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The Great E-Book Con(troversy)

June 13, 2012

The debate of the moment amongst tabletop gamers, but one that resounds into all fields of reading matter, is the pricing of e-books. There are some e-books out there that offer great value and you can even discover some wonderful freebies out there, in particular out-of-print books that can sometimes be hard to get hold of in print form. But, then, there are those e-books that are ridiculously expensive – where the e-book is close to, the same as, or even, in a few cases, more than the print copy’s price.

The majority of readers agree that, whatever the conveniences of being about to store a library on a kindle, e-books are generally inferior to print copies in a lot of ways and, thus, not worth paying as much for. There are some exceptions; for example, a properly book-marked and well-laid-out pdf can be very userfriendly for a gamer at the table and, given the effort that goes into making it work so well, is well worth a ‘regular’ asking price for those who will make use of it. But, few e-books are the sort that could offer such benefits and even fewer that could actually do, meaning that the asking price is more than most are happy with.

An argument has been advanced that when you buy an e-book, you are not buying a physical product but an idea. There might be no paper and ink involved, but there is a valuable intellectual property in digital form that took time and effort to invent, type and layout. I don’t disagree with that basic argument and, as already mentioned, it is certainly a persuasive one when a product has been properly designed to make full use of the e-book format. And, I certainly agree that it is a good thing for authors to profit from their work if possible to reward the effort they have put in and to encourage future creation. Even though many writers and artists would, indeed do, create regardless of remuneration for their effort, I do not believe that they should be denied monetary reward as a matter of course. Even in the small presses, where payment in cash  is uncommon, payment in kind with a complimentary copy is common.

But, there is a problem with the intellectual property argument when it comes to justifying high prices (rather than justifying there being a price generally). For years, the price of books, especially those in niches, such as gaming and academic subjects, that didn’t sell so well, was justified in rising by claims of the high price of materials exacerbated by short print runs. Only, if the book is released in electronic format, those overheads vanish and the price drops – and, in many cases, it does. Yet, it doesn’t always – and, when it doesn’t, an argument based on effort and intangibles is advanced in place of production costs, and that just does not wash. Physical books incorporate the same amount of effort to create and the same intellectual ideas as e-books, yet their high prices were predicated upon production costs. Now, those same publishers who defended their rises on the basis of such costs are making totally different claims about what they base their costs upon.

If publishers were being honest, we would probably discover that the reason for the prices not coming down is that certain e-books are subsidising print books. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but not honest nor sensible. In some cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if the publishers didn’t really have a clue what it costs them to produce anything and are just pulling prices out of the air and hoping that they will make a profit. Others, though, are inflating their prices to make more money – probably not a lot of money, but more nonetheless.

Whatever the truth, until e-books are priced at a level that reflects the lack of a physical copy, with all the limitations that implies, or publishers ensure that their e-books take full advantage of the format, many readers will shun them and the alternative uses that they allow. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing as far as the future of publishing goes is something that cannot be answered for a long time to come….

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