Sunday, September 23, 2012

Defining the Value of a Book

An interesting article in this week discussed the ebook price war happening in the U.K. The article says that ebook sales were up 188% in the first half of this year. Part of the reason for this is that Sony and Amazon are offering new titles by well known authors such as Jeffrey Archer and James Herbert for just 20 pence! One horror author boasts sales of 10,000 to 20,000 copies a week at this price, yet he and his publisher are being paid royalties on the full price.

The appeal of 20p titles has become a double-edged sword. Authors, while delighted with increased sales, are concerned that the 20p price will become the norm. The fear is that readers won’t buy a book unless the prices are this low. Also, not everyone will receive royalties on original prices. Given the way contracts are written these days, I’m sure that many authors are relinquishing decent royalties to gain readers.

Here’s the other point, and one I’ve heard debated before. If new books by bestselling authors continue the 20p trend, will the perception of a book’s value change? In other words, if books are priced less than the value of a pack of gum, will they have any real value to potential buyers to begin with? Will cheaply priced ebooks be quickly consumed and then discarded with the same regard as that stick of gum?

I know that defining a book’s value is subjective and holds a wide variety of opinion. It’s always been that way. Several years ago, I bought a paperback for fifty cents at a library sale, and told a friend about my great find. He had already read the book and asked me how much I paid. When I told him he said “you paid too much”. He wasn’t cheap (although he was thrifty) but he didn’t like the book. It happens all the time. You pick up two books on the shelf, same price, same size, and both with intriguing blurbs, but the content of one might be beautifully written while the other is mediocre. And what you think is beautiful, the person next to you might think is mediocre. In other words, the value of a book is based on personal opinion about the content.

But here’s another thing. Suppose that beautifully written book has a stunning cover, terrific editing, and perfect formatting prepared by a team of professionals, yet it’s only 20p. How are those professionals supposed to pay their bills? Should they be forced to go without so buyers can get cheap goods?

I’m all for enticing readers. Heck, you know I’ve had my free days. But free weeks, months, years? The article doesn’t say how long Sony and Amazon are selling these titles for, but while this may introduce many new readers, will those readers expect all future book purchases to be 20p? If so, how will the writers and publishers pay their bills? Most writers, even good ones, make little enough as it is. If we devalue the price of a book, the publishing industry as a whole, and not just the traditional publishers, just might suffer. To read the whole article, go to

There are probably points I haven’t considered, and I welcome your comments on this topic!

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