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

  • The beautiful thing about a free capitalist society is that everything for sale is truly worth only what the consumer is willing to spend to get it.

    The labor of any book goes to the people who produce it. Where it has value lies solely in the hands of the reader, who either think they got a screaming deal, or paid too much depending on how enjoyable they found the book per their ducat spent.

    • August 12, 2014 at 3:09 PM // Reply

      I think that’s a simplistic idea that serves as a GREAT starting point, but can quickly break down as a philosophy for someone who wants to make a living at self-publishing (or even hybrid publishing).

      For example, I know that my great aunt Jemima would pay $19.99 for one of my 20,000 word novellas. Does that mean they’re worth that much?

      I know that Joe Bagpipes on the street would only even consider downloading my book if it’s available for free. Does that mean the book is worth that much?

      Maybe a better and more comprehensive statement would be, “Everything for sale is truly worth what the RIGHT number of consumers are willing to pay to get it, where RIGHT means the profit crosspoint between which you start losing numbers of sales due to high prices, and you start losing profits because of high sales numbers but a book you priced too low.”

      That’s a much less sexy way to put it, but I suspect it would be more useful.

    • Your statement is kinda true on the surface, but ultimately just a cliche. What’s a hug worth? A kiss? A kind word? A brain operation to save your life? And, disregarding these, the notion that your statement implies that the market always prices correctly because buyers are fully informed and objective value-maximizing creatures, is, at least, questionable. Most economists and researchers are troubled by the effects that advertising, emotions, neuroses, etc have on consumer decisions. And modern markets offer such an overabundance of choice that buyers are often overwhelmed and purchase based upon all sorts of factors having little to do with actual worth. Amazon makes it so easy to click a button to buy a book that a sudden impulse can override notions of value. And I haven’t even gotten into the distorting effects of credit…

  • A well-known non-fiction author asked me once when I mentioned the price of e-books, “Do you really think books are priced based on what it costs to make them?” Or something of that nature.

    His gist was the value was not in the packaging itself but in the contents. Which is true. Partly.

    If it were wholly true, then some print books would be worth less than the cost to print them. But that is rarely the case. If it were wholly true, then book publishers would never have charged separate prices for hardcover books and mass paperbacks. Clearly, the differences in print book prices indicates that there is something other than contents that determines prices.

    I don’t work for a large publishing house and never have. Maybe there’s something in the production of their e-books that justifies a higher price. But I can’t imagine what it would be. I have created several e-books and I know how much time it takes to do it and what the material costs are. I simply can’t imagine that converting a book you have already formatted and sent to a printer into a format for digital consumption has such a high cost of production that you need to charge 70% of the price of the hardcover or the same price as the paperback version.

    What should e-books cost? I don’t know any more than you do, but I know what I’m willing to pay. Until e-books cost that, I’m not buying them.

    • I agree with Allen. Also, I think there’s some merit to the argument that the more affordable we make books, the more attractive we make them to consumers, and the more likely they are to spring for a book rather than a film or an album or whatever. Not that I want books to be free, unless as an author I can still get paid somehow, but that’s the inherent tension, IMO. And I’ll stay away from ‘big pie’ theory because I appreciate it’s, well, theoretical.

    • Let’s say a publisher invests 1million dollars in a title: six figure advance to the author, editing, cover design, advertising, legal defense against infringement, formatting across multiple platforms, recording an audio, embedding metadata to make the ebook searchable, printing, distribution, and any other ancillary costs involved in bringing all iterations of that title to the public. They make that investment because they expect there’s a market for that book, and they price each edition according to how much they think people will pay for each version. If every finished book was just going to Steve in formatting to convert into a MOBI and throw onto the Kindle store, I’d feel similarly to what you’re saying. Some publishers don’t invest nearly as much as others, just as some titles don’t get invested in to the degree others do. Neither matters to me as a consumer. What matters to me is how much I’m willing to pay for a title in the format of my choosing. If it’s priced too high initially, I’ll wait, same as I’d wait for a movie to stream at home if I didn’t think it was worth the ticket price in the theater.

      I don’t know the investment a publisher or author-publisher made in the book, nor do I necessarily care. Just as I don’t see a movie because it had a 250 million dollar budget, or buy an album because the band dropped 10 million to record it. All I care is if I’m interested in the story. The rest is trivia.

      • If you’re self-publishing or a one-person small press putting out a few titles with no staff on a very simple system, then you could claim your ebook costs are low — although I’d suggest you add up and monetize all the hours of labor you put into editing, copyediting, formatting, cover design and/or freelance cover design costs, working on the title and packaging and series tagging concepts, writing cover copy, creating boffo metadata, uploading, creating promotions, the money you spend on those promotions, the time involved in managing those promotions, tracking promo, fixing problems with the conversions, reloading the files after readers complain about errors or the conversion screws up *again*, handling request from bloggers, researching bloggers who might review the book(s)planning future books, etc. (And there’s lots more, that’s just the basic stuff.) Figure out your investment per book and then decide if your ebook costs nothing to make.

        Now, if you’re a much bigger small press like mine, you’re publishing 60-80 books a year, with a staff of six fulltimers and several freelancers, and every book goes into multiple sales platforms and the staff is always wrangling mutiple promotions and the editors (including me,) are doing in-depth editing on some books and handholding with other books, plus trying to cover the overhead for 1. insurance policies against libel and plagiarism suits, and 2. legal fees to an attorney we call when Brand Z sends us a letter saying an author has used their obscure trademarked phrase in a title 3. and covering entrance fees for book awards 4. and hosting our authors at major conference events 5. and buying ads in programs at the small genre conference the authors attend, and participating in a thousand other ways that a publisher supports its authors and promotes sales of the authors books . . . then your investment per ebook adds up in a big freaking hurry.

        So yes, even an ebook is not cheap to make.

        • It appears that your fixed costs are significant. But if I had a business where my variable costs are shrunk to nearly zero after recouping my initial investment. It would make sense to price for volume, rather than price for large margins. Hence the question of e-book worth.

          My novice sense for indie authors:

          It depends on how large your initial investment is.
          How willing are you to lose it.
          Are you willing to let someone else take the initial investment risks, but give up all the extra income that decision will cost you in the future (likely rest of your natural life)?
          If your book is good enough for a traditional publisher to publish, don’t you think it’s good enough to find an audience as an indie author?
          Is being in a physical bookstore important to you?

          It seems a classic scenario of sell to the middle and live with the rich, rather than sell to the rich and live with the middle.

          After you recoup your initial investment, it’s printing money, if you have a successful product.

          As someone who owns a small business, but is working on being an indie author: I’m willing to front the cost of creating an ebook (5k to 10k) and putting the book out there to see what happens. If it fails, I can always bring it back in and figure out what happened. Try to fix it. Then try again.

          I get the sense that is not possible with a traditional publisher.

          Great post and comment, but still leaning towards being an Indie.

          Is the above just ignorant novice bullish*t?

    • The well-known author is correct.

      Costs of production, distribution, and everything else — these things are irrelevant when pricing books. Whether is hardcover, paperback, or ebooks. Companies charge the price that will benefit them the most. That’s it. That’s all. Usually the benefit they’re most interested in is the greatest revenue possible. Sometimes it might be some kind of loss leader or effort at greatest exposure/reach. But the costs they incurred creating the book don’t matter at all.

      A Transformers movie might cost $200 million to make, and romantic comedy B movie might cost $20 million to make. But the studios don’t charge 10x as much for the ticket to see the Transformers movie as for the comedy, do they? That’s because they’re charging the amount for both movies that will make them the most money. Period, the end. The costs of production, distribution, and everything else — these things are irrelevant when pricing movie tickets. They simply know the price that will make them the most money. They found the sweet spot — $10-12 or thereabouts. If they calculated that they’d make more money charging $5 instead, then they would charge that amount. It’s called supply and demand..

      Do people complain about paying the same price to see the $20 mil flick as the $200 mil flick? No, because that would be nonsensical and ridiculous. So it follows that it’s nonsensical and ridiculous to decide not to buy an ebook that’s priced too closely to the print version because the buyer is getting all worked up thinking about the cost of paper and the fuel in the UPS truck. Ridiculous!! Those things are **irrelevant**.

      The costs of production don’t matter to the sellers when it comes to final pricing. And they shouldn’t matter to book buyers, either.

  • A e-book does cost something to make. A manuscript needs to be formatted before it can be translated into one of the e-book formats, and it’s the work of a real live person who turns the raw manuscript into a publishable e-book.. Print and e-book formatting is not necessarily one in the same.

    With e-books, printing costs don’t exist, materials costs by and large don’t exist, storage costs are negligible and distribution is basically bandwidth cost, but that’s only after the manuscript has been prepared and converted.

  • There are twelve musical notes. Twenty six letters. A gajillion pixels.*

    The art is in the arrangement.

    And it’s mostly the art you’re paying for, not the delivery mechanism.

    That said, I’m not adverse to paying more for a physical delivery mechanism, given the additional manufacturing and logistical costs involved.

    But the artist (or his appointed agent) should get to set what price he’s willing to sell the art for. No-one else.

    Because it’s his.

    And then it sells, or not, depending on whether the market agrees with him.

    * There may not actually be a Gajillion pixels. Punctuation and different alphabet variants will alter the number of letters. Apparently, spaces are also somewhat important. In musical recordings there are octaves to consider, instruments, percussion and sometimes Cannon, Helicopters and wildebeests, etc. These totally arbitrary and obviously false numbers are subject to future change without notice.

  • August 12, 2014 at 3:04 PM // Reply

    I think people have wondered what art should cost for about as long as there’s been art, ever since cavemen bartered over the exchange rate of a certain cave wall painting.

    After all, why should Pollock charge millions for his splatters of paint on canvas, while little old ladies in my neighborhood paint beautiful portraits of children for fifty bucks a pop?

    My opinion on all these things is much the same as my opinion on life in general: shut the fuck up about what other people are doing and do what works for you. I price my books at a price that sells well in the market that buys them. I really don’t give a shit if someone else sells theirs for $9.99. Or $14.99. It doesn’t affect me whatsoever, except as a reader, where I’m not likely to buy at those prices.

    It’s like gay marriage. You think $14.99 is criminal? DON’T FUCKING CHARGE THAT MUCH FOR YOUR BOOK. Why the hell do you care if someone else does, though? It doesn’t affect YOU in the slightest.

    (I’m not trying to equate the civil rights struggle of gay marriage over the economics debate of ebooks, I’m just saying there’s a philosophical parallel).

    I’ll only open my mouth on the subject if someone asks my advice. “What should I charge for my book?” I’ll tell them my opinion, then advise them to do their own research and come to their own conclusions.

    Seriously, people. If you’re not engaged in a business relationship with someone where the book price affects YOU, why the hell do you give a rat’s hind cheeks?

    • Except in your own post, you said how it does affect you. Imagine this scenario. You’re a reader who reads primarily a few of your favorite bestsellers per year and you hear about these crazy ebook things and you decide to take the plunge and buy one of these crazy things and find out it is more than half of what the physical book you were going to buy anyway, would you buy it? Probably not. What if it were more reasonably priced and you do buy it? Then you finish it and realized that you enjoyed reading in ebook format and best of all, it was such a bargain now you can buy more. Soon you’re not just reading the bestsellers. You’re prowling the Amazon top 100 lists and discovering all sorts of new writers. You even buy a few of those crazy self published writers everybody is talking about and find out they are just as good if not better than the big name authors. Now instead of a few books per year you are buying dozens of books. The whole market grows and flourishes.

      Think there’s not a lot people out there like this? There is and the Big 5 are banking on the first scenario happening more often than not to protect their paper monopoly. I think as writers and avid readers we take for granted that most other people read the same way we do when we are in fact in the minority. The majority of the public doesn’t even read and among the ones who are readers, many of them have the reading habits I described in the first scenario. That’s a whole market of people that is being kept away from the Indie market by the Big 5. If they made reading ebooks more affordable, they’d quickly lose their competitive advantage.

      So yes, this war over pricing does affect you whether you think it does or not.

      • August 13, 2014 at 2:29 PM // Reply

        Okay, I see your point. But MY point is that this doesn’t stop you from earning a living at it anyway. Sure, if there were a bajillion more readers out there, it would be easier for more people to get into the game. But stick it out long enough, work at it hard enough, and write good enough books, and you get to the point where other peoples’ pricing drama doesn’t matter.

        Right now, the Big 5 can publish their ebooks at whatever price they want. Doesn’t matter to me, because my next two books are coming out at reasonable prices, lots of people are buying them, and I’m paying my bills. A huge influx of readers would be great — maybe I’d get rich instead of comfortable — but it doesn’t have to affect us indies, and (this is important) THERE’S NOTHING WE CAN DO ABOUT IT ANYWAY.

        Nothing we can do is going to affect the Big 5. We are not a big enough reader base to force them to change their selling habits (and a surprising number of us don’t read anyway, the silly billies).

        • Absolutely agree. We can be the carrion feeders who happily consume the grisly remains of the war being fought by the powerhouses as they fire volley after volley at each other. My only point was that it is still important to pay attention to what is going on in the war because it does affect us and we can’t just put our heads down and hope it all works out to our best advantage. We have to at least keep an eye on the battle and see how it is going to change our industry so we can position ourselves as best as we possibly can for the future. Until then though, you’re right, it’s time to just write as much as you can, as well as you can, and sell as much as you can.

  • I say let the market decide. It’s no different than the pricing a book gets for hardcover v paperback. Some people buy, some wait, some go to the local library. I make the same decision every time I buy an ebook–also, sometimes it’s not what it’s worth–it’s what you can afford.

  • Life is short. But people continue to rate ownership over experience. It’s is why we see so many people filming music concerts on their phones instead of watching them. Things are changing though. In this age of ‘everything is on the Internet for free’ what you pay is increasingly becoming what you want to give back to the people who make you happy. I don’t think that books are quite at the stage of music or movies in that respect, but maybe that’s where it’s headed. I think Chuck is doing it right. Connecting with the readers and building a relationship is the only way forward. Maybe one day the idea of owning a book will seem ridiculous and so will forcing somebody to pay a set amount to read it, who knows.

  • In an age when the price of physical goods is under constant pressure, it’s hardly surprising that the perceived value of ebooks is decreasing too.

    I think this is partly because too many people fail to place enough (or any) value on time, and since there is nothing tangible about an ebook, it maybe doesn’t really feel like it should be worth much.

    But I agree – let the market decide.

  • My only problem with the “let the market decide” option is, the market is not an independent, self regulating entity. It is subject to pressures and manipulations.
    Anyone with enough leverage can drug the market, and influence its decisions.
    For instance – a major publisher is currently flooding the Italian e-book market with 80K/100K-words novels sold for 99 cents. They are not making a large profit (if at all), but they are basically forcing the market in a certain direction. Already 3.99 is considered by many an “unreasonable” price for a novel.
    Their competitors are seen as those asking for “high prices” for ebooks.
    The perceived value of the novel format has been manipulated, forced on the audience.
    Will the readers stick to it? I don’t know.
    Will they shell out 2.99 for my next collection of short stories?
    I think they’ll do – some of them, at least.
    But I can’t dismiss the thought that the market decides, yes, but its decisions can be drugged.
    I’d love to operate in a truly free market.
    Naive dreamer that I am, what?

  • Even assuming some answer yields the price of the book (which Buffett teaches isn’t the same as its value), we still have things like the Amazon/Hachette conflict illuminating the problem of how books will be sold and whether they’ll be sold through channels that will give anyone an incentive to promote the books. Amazon seems to want to put this back on authors – but then you leave authors having to find someone to do the things publishers used to do (marketing, editing, etc.). Some folks will thrive without publishers, but others may find the carpet snatched from underneath them. It’s nontrivial.

  • There have been many arguments over the pricing of e-Books since they started becoming popular. I imagine as more people continue to convert to reading e-Books exclusively or become “hybrid” readers there will be even more arguments in the coming years.

    What is an e-Book worth?

    ::shrug::

    At this point I’m tired of the debate. I’ll seek to write the best book I can, edit it so that it becomes even better, format it so that at best it enhances the reading experience and at worst doesn’t get in the way, and learn how to market it so that people want it.

    That’s my goal and I know it’s not as simple as it sounds. But I definitely don’t want to be one of those people trying to compete only on be the cheapest provider of books there is.

    For those who may be interested, I’ve read a very good book called “Understanding Michael Porter” by Joan Margretta. It discusses the different influences that affect a companies pricing decisions. It won’t tell you how to price your books, but it will give insight into the various factors you may want to consider when you do start setting those prices.

  • I, too, haven’t got a clue what ebooks should cost.

    I do spend an awful lot of time examining the video game industry, though, for my job and also as an enthusiastic consumer of games. What I’ve noticed is that the model that seems to work really, really well there is “freemium” — free games, with the ability to pay for more content. Another of the newest, most attractive model of gaming is the open-world survival game, a setup that allows you to create a very bare-bones game (often with crowdsourced money), invite players, and let them play in your completely-unfinished-sandbox, where their initial buy-in and micro-transactions finance the finishing of the game. In doing so, your subscribers become part of the creative process.

    This makes me wonder if maybe the future of storytelling isn’t something similar. Maybe there is some way to harness the spirit behind the freemium model.

    Look at this blog, for example. I subscribe to it because I enjoy it, and get value from it. It’s like the free game. The books Chuck writes? That’s like the added, paid content. Freemium game. Maybe.

    I also wonder if Amazon isn’t creeping toward a more-Netflix-ish position on ebooks. Maybe it turns out that ebooks don’t have an individual price at all. Maybe they’ll get to a point where it’s all that subscriber-based model they have, where if you pay per month you get unlimited access, and all the authors get to share in that pie. idk.

  • I thought this post was going to turn into a Dr. Seuss rhyme and got a little disappointed. So, er, I rewrote it for you.

    Some ebooks are big. Some are quite small.
    Some are WAY GOOD, and some aren’t at all.
    Some cost a mere dollar, another’s price makes you holler,
    People buy what they like—it don’t take a scholar.
    One author you love, another you hate…
    Sorry this poem isn’t really so great.
    Books cost authors’ time, in ebook or print.
    Just like with most actors, their WORK pays their rent.
    Some cost a lot, like A-list personas.
    Some don’t cost much—a good story’s a bonus.
    I like low prices, but I like to get paid,
    (Insert a cheap joke about getting laid).
    My choice is my own, and your choice is yours,
    Are we really still having these wars?
    Is one price the best? I don’t know, let’s write reports!
    Oh, still no idea. Hey! I bet there’s room for all sorts!

    Anyway, I have a feeling I’ll personally keep whining about some prices and happily paying higher ones for authors I love. I shall strive to accept that businesses exist to remain in business, whether they are companies or individuals. As with most things, I doubt there is One True Way. Or in this case, One True Price.

  • Thank you, Chuck. This is what was angering and frustrating me to varying degrees since the whole Pricing Clusterfuck began several months back. Although you offered no answers, your questions and puzzlements soothed the Disgruntled Creator in me. She threatened to get pissy again when I read so many comments that focused, yet again, on the cost-no-cost folderol…but then I went back over your post and all is well again.

    Maybe Amanda Palmer *is* right with the whole “offer your art/stories/music for free and allow the downloaders to donate what they feel like.” (If I remember her TED Talk correctly.) That’s a creative cutting edge that I’m not prepared to walk–I have distribution agreements that, as a Newbie, I feel are critical to having any hope of getting noticed by potential readers. But I might test it out someday.

    Art is in the eye of the beholder. Stories are in the eye of the reader, or the ear of the listener.

    What they are made out of–cheap paper, fancy paper, sans serif font, British vs American punctuation, no punctuation–that’s all trappings. Window dressing. I’d read “Lord of the Rings” or “Arty the Smarty” or “The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death” on crayon-scribbled drywall if I had to.

    For the story. The words. The world the author brought to life for my brain’s movie projector.

    What price *should* I put on that?

    As an author, fuck knows. I had to put my paperback at $15.95 to cover POD costs, wholesale discounts, and shipping. So I put the ebook at $4.99 so the difference wasn’t ridiculously large but as an unknown I wasn’t asking for a huge reader-gamble. That’s me. Unheard of Author.

    As a reader? Oh, boy. Some things I want the books to pay me back plus hardship tax. For the books I mentioned above? I’d pay what I could afford. Maybe I’d even pawn stuff to afford more. What those books gave me was so much more than their prices.

    Thanks again for your post. I’m going back to work-writing a happier person.

  • For me, an e-book has the same core value as a paperback (exclude hardbacks, they’re a magical beast on their own). It’s still the authors words, they’ve still had to be edited and formatted, the same story is within the pixels as lay on the page.

    But…

    An e-book, to my limited knowledge, does not have the same manufacturing cost. There is no physical product to bind, and process, and pack, and post, and put on shelves to display to potential customers, or to be shipped to you by the Great Deity Amazon. With an e-book you don’t have the physical connection you get with a book (kindle plastic is not the same) you don’t have the same smell that exudes from the fresh pages of a book. I enjoy dipping in and out of an e-book, but I indulge in reading a paperback.

    Take Coke (no I’m not soliciting the use of class A drugs) I mean the drink company. The same product exist within the plastic coke bottle as the glass coke bottle – For the purpose of this analogy, plastic bottle is ebook, and glass bottle is paperback. Though they are the same product, the plastic bottle is a smaller cost to Coke, but the glass bottle cost them more to produce. However, Coke taste better from a glass bottle, and that’s why, despite the fact it cost more, despite the fact there is less in the bottle (not the case with paperbacks, but it’s not a perfect analogy) we would still pick the glass bottle over the plastic every time.

    Ultimately in monetary terms, the e-book does not (to me at least) have the same value as the paperback.

    So what’s an ebook worth to me?

    In essence: the same as a paperback.

    In reality: about half the price, and if I already own the paperback, a little less still.

  • I’m currently reading Pandora’s Star, it’s a brick of a book and could be used to wedge a fire door open with. It’s over 1000 pages of sci fi, but as most novels are far shorter than this, does this mean it should cost the 2-3 times more cos it’s that much more bigger?
    Chuck is right a story however long or short can still be immensely gratifying to read. Just because an E-book is not a physical entity doesn’t diminish the blood, sweat, tears and hard graft that went into it.
    Economics tells us one thing, the market will always find a level. If Amazon what writers to sell E-books at lower and lower prices, sooner or later writers will not sell with them because it’s not worthwhile to do so.
    Writing maybe an art form, and people may think that that means artists should be doing it for love not money. But as Stephen King says, “art is a support system for life, not the other way round”.
    The world will be a poor place if books weren’t in it.

  • Great, stimulating article, Chuck! Markets distort value and gluts depress prices. Back in the day, harvest time meant that peaches were ten a penny until that industry found ways to spread the impact of all those fruits ripening at the same time. Big Publishing used its power in the market to strictly limit production of books and reaped large rewards. Then we were set free by amazon and Apple, pioneering a new disruptive technology, and it was unchecked harvest time all over again. Books are in glut. Prices are absurdly low. How do we spread the impact of all those stories ripening at the same time? Where Big Publishing used its powers as gatekeeper to staunch the flow and keep prices high, self publishing depends on self control. And, frankly, that’s just what self published authors lack. How can eight, nine or ten authors band together to offer a ‘box set’ that contains a full length novel from each author for 99 cents? Why do self published authors pay advertising sites good money to give away for free 50,000 free copies of their novels and then hope to have any kind of sensible policy on the pricing of their work? Of course, it’s the craving for visibility. It’s not easy to stand out when that glut in books now runs to 2 million titles on amazon. It’s understandable that authors will go to almost any lengths to get noticed, to the point of grossly undervaluing their work. Yet the bottom line is that just as markets distort value and gluts depress prices, value remains. It’s somwhere deeply connected to the amount of human effort that goes into producing it, whatever it is, the reason why an ounce of gold is worth a ton of iron. Authors know how much effort goes into producing a well-written, well-edited, well- designed and well-marketed book. What’s needed now is the kind of structure to self publishing that can spread the impact of the glut of creativity that’s been unleashed without taking too much away from the self published author’s ability to control his/her own destiny – a tall order, but, if achieved, something that could allow the price of an Ebook to approach its real value.

  • When did the USA, the home of capitalism, defender of the free market become so afraid of the markets making their own decision? Most don’t understand it, but this Amazon struggle has nothing to do with e-book prices. It is the struggle between the free vs closed market ideology. Amazon can claim it’s fighting for the good of the consumers, so was the Communist Party was claiming an era ago. Now the dominating establishment claims it’s about easy access to e-books, once upon a time it was about the bread and basic goods. What happened at the end was the complete control of the content and supply, censorship, abuse of powers and the lost of freedom. It doesn’t matter if its the one party or a mega corporation thats starting to make all the decisions for the so called good of people. Once it’s let to destroy the freedom of choice, freedom of pricing your own product, freedom of access, then the sprit you highly prize is gone. Such a domination always ends up in dictatorship rather you realize before its too late or not.

    After everything the world went through, when did people start to opt for closed markets for gaining a few dollars discount?

  • What is wrong with the mixture we have now? I’m more inclined to take a punt on someone I haven’t read before if the book is cheaper. There is a point where they’re toooooo cheap, and it kinda comes across as devaluing the work. I’d pay more for Anne rice or Stephen King, say a tenner (15 dollars) I think about half that is a sweet spot for less well known authors. But that’s just me. I’m poor. I shop on Kindle kobo and Google books (Google books is usually the best) to find the cheapest version. I justify this stance by saying, hey, at least I’m not tormenting the buggers.

  • In an earlier comment by Rich Ocheis somewhere above, Rich briefly mentions that there are differences between what a manuscript goes through prior to publication in hard copy and as an ebook and I think Rich may have come pretty close to an acceptable solution with the phrase “printing costs.”

    With hard copy, the formatting is less complex. There are some who would even say that it’s just a sexed up version of making a flier for your weekend barbecue to put on the bulletin board at work. By the way, you should never invite coworkers to your home. If the pages look good, printing plates are made from them, those plates are mounted to a printing press and naked books are produced. After that, there’s the binding process. I am aware that I skipped over the more explicit details.

    At this this point, it might seem easy to say, “Alright then, I declare that ebooks should cost the same as regular books minus printing costs.” But as Deborah Smith mentioned somewhere above, an ebook requires a lot more finesse and freaky technical shit in preparing it for public consumption.

    So now it might seem easy to say, “Alright, fine! Excuse me all to pieces. I declare that ebooks should cost as much as regular books minus the printing costs, but then you should add the cost of the additional formatting. There, how’s that?” And you’d pretty much have it.

    In my experience, a paperback has cost me $8.00 – $15.00 depending usually on its height / width dimensions. Also in my experience, the average ebook has cost me me $3.00 – $7.00 depending on nothing all that obvious. I’ve seen the ridiculous prices for ebooks on Amazon, even those rare ones where the ebook price is actually higher than that of the hard copy. But the numbers I’m used to seeing say that we’re already somewhere near the ballpark of paperback minus printing plus html witchcraft.

    It’s not a perfect formula, but does it sound like a bad place to start? Also, I’m no longer reading submitted names for the formula. The boys down at the lab picked one yesterday.

  • The consumer buying equation is b/p=v.. Or benefit over price equals value. There has to be more benefit to a buyer to justify a price in order to obtain value. Unfortunately you can’t know the benefit before reading an ebook so I think the solution is that established brands like King or Wendig should be pricier and authors nobody ever heard of like me should be less expensive. Or we could just keep chasing our tails like we are right now until publishing self-immolates.

  • Mr. Wendig, I love your blog and read it regularly, but that was the greatest essay in the history of printed and/or pixelated matter. But I don’t know what it costs. Thank you.

    • I know what it costs: free. You paid nothing to access it (though the larger access, THE INTERNET, probably cost you something).

      As to what it’s worth: hah, well, probably the paper it was printed on.

      — c.

  • The market, spurred by Apple, Inc, has defined the worth of a song as $0.99. In the absence of a single dominant distributor, the process of defining the worth of an ebook is taking somewhat longer, but is obviously settling into the $3.99-9.99 range, with future market pressures pushing towards the lower end of that range. It’s not Amazon, it’s not Hachette, it’s not the Big 5–it’s the merciless force of the market. Price your stories at whatever point you want for now, but reality doesn’t listen to you.

  • …And this matters because why? It isn’t a slam against anyone, but what you’re complaining about is because you took something made from you and determined to make it have “a price point.”

    When it doesn’t reach said “price point,” it becomes a problem because it isn’t something you create with iron, steel, welding, or the POWER OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION.

    No, it came from inside of you. When those price points don’t hit a certain level, it gives you the unintended consequence that you don’t matter. You are letting someone else determine your worth and value for your artistic expression.

    Even when art was “truly valued,” it didn’t carry the “value” the artist wanted in order to verify and validate their existence.

    Look, you are an artist first and foremost. You’ll never get by on just your art.

    Never.

    Ever.

    You can get by teaching your art to someone else. You can go through the training, do public speaking, knit words on a cloth kite and try to send it to the moon, but you’ll never get PAID for your art.

    You can point to someone who is super famous and wealthy and tell me they made millions or billions selling their art to a movie studio or a television company and–

    How artistic can they be now? What is expected of them? Write more of the same, keep our viewers happy. That’s isn’t an artistic expression, you are now a part of the bottom line. If you even THINK about being an artist in this situation, you’re ass is hauled to court and you lose everything.

    Case in point: JK Rowling. How many times did she try to write something different (under her names, under pen names, under her best friend’s dog’s pet parakeet’s name)?

    What happens when it gets leaked out?

    “Well, this is great, but it isn’t like Harry Potter.”

    You are fighting a corporate structure that demands returns be paid to the investors. You are getting drawn into the business and busyness of the mad modern go-go world. That isn’t meant for you because you are an artist. Everything you do stands against that, and as it should, will only be recognized after a long career of producing art consistently (like Picasso), or after your passing.

    Stop getting involved with the shell game and just write. Be the artist, not the accountant.

    • “You can get by teaching your art to someone else. You can go through the training, do public speaking, knit words on a cloth kite and try to send it to the moon, but you’ll never get PAID for your art.”

      Demonstrably false.

      And utterly absurd.

      Worse, it’s an incredibly bad message.

      — c.

  • It’s worth whatever the market will bear. And the market is the readers. If enough readers buy J.K. Rowlings at $14.99, then that’s a good price for her book.

    And to all those that say if you make books (nowadays) ALL cheap (because we already have a ton load of cheap and free books out there) more people will read, I’m going to tell you you’re wrong. WRONG.

    There are two kinds of people in this world. People who read and people who don’t. People who want to read James Patterson but can’t because–what his latest book is too expensive?–need to look at his backlist or find another author LIKE him whose books are cheaper.

    Psst, those expensive books do eventually come down in price. Just like the new Fall line of clothes at Macy’s. Readers are lucky though because they don’t have to worry about getting the right size before the price of the book is reduced.

    Growing up, out of 5 kids, 3 of us were readers. My parents couldn’t afford to buy us books so they took us to the library every week. That’s how I fed my reading habit–and it was free!

    My son is a reader. He loves to read, period. He’s not into athletics. I love sports and he doesn’t. I wish he did. But I’m fine with him being a reader.

    The world doesn’t have to be filled with readers. We should be happy that people CAN read.

  • i don’t understand the assertion that e-books cost nothing to produce. there are costs to everything. physical books are stored in a warehouse, but e-books are stored in a server. a server which is owned and maintained by people. who have to pay for electricity, rent or building maintenance. newer computer equipment, programmers, security guards, etc.
    publishers have to buy and maintain printing equipment, but they also have to purchase and update formatting software. i could go on.
    just because the costs are hidden, doesn’t mean something is free. probably amazon does these things more cheaply than publishers. but if my e-book file gets lost in amazons massive servers, or corrupted, or broken, or whatever, they don’t care. it’s my job to ensure safe storage of my files. my publisher, on the other hand should at least share some of that responsibility.
    i think its too easy for entities like amazon to downplay the hidden costs. somewhere down the line it means that someone is not able to make a living wage from their vital occupation.
    much like the walmart economy which forces farmers to live off government subsidies because if they sold their wheat for enough to cover their own costs, bread would be too expensive to eat.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful post, Chuck. And some damn good books.

    So, I’m going to weigh in here, because, why not? This is the interwebz and I shall post opinions 🙂

    Please, for anyone who I disagree with, don’t think I’m taking shots at anyone.

    First up, anyone who goes down the route of “art is arty art art, and if you try and make a living you aren’t an artist” needs to reevaluate the whole shebang. Go down this road and you’ll only find a bunch of guys in berets going *what iiisss art man, what iiisss iiiit*

    Because — what is art, man? I mean, a really great sandwich made by some master sandwich dude could be art — it certainly would seem this way to me as I enjoyed said sandwich, likely far more than I’ve enjoyed any ‘art’. The idea that art is something elevated above everything else, and making a living from doing what you love is a shell game, is really off the mark. I know this is a feeling a lot of people have, but it flies directly in the face of reality, harkening back to a time when people though muses were real things.

    Second, the ‘free market/let the tentacled market beast decide’ thing you hear is junk if you are looking to keep your electricity on and food in your mouth. The fact is the ‘market’ has decided we all need a Kim Kardashian game on Android and iOS devices. The thing is making millions. I think this mystical market thing is less reliable than a magic 8-ball. A lot of good stuff has been squashed, and terrible stuff elevated to super high heights due to the magical market, and it isn’t like one can rely on any sort of structure or stability with such a finicky system. As artists and authors, it behooves us to take a little hands on action here and not step back and say “the market knoweth!” The market doesn’t decide squat since, well, it isn’t really a thing at all. We decide, as readers and writers.

    For example, do you think the market decided 99 cent novels were the way to go? It didn’t. Amazon, 99 cent book sites, and authors looking to undercut the market decided it was the way it should go. And now, even as readers still gobble down 99 cent books, it has become a very bad thing to do to yourself since Amazon has started cracking down on them — you can’t even get the good royalty split on anything less than $2.99. And free books, forget it. Amazon changed the rules on those a year or two ago.

    While authors and Amazon and the millions of websites who made a business of listing free and 99 cent books wrangled over the last 5 years, the market simply stood in the corner looking confounded and slightly afraid. Customers and readers didn’t make these things happen. Authors and Amazon made it happen.

    In the end, and this is my opinion just like the rest of this comment, I think ebooks should be cheaper than physical books in order to pass on the monetary savings to the reader. I don’t mean 99 cents. That’s crazy. I mean $4.99 or $5.99 for your standard action thriller type book, maybe $7.99 for a door-stopper monster 160k fantasy book (because the editing would be double the cost between a 80k thriller and 160k fantasy), etc. Anything less than $4.99 for a novel is madness — not because it’s art or anything else, but because if it was edited and had a decent cover it would need to be at least that much to make money and feed the author so he can write more.

    Because, in reality, a story isn’t worth much at all, not in the cash-for-commodities sort of way. We share them for free at barbecues. What you pay for is the hard work of the folks involved and the costs they incur to put together a cohesive whole out of flotsam and imaginary conversations with people in their heads. So they can eat. And write more stuff for you to enjoy. Because feeding authors is awesome.

    Anyway, that fills my blathering quota for today. Thanks again, Chuck, for awesome and though provoking posts, and thanks to everyone here for their comments which got me thinking hard on the subject.

  • @Kris_Neidecker It’s not what the market decides, it’s what the market will “bear”.

    As consumers, we’re not accustomed to PCs that cost under $1000 and being able to purchase flat-screen TVs for a lot cheaper than yesteryear. Can we ever go back to super-expensive computers and TVs. Not unless we’ve no other choice but to do so. Like fuel. 4 or 5 years ago no one WANTED to pay over $5.00/gallon for gas but we had no choice. But we had to bear it and we did.

    Manufacturers set the price and retailers set the selling price. Those prices, especially for non-essential goods, will fluctuate depending on how consumers take to the price.

    And everyone’s definition of what’s “good” and “bad” is subjective. I’m not a Kim Kardashian fan, but I’m not going to lookmdown on those who watch her show or buy or download her games. Quality is in the eye of the beholder. McDonald’s is considered junk food but I’m sure enough of us have indulged to not be able to throw stones when we live in glass houses.

    • Thanks for the reply, Bev. And you are correct, it is what the market will bear, and consumers do have a big affect on said price. That is, of course, not including stuff like the big 5 and/or Apple colluding to artificially inflate ebook prices, or Amazon changing policies and artificially limiting the free/99 cent or erotica categories.

      But, that being said, what I was getting at was as authors/writers/scribblers of fiction, we should never just sit back and look at this stuff and go, “the market will sort it out.” Because, when it boils down to the nasty stuff at the bottom of the pot, if every author thinks 99 cents is the way to go, that is how the whole shebang tilts. And if we decide, “Hey, I think we should strike a nice middle ground here…cheaper than physical books, but far more than a dollar so I can keep the electric on…” the whole shebang will tilt in that direction as well.

      And as for the Kardashian bit, well, I never said I looked down on anyone who buys her game but I certainly have an opinion on the idea of the game itself. Just as I will warn folks to avoid McDonalds because it is bad food based off my opinion on what food does to the body, I will remark on a game that celebrates the most vapid culture imaginable based off my opinion on what it does to the mind.

      Once again, don’t think I am spitting on anyone, like I know any answers or anything — I know that sometimes the way I word things in comments make people think I’m pointing fingers or being a prick or whatever since you can’t see my expressions as we talk. But I’m not 🙂

  • Oh Chuck. You make me feel so good, so validated about not giving a shit about why the fuck Amazon and Hatchette are pissing upwind. That’s worth something, you guy you.

  • A couple of Christmases ago, I bought my mum the box set of GOT paperbacks. A while later I asked if she’d enjoyed the series. She had, but I could see that there was something bothering her. When I pressed her she confessed she would have much preferred them in Kindle format. It was a real pain to carry multiple paperbacks while traveling. Having to think about which ones to pack etc. And thinking about it l kind of agree. Im a total Kindle convert too. I read every night, and when I finish one book I go straight online and order the next which I get instantly. Hell, I can even try a sample if I don’t know the author. So yeah, my point is I think it’s wrong to assume people value ebooks less than real books… any more than people value a song on itunes less than on CD or tape.

  • To be honest, the big publishers only spend about £1 to print each book anyway. What costs is all the other shit, marketing, editing, cover art etc. They want to get that back within a certain time frame and so, lo the paperback costs x. Usually X is between £7.99 and £9.99 over here. Therefore an ebook should be X minus £1. Lorks I should put all my books up to £6.99 – £8.99 (I think that’s about $12 – $15) like NOW! Amazon is suggesting I sell them for $2.99, which is about £1.25.

    As I am proper shit with maths, I’ll let the market will settle and copy other people who are doing well.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • I am not a writer. I am a dedicated reader. I collect e-books, paperbacks and hardcovers.

    I buy a hard cover by authors I’m invested in where I go back to the same book over and over again. Much of my hard cover collection started as paperbacks and I got sick of replacing the paperback..so purchased the hardcover.

    I started with paperbacks mainly because I could not afford hard covers, and I have a few too many series that I still collect in paperback because I don’t love them enough to buy the hard covers.

    I purchase e-books to try new authors. If I like them…I start buying the paperbacks

    As a rule of thumb. I will pay 50% of a hard cover for a new release book that is only avaiable in hard cover if I purchased it as an e-book. I prefer to pay $4 to $5 less than the purchase price of the paperback if the paperback is out as an e-book. It may to most sound pretty arbitrary, but this is what to me adds up to the paper, printing and the shipping of physical books.

    I don’t think its right to pay $7.95 for a e-mag when you pay $7.95 for the physical mag. But that’s me.

    I vote with my dollar. I buy what I want, how I want, when I want to.

    As an artist myself (though not a writer) I’d be some odd pissed if someone else arbitrarily told me how much my work is worth and force me to conform to those prices. They’d be as successful as trying to shove warm butter up a wild cats ass with a hot poker.

  • I have two books available on Kindle. One is an epic fantasy that’s 167,000 words, the other a sci-fi/comedy that’s 55,000. One is priced at $3.99 (USD) the other $2.99. The paperbacks for those books are 18.99 and 12.99.

    I didn’t entirely come to these prices either. On Amazon anything priced below $2.99 only pays a 35% royalty, while 2.99 and above carries a 70% royalty.

    It becomes up to the author to decide if the value of their book is something worth the 70% royalty, otherwise the drop in price nets them half their gains. Although with lower prices there’s the chance that the quantity of purchases will make up for it. Then again if someone wants to purchase the book anyway, and you’ve gotten them that far, how willing are they going to be to spend the extra few dollars in the first place? How many more people will say – this is worth a dollar, than for them to say – this is worth 3 dollars or more.

    For most things on Kindle it seems to be about page size, and not quality. Of course this reinforces the churning out of mediocre material, and muddies the water for people on the search for quality books.
    I’ve seen books where I didn’t enjoy the material at all, but they were selling kindles of it for 12 dollars and up!

    Is this a reflection of someone spending way more time on the book, even if it’s not that good? Or is it just inexperience? Seems like it often goes both ways.

  • Your writing style is the cat’s pajamas. (Is that the same as dogpants? A casual Google search doesn’t give me the definition of dogpants, though I suspect it’s not good, and cat’s pajamas are, and I’m not sure why. Are dogpants so illogical compared to catPJs?)

    I think eBooks should be cheaper than hardcovers. Some can be free. Some can be $15. And some can come with a contract for your immortal soul. It’s all up to what the consumer thinks that she wants to spend for the experience.

    And, I’m just wondering, what the heck kind of ice cream are you buying?

  • If there are both physical and digital versions of a book, I think they should have different prices. The cost to distribute a digital version is absolutely cheaper than a physical one. digital price = physical price – print/delivery/storing costs. But you also have costs of storing and delivering digitally but for a per book expense is tiny. Especially for a behemoth like Amazon.

    As far as what someone or a company should charge for their e-book, they should test it out for themselves. Maybe something I one day write is worth 19.99 for a digital copy. Depending on my audience and the quality and value I provide, they wouldn’t hesitate to buy.

  • when i first released my ebooks, they were half price of the paperbacks. after complaints my ebooks were priced too high (and a year of not moving copy), I lowered them to 2.99. It’s been 6 months, nothing. Meh, the market is variable and there’s a boatload of crappy ebooks flooding the market. *shrug*

  • I bet on people being willing to pay $3 for 30 minutes of entertainment (4500 word short story). Seven people gave it a shot (so far), and only one asked for a refund. I read a chorus of people insisting no one would pay three dollars for a short story, and one dissenter saying people would. I’m glad I listened to the dissenter.

    My ideal situation is to tick a box and let the retailer run split tests to find the best price. I don’t want to have to fret over pricing.

  • An ebook is worth the author’s time and expenses for writing/distributing said book/taxes, but broken up by about how many readers they’ll comfortably expect to have.

    (That last one could use a bit of help what with the general lack of transparency in the market. A first timer needs some sort of number to go off of.)

    If this can’t be done then the author is undercutting themselves and devaluing the market.

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