Should An Ebook Ever Cost More Than A Print Book?

I’m in the middle of reading the final volume in Lev Grossman’s excellent Magicians Trilogy, The Magician’s Land.  I love it.  The trilogy as a whole has been enjoyable from start to finish, so much so that I wanted to share it with others.  I was in the midst of getting the Amazon link to the first book to share it with a Facebook group I run when I noticed this:

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Yes, you read that right: the ebook is over two dollars more expensive than the paperback version.

Now, there’s been a lot of discussion about the price of ebooks: how much they should be, what the basis of said pricing scheme is, and whether publishers were justified in charging as much as a print book.  Just google “ebook pricing” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  It’s pretty much the hot-button issue in the publishing industry right now.

I follow this stuff fairly closely, and I also buy a lot of ebooks.  I’m more than familiar with the complaints most readers have about publishers pricing ebooks too high.  Being a reader myself, I too question the motives and business acumen of publishers who often seem engaged in an experiment to see how much money readers will pay for an electronic book.

It’s obviously been a while since I’ve purchased a paper book, because after seeing the above I did a little searching around Amazon and discovered that it’s a fairly common practice, particularly when mass market paperbacks are involved.  James Patterson and Stephen King, for instance, both have multiple paperbacks on Amazon selling for less than their ebook equivalents.

Traditionally, a large publisher would release at least two main editions of a selling book: the first edition hardcover, which they would price at a premium and push for a year or so, before reprinting the book as a mass market paperback (the roughly pocket-sized, softcover books that take up most of the shelf space at your average Barnes and Noble).  Mass market paperbacks are smaller, printed on much cheaper paper (it’s not far off from newsprint), and bound with glue and cardstock.  They’re basically designed to be disposable, which is why they fall apart if you love them too hard.

This is no secret.  It’s also no secret that ebook prices have risen in step with the medium’s popularity.  But this is the first time I ever noticed an ebook priced higher than a print book.

What I find strangest about this phenomenon is the seeming inconsistency of it: traditionally, mass market paperbacks were priced lower because the cost to produce them was much lower.  The cost to produce ebooks being lower still, how and why is this happening?

The debate about the cost analysis of ebook pricing is ongoing.  Readers and skeptics argue that the production of an ebook involves far less overhead than printing a physical book, and thus publishers are unjustified in charging as much (or more) for them.  Publishers respond by claiming that ebook costs are non-trivial, and (essentially), that they’re trying to turn a profit and get off their backs already: Daddy’s gotta make that paper (pun intended).

In this context, it seems somewhat brazen for publishers to price ebooks higher than mass market paperbacks–almost as if they’re rubbing it in readers’ faces.  You wanna see overhead?  We’ll show you overhead.  Better just buy that paperback.

I’m sure that some of the pricing margin in these cases, on Amazon at least, has to do with Amazon’s discounting system and the fact that they make more from selling a Kindle ebook than a paperback they didn’t print.

But even so, it seems to me that if you’re releasing a cheap paperback version, it’s time to drop the ebook price down to at least match it.  Even for someone who reads almost entirely digitally these days, paying more for an intangible digital file than for an actual physical object containing the exact same information seems illogical.

But what do you think?  Do you agree, disagree?  What am I missing?

Apple v. FBI

I wrote a Tweety thing about Apple and the FBI.

Snowy Treefingers

I put on the Barbour and the Bean Boots this morning* and took the family on a ride through Hamilton and Wenham, two quaint, rural towns nearby our house, stopping to get out from time to time to snap photos.

Hamilton-Wenham is full of colonial houses and small farms–it’s the epitome of quaint New England countryside, in other words, but you can see it without driving all the way to Vermont.  Most of the property is privately owned, but there are several farms open to the public and a few trailheads if you know where to look.

One of my wife’s books is set in Hamilton (you can read it for free on Wattpad).  We went with the intention of photographing the area as inspiration for the next book in the series as well as to capture some of the historic homes for a friend.  I mostly ended up taking landscapes, however: yesterday’s snowstorm clung to the trees quite beautifully.

* I realize this sentence makes me sound like an ass.  Nonetheless, I love that damn jacket, and the boots have lasted me a decade already with no sign of needing replacement.

A Few Words on Defeatism

There’s a lot of defeatist thought making the rounds in the Democratic Party right now.  Articles like this one, talking about why Bernie Sanders couldn’t be an effective president, are par for the course among Hillary Clinton supporters.  Just google “Sanders Clinton pragmatist idealist” or some variation thereof and start reading.  The dichotomy is hardly new, and while it’s arguably accurate, it’s also not the whole story.

When did we, as a nation, decide that idealism was a silly idea?  When did pragmatism become the new standard?  You could date it to the recent era of politics extremes, I suppose, an era in which the left and the right are so diametrically opposed that certain people believe only a person prepared to compromise their ideals and settle for iterative change is capable of leading this country.  I get the argument.  Bernie’s a pie in the sky dreamer, while Hillary’s a down to earth doer.  He is the rebellious teenager to her jaded adult.  We’ve heard it all before.

The thing is, it’s all bullshit.

Buying into the notion that sweeping change is impossible and therefore not worth fighting for is fatalism at its worst.  It’s a pessimistic attitude put forward by people who long ago lost their desire to change the world.  There’s a reason why Hillary Clinton is supported primarily by Baby Boomers: she represents the failed opportunity that defines their generation.  Pragmatism is a philosophy of failure, a belief system taken up by people who have given up on an ideal.  The fact that it occasionally gets things done is illusory, a straw man, because it’s pragmatism itself that clogs up the system.

The vast majority of young people in the United States want the sweeping change that Bernie Sanders is talking about.  They want equal rights for all, universal health care, and free education.  They want justice for special interests and the big banks.  They want a redistribution of income and an economy based on morality first and profit second.  They want a government free from the corrupting influence of organized religion.  They want to escape the anxious shadow of their parents’ generation, to step outside of their failure and start fresh.

Pragmatists argue that since idealistic pursuits are more difficult to realize, we shouldn’t bother to try.  That despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act was a band-aid on a bullet wound, we should be grateful for what we’ve got, because it was really hard to get it passed.  I call bullshit.

This is exactly the same argument that led to bailing out Wall Street after the Great Recession.  It was pragmatists, like Hillary Clinton, who supported the bailout because the firms in question were too big to fail.  Never mind the fact that the crash was the direct result of their reckless speculation.  Letting them fail was too dangerous, the pragmatics said.  Everyone would suffer.  How did that work out?  The economic recovery has been dismally slow, and absolutely nothing has changed on Wall Street.  Compare that to Iceland, which let its banks fail, and which is now on a path to two percent unemployment.

The analogous move with the ACA would have been to refuse to make compromises: to make it actual public healthcare, not a flawed marketplace that does little more than make private health insurance more widely available.  That may have meant it wouldn’t have passed at first.  So be it.

Let those who would oppose progress oppose it, and let the chips fall where they may.  Let history decide who was to blame.  Perhaps counterintuitively, I think you’d find that far from delaying progress, it will encourage it, encourage greater participation and a more deeply shared need to create change.

Sometimes half-measures are worse than no measures at all.  If the change that’s right seems impossible, it just means you have to fight harder and longer, a concept Bernie Sanders clearly understands: he’s been doing it his entire life.

Pragmatism is the death knell of progress.  Idealism is its vanguard.