Are We Devaluing Books?

books

It’s a snowy day in our nation’s capital, and watching the flakes fall has made me contemplative.

I’ve been reading a number of historical and fantasy books in worlds and times where books were rare, precious and valued. I can’t help but contrast that to today, when people can download thousands of free books to their e-reader of choice.

What impact does that have on our perceived value of a book? I thought back and compared my reading habits now to when I was a child (and books were relatively rare—I had to wait for Christmas or birthdays, and use my scant allowance). I seem to recall reading more slowly, and savoring my books. Getting near the end of a book was a time to slow down, because I didn’t want it to end.

Today, when I hit the 75 percent mark of a book, sometimes I catch myself speeding up—somehow wanting to get to the end, and check off the proverbial box. (Yep; that one’s finished!) My recent use of Goodreads hasn’t helped that. The tiny obsessive part of me wants to switch a book’s status to “Finished.”

I’m curious: What do you think? Has an abundance of free books (and I’m talking legal books here, not pirated) affected how you read? Do you read faster? Do you bother to finish a book even if it’s only so-so? When I was younger, I even finished the crappy books. Oh, don’t get the wrong idea—we weren’t poor. My parents just believed in limits.

I’m sure we could go on about the quality of writing then and now, but that’s not really where I’m going with this. It’s more about the relative abundance of cheap and free reading material, including what’s online.

Anyone want to give me more to contemplate while I finish my cup of tea and decide whether I’m going to shovel the snow now or later?

14 Comments on Are We Devaluing Books?

  1. I seldom bought a book as a child or teenager, but always had my limit of books checked out at both my school’s library and the public library. I see my ereader and the digital public domain libraries as one of the best innovations in the digital age. My issue is more with the “browsing experience” for discovering interesting books than with the number of books available.

  2. Felix Torres // March 6, 2013 at 12:44 pm //

    Interesting headlline…
    The first thing to consider that pricing is not value and declining product prices do not imply that consumers value the product any less. If anything, consumers might value a lower-priced product more highly by consuming more of it and thus returning higher revenues to the producer. :)

    Still, I’ll say that if you make a living selling expensive mass market titles you will believe ebooks are devaluing books but that most other people will see that what is going on is thare we are moving from an economy of (artifical) scarcity to an economy of abundance. And that in an economy of abudance the market for higher-priced mass market product is inevitably smaller.

    The amount of content reaching the market in ages agone was constrained not by the creativity of the writer population nor by the consumers’ willingness to consume but by the bottleneck imposed by the system of cascading gatekeepers seeking conformity with their standards (and seeking to maximize their control and profits).
    This was reflected more than anything else in the monetization of the public domain, where copyright-free books were hardly free and often sold at the same price as fully copyrighted works.
    With ebooks reducing the incremental cost of distribution of books to near zero, we are seeing an explosion of availability of copyright-free content as well as a similar explosion of quality copyrighted content from the historical backlist. These are *known good* offerings that require a minimal investment to bring to market and so can sell in volume at relatively modest prices.
    Similarly, we are seeing an explosion of all-new content that is bypassing the traditional gatekeeping cascade and the tolls imposed by the traditional channels. By collapsing the distribution chain to simply author-retailer-reader, lower consumer prices are enabled without negatively impacting the producers’ income level.
    In other words, in the face of increasing supply *and* a competitive environment, we are seeing a very public negotiation between consumers and producers that is resetting the baseline prices and *volumes* at which specific titles in different categories will sell.
    The debate is ongoing but, as has been argued elsewhere around here, the prices are *not* headed towards zero but to a pricing band that satisfies the three primary parties in the new supply chain.

    As is, the new economics are bringing in new marketting approaches, new retailing approaches, and even new narrative structures and approaches. We are seeing an emergence of viable markets for shorter form fiction and non-fiction, serials and series, and even the occasional mega-novel. More will be coming. Some might argue we are entering a golden age where creativity will rewarded and mediocrity (at best) tolerated rather than celebrated.

    Which is to say what we are seeing is a re-valuing of content, not an across-the-board devaluation.

  3. I don’t read any faster than in the old pre-ebook days – I just read more. Ebooks give me more opportunities to read in more more locations. In the old days I would have to carry around the one book I was reading and only read it in while sitting somewhere..

    I always viewed books as a commodity. When I finished one book there was always more out there to read next. My parents would often bring home used paperbacks form garage sales (priced at 5 to 25 cents). I had a library card which I used heavily, I bought paperbacks and later on joined a book club. I thought that if people wanted to spend big money on hardbacks that were crazy when when so many cheap books were out there. Now there even more options with Amazon, Overdrive, Tor and miscellaneous independent book sites. I keep an eye of the deals and freebies and have discovered some great new authors that way.

    Even when in middle age I find that my discretionary income is too limited to spend alot of money on books. Btween bills, mortgage and college tuitions I find it hard to justify prices over $10 for name brand authors

    I never felt to need to slow down and savor a book as there was always more after that to read. I might come back after a few years and reread a fovourite (i.e. The Dune and Foundation series), When I got towards the end I just wanted to speed up to see how it all turns out. If a book was truely crappy I would only abandon it if I truly didn’t care about the characters or the outcome.

  4. All my life, I’ve been a library books reader. Even when I could buy them, I preferred borrowing because that gave me a reason to finish the book.

    Today, when I’ve started buying books, I’m noticing that no matter how hard I try, I’m not finishing them. I’ve filled up my Goodreads list with books I’ve already read but that list isn’t growing easily.

    I’m nearing the end of an excellent book – Microserfs by Douglas Coupland and want to see it through the end because I have a few others lined up and because there’s a warm fuzzy feeling waiting at the end of each book. But I think I’ll have to go back to being a library subscriber in order to really enjoy books…

  5. I always had as much to read as I wanted as a kid. Yes, my parents bought some, but they also took me to the library regularly.

    The availability of free books doesn’t devalue a GOOD book for many of us. How many of those free books do I want to read? Darn few.

  6. Joanna Cabot // March 6, 2013 at 2:00 pm //

    The mass of free, easy content has made me a lot less patient than I used to be with books which are only so-so. If I am reading it and it starts to drag a little, I chuck it and move on. I have so much available to me just a click away; I don’t have time to spend it on books which aren’t fabulous.

  7. Why is it a good thing to finish a crappy book, whether you paid $2.99 or $9.99 for it? whatever the price, it’s still a crappy book. Price does not equal value, either. I value the latest indy-published Courtney Milan more than I do the latest J. D. Robb book (Sorry, Nora, this was one of your more light-weight offerings, and the motive didn’t hold water).

  8. A slightly different tack.

    I do “power through” a poor book more often now then I did in the past. Now that I can write up an opinion and sometimes share that opinion directly with the author I will read through a less than interesting book so that I can give quality responses.

    The flip side is that I have so much good quality reading piled up (through discovery) that I rarely need to force my self through a book anymore.

  9. I always finish a book once I have started it. I have read some books that have dragged in the middle, but the conclusion made it ultimately worth it. If I had given up on the book I would have simulataneously wasted my time and missed out on something good. I feel an obligation to see the book through before I decide that it is worthless.

    That said, I seldom read free books anymore, besides public domain classics. And I rarely read self-published unless there is enough buzz about it or a good personal recommendation to stir up interest. Because I know I will read any book I start through to the end, I select my books carefully, and free or self pubbed are more likely to let me down.

    And I don’t think that a good book is any less valuable because so many books are available and many are cheap or free. Instead, I think a good book is that much more valuable, because it is harder to find them in the sea of worthlessness that is out there.

  10. On my second cup of tea and the snow is shoveled.

    Good conversation!

    @Scotto, I also tend to speed up to see how it ends. But sometimes I do regret that I didn’t take a bit longer with a book. I have a bad habit of being completely involved while I’m reading and then forgetting most of it. Which is a good thing for a re-reader, I guess.

    @Nitin, fascinating! I’m actually more likely to put down a library book because it was free, and somehow, for me, that means I have less invested in it.

    @Joanna, pretty much sums me up.

    @beccadi, it isn’t a good or a bad thing to finish a crappy book. I’ve just noticed a change in my patience with books, and I wondered if other people were similar. Actually, I just finished and thoroughly enjoyed a book I’d abandoned as bad several years earlier. This time around, I guess I was in a different place. That makes me wonder if sometimes I’ve been too harsh with a book, too early, kind of like what @Vonda said

  11. @Juli, it’s all about point of view, right? As a kid growing up in India, reading about Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, Goosebumps and Sherlock Holmes was a window into the western world. I’ve read, nay, swallowed many books just because they had to be returned to the Library in a week. Now, when I buy a book, I do some research into whether I will like it or not.

    Having a library sub means you have a large cache of books at your discretion. If you don’t like the one, you can put it down. But buying a book and then finding out you don’t like it, that’s a bit disheartening.

  12. Cheap or Free books don’t motivate me to read them. Download, maybe; read, no. I’ve probably downloaded a few hundred public domain or free books over the years, but I’ve read less than a dozen. I’ve become less likely to download willy nilly and regularly skip a lot of free promotions or daily deals.

    However, in the past I have felt the need to check off as many books as possible in a year at Goodreads which can lend itself to reading more short and easy titles. But I don’t like the feeling that it is somehow a race. I’ve been trying to focus on reading good books rather than many books. Last year I read Infinate Jest when I could have read 10 or 12 science fiction or crime novels in the same amount of time. But I’m glade I read IJ instead.

  13. Fundamentaly, I believe humans still put monetary value on things we can touch. Ebook readers are paid for and are physical. Ebooks, just as software, are not physical so have no perceived monetary value.

  14. I don’t think ready freeb ebook availability devalues books. For one thing, remember how important libraries are/used to be in our reading habits. They were totally free, of course, but I bet that books borrowed from the library were just as important as books bought as formative influences on us. I know they were on me. I think free ebooks are taking on this role.

    Since I went digital, I’ve been affected and moved by certain books every bit as much as I ever was by print ones – in some cases, more, because the ebook could be constantly with me and in a way, closer to me, than a print book that always had to be put back on the shelf. Most of those were free. I was able to dig deep into writers that I probably would never have got around to if I was constrained by print book availability, including established and out-of-copyright greats like G K Chesterton, Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith. Sure, I don’t read with such concentration and attention when I have a free ebook on hand that just isn’t worth it. But I find my discernment isn’t affected that much by the format, and when selecting a book to read, and while reading it, all my critical faculties are still fully there to decide whether I should be taking my time over it or looking at another shelf in the universal virtual library.

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