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Ebooks Are Apples, Books Are Oranges
This is a follow-up to Ali's Ebooks: Overpriced or Underrated. I've been meaning to write this for a while and her post catalyzed that intention into action.
Many people make blanket comparisons between the price and value of books to ebooks. Usually, ebooks lose in the comparison because books are longer, cheaper, and written by recognized experts, whereas ebooks are shorter, more expensive, and written by people who may not be recognized experts. However, I've learned that it's best to think of the two mediums of content as being in entirely different economic structures. Ali touched on the economic structure that ebooks belong to, so I'd like to cover the economic structure of physical books.
What we often don't think about when it comes to books is that there's a whole marketing and publishing engine behind them. This engine is designed to a) make the cost of creating books as cheap as possible, b) ensure that books are sold in very high volume, and c) maximize profit for the publisher. You'll note that the author's interests don't factor highly into this equation, as the typical publishing process put most of the power in the relationship in the publisher's hands.
That said, many authors have careers that support their writing or their books are strategic chips in career-building. For instance, academic authors have their writing subsidized by taxpayers or donors in the case of private schools. Authors who write in their free time have jobs that put food on the table. And business writers often have business ventures that are funding the development of the book, either directly in the case where they're giving workshops that they know will turn into books or indirectly via to the experience their getting from the field.
Most authors will tell you that you don't write books to make money - it's just not lucrative enough when you think about the time, energy, and attention involved. I know this because I've now talked to a lot of book authors about my own potential books and have worked with many authors as clients or friends. The truth of it is that many authors make their money by speaking. Ironic, no?
My point here is that books can be priced the way they are because they are the product of a massive production engine designed to maximize profit for the publisher, not the author. If authors depended on the books to make a living, we'd see an entirely different price structure and economy. (There are outliers to this, of course.)
So, when you buy a physical book, it's best to realize that you are directly supporting the publisher and only indirectly supporting the author. As a contrast, many ebook publishers do depend on the revenue from their products to put food on the table, and the pricing of said products need to reflect that. Having created low-cost products myself, I can tell you that I'd be working a dayjob if they were the only thing generating business revenue.
Comparing books to ebooks is a comparison between apples and oranges. Having the same value and price expectations between the two over-simplifies the entirely different economic structures that support the creation of the two different types of products.
Now, just because they are from different economic structures doesn't justify laissez-faire pricing on information products. Pricing an ebook at $397 banking on the fact that a few people will be desperate or motivated enough to buy it isn't something I believe in or am advocating here. All I'm saying is that railing against a $47 or $97 ebook by comparing it to a $24.95 book overlooks the submerged iceberg of context while focusing on the very small tip.