The price of intangible things, and why we should pay it

31 Aug

Between the meteoric rise of e-book popularity, DOJ lawsuits, and unapologetic pirate sites, the debate over the cost of e-books doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. I got into a discussion about this with someone the other day, so it’s been on my mind more than usual ever since.

It’s interesting (and telling) to me that the dictionary defines “immaterial” as both “something intangible” and “something worthless or irrelevant.” And it’s partly this, I think, that’s led to me having to explain to people why e-books shouldn’t be free. Because it didn’t cost anything to make, right? It’s just sitting in a database somewhere, ready to be downloaded forever and ever and ever. It’s not the same as a “real” book, which has to be printed and manufactured and physically distributed to a brick-and-mortar bookstore or the warehouse of an online distributor.

Well, that’s kind of true. The second copy of the e-book cost almost nothing to make. The first copy, though, cost more than anyone should pay to own a single book, ever, at least if that e-book was edited properly by professionals, designed by layout designers, given a cover by a graphic artist and maybe a photographer, coded by someone who knows what they’re doing, and marketed by specialists. It takes a large number of people to create a quality book, physical or digital, and all those people have to be paid for their services.

Oh, and so does the author.

I agree that an e-book probably shouldn’t cost as much as a hardcover, which is a physical thing, in the same way that mp3’s shouldn’t cost as much as getting that same album on vinyl. They’re different formats and should be priced accordingly, but the digital versions should cost money. It’s worth noting here that in the course of the conversation that led to this post, I said I would be in favor of the publishing industry adopting the model offered by so many record labels–that of a “free” digital copy with the purchase of the most expensive physical format. Buying vinyl and getting a much more portable copy for download isn’t anything new to music lovers. But I digress, sort of, and anyway that’s about as far as the two industries can function in the same way. Musicians don’t make money from album sales anymore, it comes from touring, and my Twitter feed the last time an author tried to charge outright for a bookstore appearance was an ugly, ugly thing.

Regardless of the delivery system, the purchase of a book isn’t about simply owning the book. I can hear the protests now, but it’s true. If all we wanted to do was fill our bookshelves, the books on those shelves wouldn’t matter. We’d go into the store and haphazardly grab whatever was in reach, pay for it, go home, and leave their spines uncracked forever. The price we pay is for the experience of having already read the book, been lost in the story, in the same way that concert tickets provide a fleeting few hours of escapism but the memories stick around far longer. The same goes for movies, roller coasters, skydiving. It’s human nature to pursue experiences and reality that we should have to pay for them.

It’s also, though, human nature to become attached to objects, and so we become attached to books we can hold, whose pages we can flip through and sniff and measure affection for by the wearing at the edges. And when we can’t do that because those words are on our e-readers, the connection is harder to grasp and hold. . . for the reader. But I’m going to tell you a little secret:

The connection is the same for the author. Someone slaved over that book, loved and hated it in turns. It’s someone’s brainchild, maybe their proudest moment. Whether or not that should matter to the reader is up for debate, since to an extent authors let go of their books when they’re released out into the world, but it’s relevant when talking about value and cost and therefore someone’s (at least partial) livelihood. As an author, watching books sell for 99 cents all the time, in a you-get-what-you-pay-for world, is difficult. People with much louder voices than mine have discussed at length the idea that cheapness = bad quality, and that buyers will question whether a book being sold for a buck is worth reading to begin with. Sure, it’s great when things go on sale and become affordable to people who might not be able to pay full price, but it’s also one more thing, when done en masse, that devalues the written word.

It’s not the only thing.

The internet itself is the biggest culprit here. Anyone can–and should–write whatever they want online. News is available constantly, just hit the refresh button. Even if I limited my blog reading strictly to the things I’m interested in, I’d need 48 hours in every day and the ability to survive on no food or sleep just to read them all. The problem, (other than that 48-hour days seem in short supply) is that a wealth of anything drives down the market value for everything in that category, including information. And at this point, we’re used to reading for free–on our computers, our phones, at home and at work.

This creates a strange situation in which the internet, which is almost totally responsible for e-books and certainly responsible for their explosion, is also the biggest threat to reading for pleasure at all. What’s the point, and is there even time?

Please, for the love of everything sacred, make the time. And pay the price.

I’m not only saying that as an author, though it’s true that I really want people to buy my book when it comes out. I’m saying it because although the reading (and writing and publishing) landscape has changed, books are our future and our history. The price, whatever it is, isn’t for the copy of Harry Potter on the shelf–it’s for the memory of reading it for the first time. In the case of almost every other author in the world, it’s for the possibility that the author will write another book you’ll hopefully love.

My final point is one that occurred to me in a jet lagged haze but might be the most important of all: Maybe we like the intangibility. Not because it’s portable or uncomplicated, but because fewer and fewer people are going into bookstores and plunking $20s down on the counter. To accept that e-books are “real” and as worthy of protection from piracy and wacky pricing as physical books is also to accept that in pressing that easy one-click button to hit up our already-stored credit card, we paid real money for them.

1 Comment

Posted by on August 31, 2012 in Uncategorized


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One response to “The price of intangible things, and why we should pay it

  1. jacobchastain

    August 31, 2012 at 7:14 am

    Inget where you are coming from, I do, but I think your argument is a little misplaced.

    For example, yes, authors slave over their books, their marriages, but that doesn’t mean a digital copy has to sell for $7 or even $5. Other from the initial promotion, editing, and production of the first copy, all digital copies after that cost $0 to produce. It isn’t fair to over charge because of love.

    On that note as well, low prices don’t devalue anything. The value of a book is why it earns, not what you sell it for. If you make $100 off of a $12 dollar ebook, and $300 off of a $2.99 ebook, which is more value? When prices are low, people buy more. When prices aren’t low, and they should be (in this case a digital copy should be cheaper), buyers know and act accordingly by pirating the overpriced merchandise. Want to fight pirates? Don’t do it by over pricing what costs nothing to produce after initial costs.

    Authors deserve higher royalties on ebooks as well. The machine that is traditional publishing has to change in order to do so though, and it won’t until authors realize that the whole thing cost too much. A lot of indie authors put out high quality stuff without spending thousands of dollars. The initial model must change, but when it does, authors will be able to make more on low cost ebooks because people will buy more and the royalties will be higher….

    Arguing books are somehow so precious that they should be overly priced seems a bit biased. Music artist had to adapt, so do authors. I believe content is key, not pricing. More content, more buyers, higher prices.


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