don’t think format should be a SIGNIFICANT factor in determining the dollar value of a book’s contents.
Okay, tell me why I’m all wet :). And how much do YOU think books are worth?