Some questions have no answer, or at least not a universal answer. This is true of this question: In the era of ebooks, what is a book worth? Yet, every day, ebookers are making that value judgement, including in their calculation of whether or not to buy an ebook what they believe is the worth of a book.

As there is no across-the-board, universally applicable answer to the question, we need to address value/worth broadly, beginning by separating books into two broad categories: fiction and nonfiction. From my point of view, nonfiction is worth more than fiction — again, I am speaking in broad terms — because nonfiction is intended by both the author and buyer to be referred to multiple times. Granted some nonfiction’s multiple times may be only twice, but at the other extreme, consider cookbooks, course books, and how-to books, which may be referenced dozens of times over the course of the buyer’s ownership of the book.

On the other hand, most fiction is of the read-once-then-shelve-or-toss-away variety. How many of us buy a novel and read it more than once? And if we do read it more than once, how many of us will read it more than twice? As with all else, there are exceptions. I can name a handful of novels that I have read more than once — To Kill a Mockingbird, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and a few more — over the course of 60 years of reading. Considering how many novels I have read in those 60 years of reading, the handful is a very tiny fraction of books I have read, especially compared to nonfiction.

With these thoughts in mind, I wonder what the true value of a book is today, especially considering all the restrictions that are applied to ebooks, the varied pricing of ebooks, and the pricing of ebooks compared to their print versions. I also wonder about the value, by which I mean the price to be paid, of fiction in any form. Why is a new Stephen King novel worth $15 or more in any form?

When valuing commodities, and books have evolved to be commodities rather than the luxury items they once were, in a true free market system, value is set by scarcity and production costs with a margin for profit. But ebooks have no scarcity value, unless we consider each author to be so unique that no other author can be substituted. Once created, the electronic file can be duplicated innumerable times, with each duplication being a precise and perfect clone of the original.

There are production costs, but these costs can be amortized over an innumerable quantity of duplications that cost virtually nothing to create once the master has been created. This is the essential difference between a print book and an ebook: Each copy of a print book has some measurable production cost – for example, the cost of paper, the storage and shipping costs, the minimum print run cost — but the ebook lacks these measurable costs once past the creation of the master file. It isn’t that the cost of the master file isn’t or shouldn’t be amortized over the duplication run, but rather that the duplication run doesn’t add measurably to the cost of the master file, unlike with print books where many of the costs of the initial print run are incurred again with the second printing and again with each subsequent printing.

The one criterion that changes ebook to ebook is that of the author. Although Stephen King and Dean Koontz write similar books in a similar genre, one is (supposedly) not a perfect substitute for the other. Notwithstanding marketing claims to the contrary, a bar of soap from Ivory is a near-perfect substitute for a bar of soap from Kiss My Face. We may have a preference for one brand or the other, but the two bar soaps are really interchangeable in the marketplace — they are near-perfect substitutes, one for the other. Although King and Koontz are similar, it is claimed that they are not near-perfect substitutes, one for the other.

Or are they? Perhaps we have been drilled over too many years to believe that each author is so unique that one author cannot be substituted for another, that we actually believe author uniqueness to be a truism. Perhaps there is a shade of gray to that statement. Consider this: Do readers of Stephen King only read horror genre books written by King? Do they read other horror authors while waiting for the next King novel to be published? Is Tolkien the only fantasy author Tolkien fans read, especially knowing that there will be no more Tolkien novels forthcoming?

If we read other authors in a genre, are we not really saying that it is the genre that we like more so than the author, and that King and Koontz are at least near equivalents? I accept that there are tiers of authors; that is, some authors are better than others and that some are first tier, whereas others are third or fourth (or even lower) tier. But I also accept that authors in a tier are, for the most part, interchangeable for each other. Perhaps scarcity, in the sense that each author is unique and not interchangeable with any other author, is not truly a criterion applicable to books even though we have been indoctrinated to believe otherwise. Consider that other authors are hired to complete books in a series because of the original author’s untimely death. Isn’t that the publishing world’s equivalent of saying Brandon Sanderson is interchangeable with Robert Jordan?

If we accept that books are commodities and that same-tier authors are interchangeable, the current equation for determining the value of a book is undermined and needs to be rethought. Alas, this is a complex problem that cannot be resolved in just one short article; consequently, the discussion will continue another day in part II.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog