Thursday, September 05, 2013

how much for that terrifying arctic adventure? I'll take two.

What is the Value of an e-book?

That literary troublemaker, Sean Cranbury, over at Books on the Radio (check out the site and the audio - great stuff) posted something on Facebook that got me thinking. It was a rumination on libraries and the pricing structure around e-books. Cory Doctorow was the ruminator.

Let me state right up front that I agree with Doctorow that libraries are awesome. Books are also awesome.

On the other hand, just because I like both libraries and the books they collect and circulate, it does not follow that I think the writers of books and the publishers of books should let libraries do whatever they want with books, for free. If I believed that, I wouldn't right now be working for an organization that is a named plaintiff in a legal fight with a bunch of libraries. We at The Writers' Union of Canada joined that important legal case because we believe writers should have a say when public institutions and for-profit companies start making decisions about our property.

I'll get back to why I think libraries need to concern themselves with the rights and wishes of authors and publishers a bit later. For now, let's stay with price. It seems to me Cranbury's main concern is that the e-book as a thing is simply not that valuable. In other words, is an electronic file of a book actually worth the price some publishers are charging libraries? This is an interesting question.

A physical book is a tangible object and, therefore, it's not so abstract an exercise to assign price to it. The book's "thingness" makes it relatively comparable to other things. That vase for which I paid $50 gives me aesthetic pleasure and I will keep and use it for twenty years or more (hopefully, if I don't break it on the way home from the store, which I have done with vases, twice dammit). That trade paperback for which I paid $20 gives me both aesthetic and intellectual pleasure. I will keep it forever, lovingly displayed on my bookshelves, and I will also lend it to good friends and family members. For the most part, it’s harder to break a trade paperback than a vase. Compared to the vase, the book is an excellent value.

An e-book can neither be displayed nor easily lent (though I do manage to lend my e-books within my family all the time, simply by lending the device with it - I read a physical book while waiting for the device to come back). E-books lack so much of the aesthetic thingness of their physical counterparts - no heft, no smell, no feel. I totally understand that in a straight comparison of things, it may seem like an e-book is not worth anywhere near as much as a vase, or even a real book.

Book: The Experience

So let's stop judging e-books as physical objects. Instead let's use more accurate criteria for comparison. An e-book is not so much a thing as it is an experience, like going to a movie.

As with a movie at the local cinema, we pay for the content, but really only in so far as the content makes its way into our consciousness. E-books are valuable in the reading of them, just as movies in the cinema are valuable in the watching of them. When we walk out of a cinema we have nothing tangible in exchange for our ticket money. Nothing. Yet millions of us happily pay ever increasing ticket prices for this nothing.

Is the movie worth the $12-$15 price (plus whatever insane price for a bag of popcorn and a drink)? That really is a question only the watcher can answer. I took my kids to see Despicable Me 2 at a rustic old drive-in this summer. Total admission cost for our carload - $16 (snacks, probably another $20). Total experience time - 2 hours, including driving to and from. Do I own Despicable Me 2? No, I do not, and I won't own a DVD copy, ever. Was it worth it? The evening with the kids was so much fun, but that has almost nothing to do with the thingness of the movie Despicable Me 2 (Steve Carell? Hilarious. The plot? Meh). A bit pricey, but better than if we'd gone to a regular cinema.

Let's compare that to a recent e-book experience I had on my Kobo. I purchased Fatal Passage by the excellent Canadian writer Ken McGoogan. Fatal Passage is the story of arctic explorer John Rae, a man of seemingly superhuman strength and endurance, who discovered the fate of the Franklin Expedition and paid dearly in reputation and honour for his discovery. Total cost for the experience - $9.99. Total experience time - probably 10 hours of rapt reading (I don't skim, plus I look at footnotes), and 4 fantastic hours discussing, referring to, and re-reading passages from the book with my wife, my kids, and with a group of friends on a camping trip.

Do I own Fatal Passage? Why yes, I continue to own the e-book copy I purchased. I can lend my Kobo device to my wife or kids (or anyone, for that matter) so they can read the book, and I could re-read it at the same time on my iPhone. Was it worth it? As experiences go, it was the bargain of the summer. I guarantee I will remember McGoogan's book long after every last remnant of Despicable Me 2 has left my brain.

Back to the Library

So, let's say there is a pricing structure that demands a public library pay more than the $10 I paid for Fatal Passage. Let's even take that price as high as $100 (I don't know if this price actually exists anywhere but let's make it the extreme case). This is what would be called "institutional pricing," and it exists because the use expectations of an institution are considerably different from the use expectations of an individual consumer. Realistically, my electronic copy of Fatal Passage will be used far fewer times than a single library's electronic copy of Fatal Passage. Far fewer people have borrowing access to my books than to the books at the library.

Let's say the ratio is about a hundred to one. For every one person that will access and use my electronic copy of Fatal Passage during its lifetime in my possession, one hundred people will access and use the electronic copy owned by the Toronto Public Library. Personally, I think the book is so damned good that I am way underestimating the library demand for it, but let's stick with 100:1.

If my single experience of the Fatal Passage e-book was a super bargain at $10, what does that mean about each TPL patron's experience of the book? We're talking about $1000 of experiential value for (at the most extreme possible price) $100. That's a discount of $900. Since it is extremely unlikely any library was asked to pay $100 for an electronic copy of this book, the experiential value discount only deepens in the real world. 

There is another word for this discount - subsidy. Publishers and writers do indeed love libraries. We think librarians are some of the greatest, most knowledgeable advocates for our work. They may even be, as Doctorow suggests in his article, the new front-line salespeople for literature. It is because writers and publishers value libraries in this way that our industry agrees to provide such a magnificent experiential value subsidy to them.

Doctorow mentions twice that libraries have suffered in "the age of austerity," and that seems hard to dispute. Most public services have been financially constrained of late. But libraries exist because of a balance of subsidy – both public and private. Money, in either cash or discount pays for the bricks and mortar, the collections, the information systems and salaries. It's important to keep in mind that neither publishers nor writers have decreased our subsidy to libraries. If, in the age of austerity, the balance of subsidy has been thrown off for libraries by decreases on the public side, it hardly seems sustainable or fair to expect writers and publishers to take up the slack. After all, we’re paying cash for our own bricks and mortar, information systems and salaries, and without those things, there wouldn’t be much if any book production.

Summing Up

1.      Books are both things and experiences.

2.      E-books are primarily experiences.

3.      Experiences have value, and value comes at a price.

4.      The price for the book experience (both print and electronic) is, in my opinion, a bargain.

5.      Libraries can provide the book experience mostly for free (fines excluded).

6.      Writers and publishers provide a huge subsidy to libraries so they can provide the book experience mostly for free.

7.      Neither writers nor publishers caused “the age of austerity.”

8.      Give us a break.

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(image courtesy Ken McGoogan, HarperCollins Canada and Kobo)

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