The value of books

By Martin Vogel

The value of books
There are some revealing quotes from the publishing industry in this Guardian piece on Amazon’s struggle with publishers over the pricing of ebooks.

Amazon is appealing to customers to “vote with their purchases” against publishers who insist on an agency model, whereby the publishers set the price of books rather than let retailers introduce discounts.

Publishers are understandably alarmed at the threat to their revenue streams that ebooks represent.

The piece quotes Tom Weldon of Penguin as saying:

“Our first and foremost concern is that we protect the value of our authors’ books”.

Tom Holland of the Society of Authors says:

“Ebooks are only starting to penetrate the market now. If it gets written in stone that prices are low, that is what the public will expect from now on. The risk is that the book, which has been traditionally a high-prestige object, will be permanently devalued. Publishers are right to try to protect the value of their brand.

Publishers argue that a large proportion of their costs is unrelated to the physical business of printing and distributing physical books. There are advances to be paid to authors, marketing costs, and so on. But they seem to be displaying the same inability to see things from the consumer’s point of view that did for the music business.

Books and ebooks are not equivalent value propositions. It may be stretching the point to say that a book “has been traditionally a high-prestige object”.  But the value one purchases with a book is tied up with the right of ownership that comes with it. You can lend it to friends. You can impress visitors to your home by displaying your book collection in prominent places. You can photocopy sections that you might want to share with others. Or, once you have finished with it, you can give a book to a charity shop so that the residing value can subsidise good works.

Ebooks offer none of these advantages. They are tremendously convenient, offer instant gratification and – depending on your choice of device – can be read in the dark. But, because of the onerous digital rights management imposed by publishers, all one is buying is the right to read the text.

Buying an ebook is about as far from owning a high-prestige object as it is possible to imagine. The experience feels to me more like renting a DVD, except you can’t even share an ebook easily with someone in your own household. Why would anyone pay a premium price for that?

Amazon’s customers won’t need much persuading to vote with their purchases.

Image courtesy Christian Guthier.