What Does it Cost to Read a Book? How Ebooks will Change Book Buying Habits.

With hardback and paperback sales sliding down the charts while ebook sales rising, it appears the new paperback book is the ebook.  Unlike the past, where readers had to wait months or years for the paperback edition to come out, the ebook and hardback are now published simultaneously.  This is great news for readers until you realize what has happened is the price of a paperback has been increased.  You get to read it sooner, but it costs more – but the whole point of mass market paperbacks was to read books for less.

It used to be a book would come out in hardback, say for $25.99, and then months later, a $14.99 trade edition would come out, and finally after sales for the trade edition tanked, the $7.99 mass market edition would appear.  The cost of reading a book depended on how soon you wanted to read it after first publication.  Now we’re seeing $9.99-$12.99 or more for the ebook, but we get to buy it right away.  On one hand this seems like a very fair price, because it’s such a savings off the hardback cost, but on the other hand, you get nothing but electrons for your money. 

When you buy a hardback you have something physical that will last, that’s collectable, or nice to look at on a shelf, and makes a great gift, or is wonderful to lend to your friends, or even sell.  Even if you didn’t read the book, you had something when you bought a book.

Most people only read a book once, and if you’re buying ebooks, all you’re really getting is to read it.  An ebook will last, but if you only read a book once, it’s more like renting the book.

By the way, from now on when I mention pricing, I’m going to use Amazon’s for sale pricing and not list.

You’d think pricing would be based on what you get for your money.  The ebook would be the cheapest, then mass market paperback, then trade paperback and then hardback, because of the production costs and materials that go into creating the book.  And sometimes this happens.  For example The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is $6.35 ebook, and $7.99 mass market paperback.  But Isaac Newton by James Gleick is $11.99 ebook and $10.20 trade paperback – WTF?  Does that mean a mass market paperback only costs $1.64 to produce and the ebook costs $1.79 more than a trade paperback to create?  I don’t think so.

James Gleick’s newest book, The Information is $17.21 for the hardback and $12.99 for the ebook.   What Amazon is asking the reader, are you willing to pay $4.22 more to have a hardback copy, or would you just prefer to read it on your Kindle for $12.99. 

The list price of The Information is $29.95, which is probably what you’d pay at a brick and mortar store.  So the publisher probably thinks $12.99 is a great bargain for the reader, with $16.96 savings.  The author is probably thinking, at what price and royalty rate do I earn the most money.  The pricing of a book is a really hard math problem, isn’t it?

Me, I’m thinking something different.  I’m thinking:  What does it cost to read a book?   Once we enter into the world of ebooks, I’m essentially paying to read the book.  I don’t own anything.  I can’t sell my copy when I’m done with it.  I can’t lend it to a friend (even though they are working on that, but it’s not like owning a real book which I could lend over and over again).  I can’t put it on the shelf for others to admire my large library of great books.  I read the book, and more than likely, I’ll move it to archive on the Kindle, or even delete it so I have less cluttered interface to deal with.

You’d also think ebooks would be priced by the word, to take into account the cost of writing and editing the book, so that a 100,000 word book would cost twice as much as a 50,000 word book.  That doesn’t happen either.  Basically publishers are charging whatever they can get, and each has their own system for pricing.  With ebooks I think they are guessing what the demand will be, and if they think it’s high, they will raise the price accordingly – so a new ebook off the press might be priced $12.99.  But if they think they can sell more copies at the $9.99 price they sell it for that.  When demand goes way down, they will think about lowering the price.  That’s all understandable.

But ebooks is changing the habits of bookworms.  I’ve always bought lots of hardbacks, and never read many of them because I sit them on my shelf thinking one day I’ll find time to read them when I retire.  I’m just not going to do that with ebooks.  I’m going to buy just before I start reading.  I’m not even sure I could save an ebook for twenty years before I got around to reading it, but there’s just no pleasure in owning a bunch of books I can’t see.

And since I don’t feel “buying” an ebook is like “owning” a book, when I see the price at Amazon for the Kindle edition, I’m going to check the library first to see if there is a copy I can “borrow” because reading a book on the Kindle feels a whole lot like borrowing a library book – I’ll only see it as I read it.

Recently Amazon announced that they were selling more ebooks than hardback and paperback books combined.  I’m not sure the world is really ready for the implications of this.  Essentially bookstores, both news and used, are the side effect of bookworms, and not book collectors.  Real, hardcore book collectors are rare compared to the ordinary everyday bookworm that consumes books.  If we bookworms can get our reading electronically, what happens to the bookstore?  And once bookworms realize they are only paying to read a book, and get past the illusion of owning books, how they judge what a fair price is for a book will change.  I’m not sure if publishers are ready for this.

Finally, the move to ebooks is changing me in other ways.  When I shop for books now I realize I was fooling myself.  I’m not going to read all those books I bought.  I don’t really need my shelves of books because I’ve learned I’m a consumer of words, and not a collector of books.  Several times lately I went to buy a book and stopped myself, because I knew if I didn’t read the book right away there is little chance I’d read it at all.  I can’t plan for future reading because I read by what I’m hungry for at the moment.  This is also why I don’t buy ebooks when I see one I want to read.  That impulse is different from the impulse for picking a book to read right now.  With a Kindle, you can finish a book and download another and start reading immediately, and since finding books electronically is so easy, why not wait until it’s time to read the next book.

The future price of a book won’t be based on what the publisher thinks the book is worth, but on the price readers are willing to pay to read it next.

JWH – 5/24/11

12 thoughts on “What Does it Cost to Read a Book? How Ebooks will Change Book Buying Habits.”

  1. You’re so right. Getting an e-book just doesn’t satisfy the collector in me. Maybe for every ebook we get we need to make a stand in out of cardboard and put it on our bookshelf.

    But any e-book you buy is subject to the whims of the company you bought it from. You’re right you didn’t buy a copy of the book from Amazon you rented it.

    And yet I find that I am just starting to think in terms of buying more e-books because it is instant. If I know I want to read a certain book, well then I want to start it now not later. It’s my precious time worth a few extra bucks?

    You’re right bookworms like us buy many more books than we’ll ever actually read, but the problem is I’m never quite sure where my whims will take me. Maybe I’ll read that book I bought at the used book store last week tomorrow, maybe I’ll read it next year. Maybe I’ll never read it, but if it’s not sitting on my shelf there is even less of a chance I’ll read it, right?

  2. Nobody buys ebooks for status reading: the sort of things people have on their shelves but never read, in order to look smart. So I wonder if we will see a contraction in highbrow publishing, and a corresponding expansion in things like erotica. People can’t judge you based on your reading taste when all you have is an ereader.

    This question of ownership is going to have a massive impact on second-hand sales, notably in charity shops, a few years down the line. Where will they get their second-hand stock? So the cost of owning ebooks will also include the hidden cost of reducing the availability of cheap second-hand discoveries.

    1. Yes, will young men do their one handed reading with iPads? I suppose so, but then do they want their collection of 2d girls so readily available for others to see? But then do guys still buy Playboy anymore. I suppose the internet has ruined that publishing business too.

      No, I think there will always be room for quality book publishing because tablets will never be as beautiful as deluxe editions, art books, or big coffee table books.

  3. I like to own books, so even when I get a book from the library, I’ll often buy it, if I like it. But I can see the attraction of ebooks. Still, I’m not at all tempted as long as the prices of ebooks stay so high.

    Yes, there are ebooks that are cheaper, but they tend to be older books. So, often, I already own them. (If not, I can usually buy a used copy, in great condition, for even less.)

    1. I think there will always be book collectors, so physical books will never go out of existence. In fact, it might be well worth the extra money now to start buying hardbacks because they might be more valuable in the future after most sales go to ebook readers.

      But I’m realizing that there’s a difference between book collecting and book reading. And I’ve learned that I’m not a collector even though I own hundreds of hardbacks. I tend to give away the books I’ve read. I keep a few books I love that I think I’ll reread in the future, but that’s not very many. Most of the hundreds of books I own are waiting to be read.

      1. I never thought of myself as a book collector, Jim, although that’s probably accurate. But I never cared much about first editions or that sort of thing. I just like to own books.

        And I do re-read books – over and over again, often enough. One reason I like to own books is so I can browse my bookshelves like a library, finding some old favorite I haven’t read in awhile. Often, I’ll have forgotten completely about a book, though I’ll remember liking it.

        Of course, I’ve always loved books, at least since I first learned to read. Over a long lifetime, they’ve given me countless hours of pleasure. Hardcover or paperback, I still get that same feeling from holding a book. So there’s that, too.

  4. Collecting books isn’t always about first editions. People horde objects they like for whatever reason their whims inspire them.

    I think my collection of books is really “the books I wished I could read if I had more time” collection.

    Some people collect paperbacks because they love the covers. Some people collect books because they want every book on a certain subject. I recently read a book about book collectors, and it said that many collectors don’t even read the books they collect.

  5. I’m a bookworm, and I buy books because I read them over and over again, regardless of what they are. Not a single book on my bookshelf (and there are a few … hundred) has been neglected or read once and thrown aside; I buy books because they’re companions and friends, and they’ll remain so until the end of time.

    I prefer to have real books because, for me, they contain something that e-books never, EVER will: soul. Every book is different to me: my Harry Potter collection has an old forest sort of smell, whereas my Twilight collection has a sweeter smell (by my reckoning). I can identify my books by the way that smell makes me feel every time I revisit it.

    E-books don’t have that. E-books have NOTHING. They’re just meaningless words on a page. They have nothing to tie them to me, which is probably why I find it so difficult to stick with a book I’m reading virtually. Maybe it’s whimsical, childish and fanciful, but books – REAL books – hold a wonder and magic for me that e-books struggle and fail to replace with their cold, virtual existences.

    Price means very little, as bookworms should understand, because paperbacks repay us fully and some with what they give us in return: something to remember, something to cherish and something to turn to, when the rest of the world doesn’t quite understand.

    That’s why I’ll never buy into the e-book charade. And that’s why I’ll fight until the end to keep paperback sales up, even if I’m doing it single-handedly.

    1. I’m a bookworm too, and I’ve always preferred to buy hardbacks if I could. When I was 16 and earned my first paycheck back in 1967, I ordered the 12 Heinlein juveniles in hardback from the publisher. I still have them.

      I also love the feel and smell of books. But I’ve changed with the time. I sometimes buy ebooks – but I still buy hardbacks too. My guess is the ebook is going to kill off the mass market paperback, and maybe the trade edition.

      And it is sad. Digital media has changed our world. I remember when I was young and how I loved to buy and collect LP albums. The big 12″ cardboard sleeves were works of art. When music switched to CD format I never cared for their tiny covers under plastic boxes. The inserts had printing so small I seldom bother to read them. So it was easy to accept MP3 music, and now I get all my music through streaming music services – I own nothing at all.

      I have to say though, ebooks are not bad. It’s like judging a person by their looks and ignoring their soul. Ebooks are just the ghost like souls of books without bodies. With ebooks we can no longer judge a book by its cover.

      There will always be book collectors. And I think there will always be physical editions. But this is a case of not needing a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing – ebooks are here to stay.

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