Have we forgotten the value of a book?

value of a bookWhen we look at buying a book, it seems many are caught up in the price – thinking: ‘Can I get this cheaper online? How much is Amazon selling it? Why can’t I get this ebook free?’

The value of books has taken a dive over the last couple of years. We have become obsessed with trying to read as much as possible by spending the least amount of money. Yet, we don’t take into account the value of what we are getting out of a book.

A good book offers about four hours of entertainment. A great book will present even more as sometimes you think about it long after you’re finished. We’re willing to pay $12 for a two-hour movie, but for some reason we have decided that a book isn’t worth nearly as much.

I’m part of the problem.

I see a book I want to read and one of my first thoughts is to get it from the library. If it’s self-published, I get the free first book of a series and sometimes don’t continue to the rest of the paid series.

I have spent about $56 on books for myself this year – two of which totaled $40 and were graphic novel volumes. Ten dollars went to ebooks and one book I bought for $6 from Amazon for research.

I feel like we have lost the value of a book. If reading is your hobby, then we know it’s something that could get expensive. Buying from bookstores is one of the pricier ways to go because often you pay full cover price (like today’s $22 purchase for a hardcover book I got as a gift). Buying a physical book from Amazon is usually the cheaper way to go and ebooks even more cheaply than that.

But what is the price of your entertainment? Do people not want to spend too much money because you don’t actually know if you are going to like the book? Do you want to spend less money because there is more labor in reading a book than watching a movie? How much is your reading time worth?

20 Comments on Have we forgotten the value of a book?

  1. To me this same attitude is behind the push to take away copyrighted material that would-be publishers claim they can not find the copyright holder of. They don’t want any cost to themselves profiting from a writer’s work.

  2. I value all the reading matter I can my hands on, and do support my favorite authors by purchasing their titles quite often, more frequently than I can afford. But, I will always look for bargains, free books, and borrowing options to keep my library full of new and old out-of-print favorites; and risky titles that sound interesting where I have questions about the quality of writing or subject matter. Just as I depended on second-hand bookstores, the public and school library before e-books appeared. As the price of paper books and mainstream e-books titles continued to escalate, I felt NO guilt at passing over the ‘buy’ button or the book store counter to acquire decent literature, and will have to stick with this budgeting plan. I support the authors I come to value by giving positive revues, following their series blitzes with some purchases if I am truly hooked, and keeping up to date on their publishing efforts.

  3. I’ve settled my position on book pricing for some time now, and it all came down to your last sentence: “How much is your (my) reading time worth?”

    I find it ridiculous that many people have strong convictions about what should be the “right price” of a book. Actually, this discussion is a waste of everyone’s time. Let the market decide for everyone.

    And my main point is this: each reader’s OWN time valuation is the defining factor. Some people’s (reading) time is simply less valuable than another one’s, which means that they have more need and interest for lower prices.

    For another person, it is more about the decision: “Is this book worth my time?” and the question of price is of secondary value. In economics this is called opportunity cost.

    For heavy readers, this solution is of course a bit challenging. But on the other hand, heavy readers are generally more used to stretching their tastes and demands as well.

  4. The reasons I would pay a high price for a printed book in a bookstore are: a) that it might not be there tomorrow; and b) the extensive time and effort involved in finding it somewhere else. Neither of these applies to eBooks on the web.

    As far as fiction goes, I have enough scanned and bought and free eBooks already on my PC to last me at least ten years; and since by the end of that time I will have forgotten the first ones I read, I can just go right back and read them again. I am simply no longer in the market for fiction, whatever it costs.

    As for non-fiction, I will pay a fair price for books that are useful, or entertaining, or match my interests; but with the exception of work-related material I won’t buy anything new, since I can be reasonably sure the eBook format will be around long enough for the price to come down substantially. We are, I think, moving to a newspaper-style model, where recency and topicality command a high price premium that rapidly disappears over time.

  5. Interesting points but I have to say the movie comparison seems a bit off for me. Movies can immerse you in the experience in a way that books seldom do. On top of that, we’re aware that movies often cost tens of millions to make and involve dozens if not hundreds of people in the production side alone (as opposed to marketing), while a book does not.

    I’m not try to stir up the “books versus movies” debate that’s raged for decades, but I think if we are really going to get a handle on the real value of a book we need to avoid faulty comparisons.

    Having said all that, I’ve recently sworn off movies (mostly) and don’t miss them. The stories were just getting to predictable.

  6. Joanna Cabot // March 26, 2014 at 6:05 pm //

    I think the problem with your argument, Susan, is that ‘value’ is a relative thing. If I can finish your 4-hour book in 2 hours, should I pay less?

    And then there is the paper comparison. I know people ‘in the industry’ routinely state that the cost of paper, ink, shipping etc. is less of the book price than people commonly think. I have heard it is anywhere from 5-15% of the price. So why are so many ebooks priced the same—or higher—than the paper? Why is the cost savings derived from the choice of e-formatting not being passed on to us?

    There are a host of factors here, but the bottom line is, most people don’t buy more than a few books per year anyway, and those of us who do buy a lot are the good guys here. I refuse to feel guilty for doing a little comparison shopping or library borrowing, or from opting out altogether if I find the price unfavorable.

  7. “The value of books has taken a dive over the last couple of years. We have become obsessed with trying to read as much as possible by spending the least amount of money.”

    In the pre-ebook era I haunted used bookstores in my goal of rying to read as much as possible by spending the least amount of money. Taht was 10 years ago, and I don’t see how anything has changed since then.

  8. eBooks have made me a bargain hunter. Pre-eBooks, my husband and I, both voracious readers, spent most of our discretionary income on books. We did little bargain hunting. We knew what we liked, and we bought it. We didn’t even use the library much. Then eBooks came along. I bought into the idea that they should cost less than paper, and I tried to find books under $5.00 (a completely arbitrary number I came up with). Mostly, I was able to find books in that range, and then along came Amazon and more big publisher books were available, and I still tried to keep to that number. It was harder, so I bought fewer books. Then indie publishing came along. And big discounts from the big guys came along, and basically, it’s now a weighing thing for me. If I spend $9.99 (or more) on a book, will I receive 2-5 times the value as if I’d bought a less expensive book?

    One could say the publisher have done this to themselves. First by pricing books ridiculously high and windowing them. Then by trying to keep up with the indies. They had a chance many years ago, and they blew it.

  9. Some of us have always been bargain hunters, Juli.

    But now that you mention it, publishers now get more of my money than they did in the pre-ebook era. All the used ebooks have been displaced by cheap ebooks, and that’s a net positive for everyone.

  10. I can get 720 hours of entertainment for $8.00 on Netflix (if I don’t sleep). The $12 movie probably cost more then $10 million to make, how much did the book cost to make? You can’t pick and chose the comparisons.

    Books have always been inexpensive entertainment. There are lots of options to get free paper books and cheap used paper books that aren’t factored into the “average price” of paper books. Despite illegal collusion the free market will determine the market price for books.

  11. Movies may cost more to make , but they sell way more tickets than a best selling book.

    How many people watched the dumb new YA movie last week end? 3,900 theaters with 4 shows per day and an average 30 people per show is 117,00 tickets sold. That is one day. There are probably better numbers out there some where.

    An average book may have a print run of maybe 15,000 with sales around 8,000 to 10,00 if it does well. Big difference in scale.

    I also agree that books are devalued.

    Suppose a book costs $9.99 and takes 12 hours to read. That is an “entertainment” cost of about $1.20 per hour. A two hour movie at $12 (excluding popcorn and pop) is $6 per hour.

    I also think the value for time spent reading vs watching is fifty folder.

  12. I think it comes down to what the value of a book is to you.

    My parents have always been frugal, and almost never buy books “new.” (And certainly never a hardcover book new.) That’s one of the big reasons they haven’t gotten too much into e-books; even the cheapest e-books cost more than getting books second-hand from a used book store (or, more recently, from Amazon for a penny + shipping).

    They figure that a second-hand book reads the same as a new book and costs a lot less, and they’ve lost less money on it if they turned out not to like it, or if they want to resell it to a used store themselves. So for them, the “value” of a book has always been fairly low in monetary terms.

  13. Does anything really have inherent value? We talk endless about how much something is worth, but rarely acknowledge that really, everything is worth, in monetary terms, precisely as much as the market (and specifically someone within it) is willing to pay. That’s why comparing books to other media is a flawed approach; besides the fact that, as mentioned above, tens of millions of dollars often go into the production of movies (which usually involves dozens or hundreds of people), you make the analogy of going to a theater even though that’s not the only way people watch movies. Some movies are free on network television or with a cable or Netflix subscription. Some are available on Blu-Ray as limited-production collectors’ editions wherein consumers get not only the movie but commentary and maybe production art or even a statue or other tchotchke; some are available on the shelf at Best Buy as part of a bundle (buy 3 for $10 on DVD!).

    My parents took me to a library for the first time when I was like four years old, and I’d been a reader before then. Despite all the years I’ve been a reader, the only time I remember spending more than $20 on a book was Dean Koontz’s Intensity in like 1996. I’ve bought hardcovers since then, but bought only from Barnes & Noble’s bargain displays. When I grew up, mass market paperbacks cost $6.99. That’s stuck with me, and is probably why I very rarely spend more than $5 on any ebook. Now, publishing them myself, that’s where I feel most comfortable; I think $5 is a pretty fair price for a novel–especially when it’s a digital thing with no tangibility that readers really only barely own a copy of, and which, if it doesn’t exist in bits and bytes on a fully charged device somewhere, basically doesn’t really exist at all.

    Your question about how much is one’s reading time worth is even more interesting. That seems to turn the situation completely on its head. It’s almost as though authors should pay readers for the time they invest in reading authors’ books.

  14. We are talking about this in the wrong way. The important thing is not that readers pay something based on the value they receive, but that books that satisfy the readers’ demand wind up being produced. If readers could never pay anything at all yet still not face a shortage of books then that is the socially optimal price. The model of people plunking down some amount of money for a physical (or something emulating a physical) copy compensate a writer after the fact via multiple layers of indirection is based on old methods of doing business that no longer apply in the information age. Hell, thanks to cognitive surplus and zero barriers to entry the idea of professional full time writers being necessary to produce book in the first place is probably out of date.

    As long as the consumer is satisfied by the written works available to them then all other considerations are irreverent.

  15. ‘Value’ and ‘price’ are not the same thing and if you are an author, a wordsmith, you should know that. The comment that the ‘value of books has taken a nosedive’ doesn’t even make sense. A bad book has no value at all. A book in a genre I don’t like has no value to me. That has nothing to do with what price the author or publisher should charge for it.

    And what we make from a book as profit while to some degree a function of price is not what we have to look at. You can just as well ask if the novel you spent hundreds of hours writing is only worth $12.99? Is that any more reasonable that it being worth $2.99 or $4.99 as most self-published e-books are priced?

    If I am costing the WORTH (not value) of my published work, it is the amount I make on them in toto and not the cost of each individual copy that matters. I may well have a better outcome selling more at $3.99 than a handful at $12.99 and I will certainly do better with the improved royalty rate.

  16. Susan Lulgjuraj // March 27, 2014 at 11:10 am //

    Perhaps using a movie as an analogy is flawed, but one thing that made me wonder in the comments … why should I have to spend more money on a movie because the production cost millions? Why do I have to pay the price for that?

    The value of a book isn’t just a question for readers though. It also is a question for authors who price their books at 99 cent or even free. Is the time they took to write that book really worth $1 or less?

    I have way more questions than I do answers, and I love the conversation this has spurred. It’s just one of the things I have thought about recently.

  17. Susan, if the author only earns $1 for the book, then he only sold one copy, the book probably isn’t very good, and I would say that yes, his time was only worth that much :-)

  18. Books have both commercial and cultural values. It’s easy to put a value on the former: it’s all about supply and demand, first-edition hardback or mass-market paperback, whether it’s topical or in a popular genre, whether it’s print or ebook, etc. Cultural value has to be earned through the respect of readers, which is not so easy to assess. It could be argued that ebooks by unknown writers have next to no cultural value when first released, so maybe $0.99 is not unreasonable for some. It seems to me that much of the debate around the value of books is like trying to put a price on a painting through calculating the cost of the frame.

  19. Reading this thread, I happily note that the quality of discussing (e)book pricing has risen compared to previous years. We are moving away from “what I believe is right” and “pruduction costs” and numbers to evaluation.

    Actually, I was a bit surprised this happened at TeleRead who I thought giving up on… keep working, guys.

  20. I used to mostly buy used paperbacks at half cover-price, and occasionally buy a few new paperbacks by favorite authors. This, of course benefited the used bookstore and rarely the author and publisher. Now I buy ebooks, and I try to wait until I can get a sale to keep the price comparable to what I could do when I was mostly buying used paperbacks, but now the publisher and author get their cut. I suspect that many authors would be happy to cut the price of backlist ebooks to less than that of a new ebook in order to get additional sales, but I believe the publishers will never do that because a) they believe this causes additional price pressure on their new books and b) they already don’t like backlist books staying in print because it’s additional competition for reader attention for their new books. In fact, some publishers have been known to drop the mass market paperback edition of an older books in favor of a trade paperback, and then raise the price of the older book to match the price of the trade paperback, thus making the older “classic” book more expensive than a new mass market paperback. That’s just price gouging in my opinion, and I will never buy such a book unless I can get it on sale.

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