What Is An E-Book Worth?

An e-book is nothing. It’s 1s and 0s. It’s wizard farts and cyber-dreams.

An e-book is everything. It’s a container for pure story. Like the traps they use in Ghostbusters, except instead of catching specters it catches characters, narratives, ideas, lies that tell truths.

An e-book is a book, which is to say, it’s not a book at all. A book is a physical thing.

An e-book is ether. An e-book is frequency.

You might own an e-book. You might not. Maybe you’re just leasing it, like a jet-ski during the summer. Maybe you’ll read it. Maybe you’re just collecting them. Could be it goes in the pile. Guiltless and invisible. All of us, gluttonous e-book hoarders.

An e-book costs nothing to make. But it costs everything to write — a story, after all, always costs yourself, or part of yourself. And an e-book costs a lot to edit. And design. And market. And of course the story must be procured and the author secured and all of these cost dollars and cents, or bitcoins, or dogecoins, or e-chits, or book-ducats. But of course, e-books cost nothing to make.

Some e-books are big. Some are small.

Some are good. Some are great.

Some are transcendent.

Some are total dogpants.

Some are good stories formatted well. Others are formatted impeccably, but suck with great gusto.

Some are written by authors you love.

Some are by authors you hate.

Many — most, even — are by authors you don’t even know.

It may take you two hours to read an e-book. Or two days. Or two weeks.

Maybe you pick at it for two months, two years, two lifetimes, two nevers, two forevers.

Maybe you re-read it again and again. Maybe you can’t get through it the first time.

Going to the movies costs $10. Maybe $20. Or more.

Buying a movie costs about the same.

Renting a movie is half that.

My wife will tell me a story for free.

Broadcast TV is free, too, though of course I pay for cable. Quite a lot of money per month. And then there’s Netflix, too — eight dollars a month for everything I could every want to watch, as long as everything I want to watch is about 5% of everything I really want to watch.

A video game is sixty bucks except when it’s an app then it’s three.

Or a buck.

Or free (but with a hundred-thousand-dollars for all the in-app purchases).

This blog is free.

A coffee is a buck, or two, or five-plus if it’s fancy.

I bought a pint of ice cream the other day that was over ten dollars.

It probably won’t take me an hour to eat it.

(Realtalk: I could hoover that fucker into my body before the lady at the store gives me change.)

A whole pizza is ten bucks, too. Maybe fifteen. Maybe the pizza should be more expensive. Or perhaps the ice cream should be cheaper? Lobster weighs less than a pizza but costs more.

The Internet costs me quite a lot of money every month but weighs nothing. No trucks have to deliver it. Nobody has to turn a crank or clear the line of debris.

My Hyundai costs less than a BMW which costs less than a Lamborghini but they’re all just metal and rubber and zoom-zoom juice. For the price that I paid for my Hyundai I could probably buy a bunch of bicycles. Like, a shitload of bicycles.

I don’t know what e-books should cost.

Everyone wants to tell you what they should cost by comparing them to everything else even though nothing else really compares.

They want you to price them based on their cost to produce, as long as “cost to produce” doesn’t figure in all the actual costs to produce them.

Maybe an e-book should be five bucks. Or ten. Or fifteen.

Or whatever the author wants. Or the publisher. Or the retailer.

I seriously don’t know what e-books should cost.

If nine-ninety-nine is the sweet spot, then one might suspect that the bell-curve neatly allows for $4.99 at the edge same as it would allow for $14.99, but of course, I’m a writer, not a mather.

Picasso, if the legend is true, once drew a hasty sketch on a napkin at the behest of a cafe patron and was then asked to sign it and then he told the patron before handing the sketch over that it would cost said patron $25,000. The patron complained, saying, “But that only took you two minutes to draw!” Picasso replies with, “No, it took me my whole life.”

But what do I know? I’m no Picasso. I’m not even Robert Picardo.

Robert Picardo is pretty cool. I don’t know what he costs.

An iPhone costs me over $600, but only about $200 to build.

My son cost nothing to make, but boy, the lifetime contract is pretty expensive. If he’s ever gonna go to college, I better start farming all those book-ducats and e-chits right the hell now.

I really, truly, totally don’t know what e-books should cost.

But I hope we figure it out soon, so we can shut the fuck up about it.

Maybe we can just let the market decide.

Or maybe someone else will decide for us and the market will decide anyway because the market does what the market does. Because the market hungers, like if H.P Lovecraft and Adam Smith had a squirming squid baby that smells like ATM receipts.

Maybe the question really isn’t “what’s an e-book worth?”

Maybe instead we should ask:

What is a story worth?

Maybe that’s the question that matters most of all.

I don’t know that answer, either.

I suspect nobody does.

69 comments

  • I like eBooks. I have about 250 of them, which is roughly 10% of the number of printed books that I own. Many of them are review copies, but I do buy eBooks. I’ve purchased from Smashwords and Amazon and B&N and even have a few PDF editions. I bought them because I wanted to read something, but didn’t want to clutter up shelf space.

    Here’s what I know about my own purchasing habits: My pricing tolerance is based primarily on the author, with allowances made for the publisher and the quality of the reviews.

    I will pay a premium price for a book by an author on my raving fangirl list, because I am reasonably certain that I’ll enjoy it. I know what to expect, and it’s probably a continuation of a series that I love. $9.99? $29.99? I don’t care, I’ll buy it. The price doesn’t matter in this case. I know it will be a quality book.

    I’ll pay a middle-range price for mid-list happy brain candy that I read because I don’t watch TV. These books will get me a solid 4-8 hours of entertainment. I’m talking about tie-in novels, a great series, or a new book by a new author published by a reputable company. I’ll gladly pay $5 to $12 for it.

    Novels offered only as eBooks from independent/small press authors I don’t know, but have good buzz and reasonable reviews: $2-$8. (I will pay a little more for anthologies or charity anthologies.) If it’s written by an author I don’t know, self-published, with 3 gushing 5-star reviews and hand-drawn cover art? If it’s not free, I won’t download it.

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