Are Books Too Expensive?

By Steve Jurvetson (Flickr: Bezos’ Iconic Laugh) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Steve Jurvetson (Flickr: Bezos’ Iconic Laugh) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO thinks so. In a Business Insider story this week, Bezos argued that $30 is too expensive a price to pay for a book that is competing with content that includes not only other books but also blogs, video games and phone apps that are either free or cost far less.

This was one of the issues behind Amazon’s recently resolved conflict with Hachette. The pricing of e-books on Amazon’s Kindle has driven this push for low price points.

I find myself torn as I consider this. I totally get Bezos’ article as a consumer. I almost never pay anything close to $30 for a single book, unless it is an expensive reference text. The other night, we walked out of Half Price Books with four books and a CD that we purchased for about $20. I also recently sold a huge box of books back to these folks and netted $12. Both what I paid and what they paid me gives a truer idea of the value of a book on the market. You think cars depreciate when you take them off the lot? That’s nothing compared to books!

Now I realize that this isn’t the whole picture in terms of the worth of a book. There are physical books that we like to keep, especially those to which we return again and again over our lives. Sometimes, the illustrations and typography in a physical book, even the feel of the paper and cover justify the expense. But is that the case with the latest Janet Evanovich or John Grisham thriller? Most people read them and get rid of them, unless they are thrifty enough to borrow them from the library. These are ideal Kindle books at a low price point–you can read and archive them without them taking up any physical space and without the bother of returning or giving  or selling them.

Where I’m still torn is when I consider the role publishers and their editors can play in identifying and improving and marketing a good book. Already, writers and their agents are absorbing an increasing burden of the marketing. Editing is being outsourced to freelancers, some who might be quite good. All of these cost money and the only way to recover that cost is in the book. What I wonder is what the effect all this will have on quality? Will lower prices mean lower quality?

What I do see is that many good older works are available in e-book format at bargain prices, at least from time to time. Many of these disappear from the shelves of book stores and e-publishing and lower prices give these books a second life, and perhaps some additional revenue to the author and publisher they might not have otherwise enjoyed. Bezos’ Amazon has also allowed self-published authors to get their work out, some with considerable success who could never get their books published or had contracts with publishers where they received little or nothing. A good account of this can be found in a recent Salon article that consists of a dialogue between Rob Spillman, a Salon writer critical of Amazon and Joe Konrath, a self-published author who attributes his success to Amazon.

One upshot of all of this, I believe, is that one way or another the cost of quality will be off-loaded to the author and not all will be willing or able to meet this cost. I do think we will see more poorly edited books and those that are badly formatted for e-publication. I also wonder whether some great writers will get overlooked or discouraged because great writing and the entrepreneurial skills to get published and seen may not come in the same person. Even the self-published route has its costs as this PBS story shows.

My hunch is that quality isn’t a big concern either in the industry or for consumers. Rather, it is a matter of finding a page-turner, fiction or non-fiction, that will be a mental diversion when I don’t want to watch a video or play a game. Niche, indie, and academic publishers will still care about quality while struggling to survive. I do hope we will continue to see new authors of quality whose work is served well by the editing, typography, and layout of the book, whether in print or e-book. I can’t help but think that for this, we may need to be willing to pay more, even the $30 Bezos suggests is too much.



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