The first article in this series of musings, In the Era of eBooks, What Is a Book Worth? (I), brought a lot of comment, particularly on blogs that reprinted it. Most commenters disagreed with me, and several of the commenters compared an author’s uniqueness and a book’s worth to a painting.

Collecting original paintings is one of my hobbies. I was somewhat pressed into collecting by my wife, who is a professional painter as well as a collector. (For those of you interested, some of my wife’s paintings can be seen at her website, www.carolynedlund.com, and in an earlier An Art Interlude: Portraits.) But paintings and books, especially ebooks, are different, and I do not think comparable at all.

Consider that an original oil painting truly is unique. There is one and only one of it. That it can be copied doesn’t change the uniqueness of the original. Unlike that original painting, there really is no “original” ebook that can be identified, auctioned, or made distinguishable from a copy. There is nothing particularly unique about the bytes that comprise the ebook master file. eBooks do not increase in value (in the collectible sense) over the course of years, unlike print books which can increase in value as fewer pristine print copies of the first edition, first printing remain. A first edition, first printing, in fine condition of a print copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is worth significantly more today than when it was first published — because a copy in such condition is scarce and Hemingway is considered an important writer.

Yet that same book, in ebook form, will never increase in value because there is nothing unique or scarce about the bytes that comprise the book. Everyone who wants a copy can have a copy at a cost of pennies for duplication. There is no limit to the number of copies and every copy will be an exact clone of the master. The same is not true of that first edition, first printing print version: that bit of uniqueness, as minimal as it may be, cannot be duplicated on demand. The text may always be the same, but subsequent editions and printings will be just that — subsequent, not first.

Commenters also pointed to the entertainment factor, comparing books to movies. When I go to see a movie, I go as part of a small social group, as do most theater goers. We usually do not go to see movies by ourselves. Part of the “adventure” is the social intercourse. How many times have you said to yourself, “I want to see that movie,” but ended up not going to the theater because you would have had to go alone?

Unlike the social experience of theater going, reading is generally a solo adventure. Yes, some of us belong to book clubs and discussion groups, even online communities for this purpose, but when we read a book, we still read it alone. Reading as reading is not a social activity; discussion of what we have read is a social activity.

In the sense that Stephen King is a wordmaster and I am not a wordmaster, King’s writings are worth more than mine. But we are of different tiers of skill. In the case of Dean Koontz and Stephen King, I think neither is worth more than the other because both are of the same tier. In addition, I see them as interchangeable — if I am in the mood for a new King novel but none is available, I easily shift to a new Koontz novel. It isn’t that their writing styles are so similar; rather, it is that their writing styles are not so dissimilar.

It was pretty clear from the comments made to the first article that many readers do not believe and do not accept that same-tier authors are interchangeable. But I do think there are several pillars that support interchangeability.

First, consider books written by an author in association with a second author — the Tom Clancy or James Patterson with XYZ type of book. Second, consider books that are of the same world as an author’s books but written by others — for example, the David Weber Honor Harrington Universe that is populated by stories written by other authors, such as Eric Flint and Steve Miller. And third, consider the incomplete-at-author’s-death series or manuscripts — for example, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series with Brandon Sanderson completing volume 13.

In each of these instances, the original author is being substituted for by someone the original author (or the author’s heirs) thinks is an equivalent or near-equivalent author and one whose writing will give the original author’s fans the same or nearly the same reading experience. That is, the original author thinks he or she is interchangeable with the substitute authors, even if only subconsciously.

Something else to consider: If Stephen King writes a new novel every 3 years, what do his fans do for reading between novels? If there was no near-equivalent horror writer to Stephen King, the reader would simply have to wait for the next King work to arrive. Yet most horror fans find other authors to read while waiting and have the same expectations for those other authors as for King. King may be preferred but King is not exclusive — King has near-equivalents that horror fans read.

Why is this interchangeability important? Because it broadens the choices available and makes a particular author’s work less unique and thus less valuable in the marketplace. If Koontz and King are not interchangeable, then there should be a great disparity in publisher pricing of their books. Yet pricing is, like the authors, near-equivalent.

The question becomes whether these books, particularly the ebook forms, are being priced at their worth or in excess of their worth by the publishers.

We all know that ebooks are shackled. The iron bindings of DRM schemes and format wars should have a greater effect on the worth of an ebook than the current pricing would indicate. (Yes, I know that DRM can be removed and then formats converted, but let’s limit our discussion to compliance with the law so that all readers are addressing this on equal footing.)

Interchangeability eliminates the notion of author uniqueness. In the absence of uniqueness, what justifies the pricing of an ebook. To say it is what the market will bear is inaccurate. Since agency pricing entered the pricing scheme, the idea of market forces working their magic on pricing appears to have dissipated like the sands of time. Certainly, the laws of supply and demand do not exert much force on ebook pricing, especially pricing by the Agency 6, because the supply of an ebook — unlike of a print book – is infinite and it is long-tail demand that matters most to book publishing. Perhaps publishers are failing to see that the long-tail demand for their products will be in electronic form rather than the traditional print form, and that failure is driving their pricing decisions.

Whatever the reason, it appears that ebooks are being overvalued and overpriced by traditional publishers, and that the traditional publisher’s pricing scheme is influencing the self-publishing author’s pricing — all to the detriment of ebookers and ebooks in general.

(Alas, there is still more to say, so discussion will continue yet another day in Part III.)

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog


  1. Of course books and authors are interchangeable, I have thousands of books by hundreds of different authors in many genres and I enjoy them all. In fact, with my Kindle, I purposely switch between authors and genres, never reading the same two books in a row.

    It certainly didn’t take me long to abandon former favorite authors whose books I found priced to high for indie authors. Many of them are just as good or better and I can get far more for my money.

  2. copies of books might be interchangeable, and copies of ebooks even more so, but the content is not interchangeable, at least not to me. If I’m in the mood for Lois Bujold, I’m not going to read Eric Flint (although I might read the Liaden books).

    just because you read more than one author in a given genre doesn’t mean those authors are interchangeable.

  3. This is a case of someone with a ‘theory’ stuck in his head, desperately flailing around for justifications to support it but just getting tied up in knots on the journey.

    None of the arguments hold water.

  4. going with his picture analogy, if what you want in your livingroom is a poster of a Monet, you’re not going to go with a poster of Piccaso – even though, what the hey, they’re both copies and so are interchangeable, eh?

  5. “If I’m in the mood for Lois Bujold, I’m not going to read Eric Flint (although I might read the Liaden books).”

    Sure, but what happens when you finish Lois Bujold and your next 10-20 favorite authors?

    If everything you want to read is by favorite authors, yes no disagreement, but I doubt this is the case – how do those authors become favorite after all, you had to start them at some point no ? – and them circumstances intervene – eg mood, availability, price, convenience…

    And then price becomes quite important.

  6. Liviu: I never seem to have a shortage of things to read. I follow a bunch of review blogs, and get lots or recommendations from them. My point is, authors may be on the same “tier” and even of the same genre, but they’re not interchangeable.

  7. I do not hold with the simplistic “interchangeable” either as in given author A and author B that write the same (sub)genre of books, A and B books are the same for me, but I think there is a subtler way in which the phenomenon holds and which is not that different from the main reason newspapers and magazines are being crowded out by people generated content.

    After your favorites, the musts, the ones you buy the ebay arc, the e-arc, the hardcover or ebook on publication day, the ones you stay until 12 am to get the ebook and curse Amazon that they are on West Coast time and release it only at 3 am, the ones you are first on hold at the library, you beg for arcs from publishers etc, etc, most of the rest of the books you read are drawn from a pool generated by lists, reviews, recs from friends, browsing in store, library, online etc, etc… and the larger the pool the more other factors like price come in – if your to get list has 2 books, yes price may be less of a factor, but if it has 10, it will weigh more

    The same happened very clearly with news and such – sure NYT – pick your favorite paper/magazine – is generally better and more interesting than people generated content, but there is only that much that is a must from it, while for the rest you may want something just to read so to speak…

    In books until recently there was much less choice, but now you will see that the “good enough but cheap” will crowd out a lot of the “somewhat better but expensive”

    And that is why I tend to agree that on aggregate there is much more interchangeability in the book world than usually believed.

    Anyway this is a very empiric statement and the future will show us sooner rather than later who is right, but I predict that the cheaper indies will take more and more market share and will force the agency publishers to massively lower prices at least for the midlist authors quite soon; already in the print world we see this with the high increase in tpb releases of books that not long ago would have been released as a hardcover and the consequent decrease in hc releases

  8. In thinking about these articles, and dismissing most of the writer’s arguments as poorly executed, the idea of the growing prevalence of the commodity “pricing” model seems more apt an argument than the case for commodity in content. With the finite offerings of a bookstore, the price maker was/is the publisher. But ebooks have allowed for a lot of (mountains of) competing content. Some of it good, some of it bad.

    Its like the corn market, where 1 farmer can not dictate the price of his crop because so many people are growing the same exact thing. There are times where you will eat whatever is there to buy in the corn aisle of the piggly-wiggly. But then there is that stall along the road where 1 particular farmer grows a special kind of sweet corn, and you drive out of your way and pay a premium price because its just damn better.

    Sure there are a lot of books out there that seem interchangeable to a lot of folk. I mean, how many “ancient-encrypted-biblical-texts-pointing-to-a-super-ancient-secret-society-who-are-going-to-kill-us-all” novels are really unique? However, to some people, they are all unique, and they are willing to pay a premium price for it. Businesses/publishers are built on finding, growing, cultivating, and retaining the premium price buyers, not so much the commodity buyers.

    Personally, I will pay a higher price for the list of authors that I love. To me, they hold that value. Of the plethora of cheap ebooks out there, of which I have read a lot, I can’t say that I have found an author yet in that group where I said to myself “I would have paid more for this” or even transitioned into buying their subsequent books at a higher price.

    Once there is a Cormac McCarthy’esque writer selling for 99 cents, then the world will definitely have turned, because THAT would be the poster child for value.

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