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.



Alternatives to Amazon

I admit it. Amazon is my primary source for e-books. And they are often my go-to source for print books I want to get in a hurry or can’t otherwise find. Yet Amazon’s dispute with Hachette has left many of us uneasy if for no other reason than Amazon can dictate terms and exclude titles simply because it can without fear of losing its competitive edge. There is simply no one like them.

A recent article in Publisher’s Weekly notes how Macmillan Publishers alerted me that many publishers are now making their frontlist titles available immediately to libraries in ebook form for lending. Many are doing this through the Overdrive app, forms of which exist for IPads and I phones, Android devices, Windows computers and phones (XP or newer) and newer Kindles and Nooks. You also need a library card with your local library, which is the license holder for each title (typical arrangements seem to be for 52 withdrawals per license per two years).

In many ways this makes sense since you do not really own the ebooks you download from Amazon. The money you pay rents the title from them. Frankly, if you are supporting your local library through taxes you might as well get your money’s worth and use this service. And the truth is, I often remove books from my device once I read them (the Amazon ones are stored in their ‘cloud’ so that I can download them again should I wish). With ebooks borrowed from the library, they are automatically returned on their due dates and removed from your device.

There are also a variety of other sources, particularly for free ebooks (usually public domain). Project Gutenberg is the granddaddy of these and has many books in a variety of eformats. There is also (the Internet Archive) and the Open Library, just to name a few. In some cases, you may need to learn to download books to a computer and then transfer files to an e-reader. If you care about keeping your books or not facing DRM restrictions in moving them from one device to another, some publishers are also making DRM-free books available for purchase. InterVarsity Press, the publisher associated with the campus ministry organization I work with is one of these.

Of course the question always arises of print vs. ebook. Having used both formats for a couple years now I am coming to the conclusion that the easiest way to think about this is that ebook is best if I know I don’t want to keep a book after I’ve read it. If it is something I want to keep and particularly to reference, then a print book seems better. This raises the question of why, apart from urgent need, would I pay for a book I’m not going to keep and don’t really own? Library or free options of ebooks, or print books from the library just seem to make the most sense in this case.

What this also suggests to me is that, with some thought, I can then dedicate more of my book-buying budget to supporting brick and mortar stores for most of my purchases, particularly to those who actually care about developing relationships with their customers. Sure, it takes more time, but the delights of a good bookstore can never be equalled on a website, and the serendipitous finds one makes can never be duplicated by Amazon’s heuristics generating book recommendations for me.

(Some of you may be wondering about Amazon’s new $9.99 per month unlimited ebook borrowing program. My son wrote a good blog post on this that I would recommend. Enjoy!)