“Fairness,” book prices, electronic book prices

January 17th, 2014 § 2 comments

(This was originally a Tumblr post, but my blog is a better long-term archive for it. Minor edits since I first posted it to Tumblr.)

People often say that electronic versions of books should cost less than the print versions due to production costs being lower.

This is a simplistic statement that is flawed on several levels:

#1: Not all books are published in both print and electronic format now, so electronic-only format books have to bear the entire burden of earning out, whereas a book published in print and electronically amortizes many of the expenses across two releases. Some books would not exist in electronic format at all (at their current quality level) if print versions did not help pay for the content. Electronic-only books need the ability to earn-out on all expenses.

#2: The production vs. content (writing, editing, art, graphic design, indexing, etc.) costs of books vary wildly, depending on the type of book, the publisher, the printing method and quantity, etc. Unless you have inside information or reliable experience, you can’t look at a book and tell how much it cost to make and where that money was spent. Even if you can make that estimation, you almost certainly have no idea how back-end contracts are structured and how people are being paid. Some publishers and authors are more transparent about this than others, but information learned in one field may be completely useless in another.

Furthermore, some say that authors and creators shouldn’t earn more on electronic copies than they would selling a print copy. So, for example, if it cost $2 to print/ship/etc a book that sold for $10, and the author also makes $2 on each sale (all of these numbers are completely made up for the purposes of a simple example), then the ebook version should sell for $8 and the author should continue to make $2. All the savings should be passed to the customer; no profits for the creator should be added.

The issue with the above is there is nothing that has defined the author’s $2 as a “fair” royalty beyond what the business has dictated in the past. The publishing business is changing, authors have more control, and often more responsibilities: if you can afford the $10 book to begin with, a situation that pays the author more is not going to hurt you. And it may well benefit you, because if the author is making twice as much on that book, they can probably afford to spend more time writing and have a higher quality of life, which is going to lead to better and more consistent work.

Beyond that: the argument that “ebooks aren’t as good as print” is rooted in emotion and history, but as time passes it’s becoming more and more obvious that in some cases, and especially in some genres and book styles, electronic books offer more utility and convenience to the reader. Should the creators not be rewarded for that?

The counter argument to that is that some of the features of electronic books — searching, bookmarks, etc. — are “inherent to the format” and thus the creators shouldn’t be benefit. The same people will also extoll the virtues of print books that are also inherent to the format, and the authors and creators end up benefitting from that! So it’s a wash; all formats have inherent flaws and bonuses.

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§ 2 Responses to “Fairness,” book prices, electronic book prices"

  • obo says:

    The tools to make and read ebooks are certainly getting to a point where they should objectively better, but that’s only just starting to happen.

    Is some of the backlash related to the quality of a lot of ebooks? I’ve seen quite a few that lack even a properly linked ToC; people may be more inclined to give ebook pricing a break if more ebooks took better advantage of the medium’s benefits (or any advantage at all) and incorporated things like toggleable layers in PDFs, extractable art, interactivity, or well-linked indices.

  • […] Adam Jury posted an insightful look at ebooks from a publisher’s perspective, which just happens to remind me of this old Jeff Atwood post on […]

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