Books Are Cheap

Posted by on Nov 6, 2010 in Books, Kindle, money, Observations, rants | 3 Comments

I’ve been prodded into this post by the recent Agency Pricing announcement on the UK Kindle discussion forums, and subsequent furore. But really this stems from a conversation I had with a friend a couple of weeks ago about e‑book pricing in general.

My take on it is this: books are cheap. I believe that to be generally true, whether we’re talking about an e‑book or a paperback or a hardback.

There’s a hell of a lot I don’t know about the book industry. I don’t know whether there’s price-fixing. I don’t know how the advance system works. I don’t know much about remaindered books. I don’t know how much promotions cost. I don’t know what deals are being done behind closed doors between Amazon and the publishers. I don’t know how much fairness there is. I don’t know how much of the money goes to the author. I don’t even know if e‑books really are cheaper to “print” and distribute than paperbacks1.

Fundamentally, my point is this: I just don’t know whether e‑book pricing is fair to all parties. I’ve not done the research. Even if I did a lot of research, I probably still wouldn’t know for sure. There’s economics and politics and hidden agendas and all sorts going on.

And I don’t care.

Because by my end-user measure, books are cheap. Maybe 80% of the books I’ve bought in my life have been good. A fair chunk of them have been excellent. Even some of the bad ones have at least been entertaining. And, for fiction, I’ve hardly ever paid more than £20, and that’s been for hardbacks I’ve been particularly desperate to own because they’re the latest instalment from an author I love.

Typically, I’d guess I’m paying between five and ten pounds for a novel right now. So, for the price of a cinema ticket in my local hideous sticky-carpeted multiplex, I get entertained, wherever I happen to be, at my own leisure, for hours, over the course of days.

Fundamentally, I find that a good deal. For the best books, I find it an amazing deal. Especially as — whether you’re talking about e‑books or real books — if you love a book enough, you can read it over and over again, for years.

Non-fiction books are great value, too. Yeah, so computer textbooks are expensive. But a good one can save me a hell of a lot of cash. Books educate me better than £1,000 training courses, in general; I much prefer the self-paced, focus-on-what-you-need style of learning from a good book.

Steve McConnell’s Code Complete, read at just the right moment, fifteen years ago, improved the entire rest of my career. And it’s £21.28.

So: books are cheap.

Also: books are hard. I’m a writer. Once I even made something vaguely resembling a novel, if only in length, for NaNoWriMo. And fuck me, it’s difficult. Keeping that cursor moving to the right for fifty or a hundred thousand words, and then editing them into something that people will enjoy reading, is hard.

I’m grateful anyone would go through that process for me, especially for a novel. A novel is a painful, devastating thing to produce, often hammered out, word by difficult word, on faith, by someone who doesn’t even know whether it’ll be published.

So, aside from some minor concern about how much of the money goes to the author, I really couldn’t give a toss about the inner machinations of the publishing industry, or how much it costs to produce an e‑book, or what deals are being done between Amazon and publishers.

I certainly wouldn’t head for Amazon’s product page for Iain Banks’ latest Culture novel, Surface Detail and leave a one-star review because “I just don’t understand how an eBook can cost more than a real book”, as approximately seventeen people have done so far, more or less.

I wouldn’t do that because it’s a Culture novel, and it’s £9.99 for the Kindle edition. Less than a tenner. For something that’ll entertain me for hours and hours over the next week or so, and will be written with such lovely style that I’ll more than likely want to read it again in a year’s time2. I don’t care if it’s 50p more expensive than the hardback. It’s still brilliant value for money.

Final thought: There’s only one thing that bothers me about the Kindle price and the publishing industry, and that’s the one review out of the eighteen one-star reviews for Surface Detail that isn’t talking about the price, and instead talks about the poor formatting:

Errors everywhere that would never be allowed in a hard copy. They should be ashamed of such shabby work. [Review by datz]

Because that’s where the publishers are letting us down, in terms of value. I don’t care if it’s the same price, or even, as in this case, costs a smidge more than the hardback. I don’t know if that’s “fair” or not, and I probably never will. But when I pay for Iain Banks’s words, I expect them to arrive with me as he wrote them, not with errors and missed words and run-togethers and all the poor formatting that I’ve come to associate with the majority of e‑books I’ve bought so far.

I’ll happily pay hardback prices for an e‑book. But for my money, I expect hardback-quality production.

  1. Okay, so there’s not a bunch of paper and ink that has to be produced, but I’m a geek, and I’ve been working in IT all my life, and the Kindle network, for example — with its 100-country 3G delivery system, its speed, its integration with the Amazon bookstore, its backing network of server farms — strikes me as something a tad more expensive to run than a print factory.
  2. And in a year’s time, I’ll probably be able to find the damn thing if I do want to read it again, rather than searching the increasingly disorganised and dusty cubic metres of dead trees that clutter my overflowing hallway shelves.
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  1. Kavey
    November 6, 2010

    I agree wholeheartedly about the production quality of e‑books. I do not understand why they are not produced to the same quality, using the same final edit text files, as the physical editions.

    I DO mind paying the same as a hardback price or more though. It simply doesn’t make sense to me that the costs of digital creation/ distribution can possibly outweigh those of the hard books.

    I also mind that I can’t buy or sell second hand, which is often a way of off-setting the higher costs of hard back editions.

    And I mind hugely that soft copies of books still attract VAT in the UK whereas printed versions do not.

  2. Pete
    November 6, 2010

    Damn you and your reasoned arguments!

    Perhaps you’re right; perhaps my issue isn’t that ebooks are too expensive, but that their dead tree forms are so cheap.

    My trouble is that I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being ripped off for being an early adopter. They haven’t set those prices based on margins, or production costs, or value for money, or any of your other most excellent reasons — they’ve set them as high as they think they can get away with.

  3. ebook |
    February 2, 2011

    […] a bit off really, since the quality of ebooks, even those you purchase can be… crap. (Matt covered this a lot better than I can on his blog but I agree – if I’m paying a hardback price, I expect the quality to match!) The other […]