Saturday, 26 May 2012

What should ebooks cost?

This week, a major publisher released a new novel by a popular and acclaimed science-fiction writer. Although the author is one I admire, and the book is one that I’m certain that I’ll eventually read, the aspect of the release that I found most interesting was the commentary it sparked on social media about the price of its ebook edition. It’s left me with some questions about how people perceive the price of ebooks. I’ll also confine these comments and questions to books as texts, rather than books as collectibles, because I think these are completely different markets. (And yes, I’m a book collector too).

I’m not going to refer to the book in question specifically, because it’s really not important. What’s important here is the price, which was set the same by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble:

hardback (full list price):$25.99
hardback (discount price):$15.63
ebook (for Kindle or Nook):$12.99? $18.14?

There was some uncertainty about the actual price of the Kindle edition, which seemed to display differently to different people on different pages on Amazon. That doesn’t matter. For now, let’s accept that the ebook cost $18.14—that is, $2.51 more expensive than the heavily discounted hardback edition (sans postage, but let’s ignore that too for now).

Two generally supported beliefs seemed to emerge in response to this:
  • $18.00 is unreasonably expensive for an ebook
  • ebooks should never cost more than their equivalent paper editions
Each of these opinions surprised me.

Here in Australia, new-release paperback fiction titles typically retail at between $20 and $30. Clearly, people buy books at these prices (although I don’t know whether anyone participating in the social media discussions is among them). This made me wonder whether there’s something about ebooks specifically that makes them less valuable to some people than paper books.

To me, the reverse is true. An e-ink screen is now my preferred medium for consuming narrative text, and a hard drive is my preferred medium for storing it long-term. So, to me, the ebook is actually more valuable than the paper edition of the book; which in turn means that I’m prepared to pay the same for the ebook, and if anything, even more. 

What I’d like to know:

  • If you think that $18 is too expensive for an ebook, would you pay that amount for the paper edition of the same title? 
  • If so: what’s the biggest gap that you would tolerate between the ebook and paper book? 
  • And what makes the paper edition more valuable to you than the ebook edition?
I suspect that these opinions must be, to some extent, based on the belief that the ebook must cost considerably less to produce and that the publisher is somehow obliged to pass these savings on to the consumer. However, the best figures I’ve been able to find so far suggest that for an American hardback with a list price of around $30, printing, binding and distribution costs account for only something like $3.50.1 In other words, the ebook is only slightly cheaper to produce and distribute, and with gross retail margins in the vicinity of 50%, a hardcover discounted by Amazon from $25.99 to $15.63 looks like a loss leader to me. Is the price structure for this title so surprising then?

Finally, the most disquieting thing about the discussion of this book’s price were the various suggestions that the perceived high price somehow made pirating the title acceptable if you wanted to read it.  

Really? I get that if someone is selling something—anything—at a price greater than you’re willing or able to pay for it, you’re going to walk away and not buy that thing. What I don’t get is how it then becomes acceptable to just help yourself to something to which you’re in no way entitled. Maybe someone can explain that to me.

Comments on any or all of the above are most welcome.

1Levine, Robert. (2011). Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. New York; Doubleday. p.166. I also found a secondary reference to an article in Money magazine from around March 2009 with a breakdown of the publishing costs of a then-current bestseller, with figures that agree well with Levine’s. I haven’t succeeded in tracking down the original article though, so I can't be sure that the sources are independent of each other.

    Saturday, 5 May 2012

    Jupiter-ho! explore strange, new worlds; to seek out new life...

    I think that the most exciting news of this week was the European Space Agency (ESA) announcing a new robotic mission to explore three of Jupiter’s largest moons: Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa. Named JUICE (for Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer), the probe is scheduled to launch in 2022, and after a 7½-year journey, will spend 3½ years studying these distant worlds.

    Artist’s impression of JUICE.
    The design of the probe is not
    yet finalised.
    Image copyright: ESA, used
    here for educational and
    informational purposes, in
    agreement with their terms.

    In particular, JUICE will examine Jupiter’s moons from the perspective of determining whether such worlds are capable of supporting life—or perhaps already do. Data returned by previous space probes that visited Jupiter (the two Voyager probes, and Galileo) suggests that these moons have large amounts of liquid water under their frozen surfaces: vast subterranean oceans. Although they are far from the Sun’s light and heat, Jupiter’s immense gravity and radiation belts provide energy for these worldlets.

    Could life exist in such places? Might it already? A better understanding of these three moons will help us answer these questions: questions that are more compelling today than ever, for two reasons.

    First, the discovery of deep-sea ecosystems in 1977 has forced us to think more broadly about what conditions might support life. Clustered around volcanic vents on the ocean floor, intricate communities of life forms exist in a completely sunless realm. It turns out that forms of energy other than sunlight can power even complex organisms.

    Second, in 1988, the only planets that we knew to exist were those of our own solar system. Since then, nearly 800 worlds have been discovered around other stars, many of them “gas giants” like Jupiter. So far, we know for absolutely certain that life might exist on rocky worlds with large amounts of liquid water on their surfaces. Knowing whether the conditions are right for life on Jupiter’s icy moons would provide us with another environment in which to search for life around other stars.

    If the recent probe into Lake Vostok—3.7 km under Antarctica—reveals life there too, the questions become more compelling still. Lake Vostok is perhaps the environment on Earth most like these moons of Jupiter.

    When the Voyager probes departed, the existence of deep-sea ecologies was brand-new knowledge. When Galileo departed, the existence of planets around other stars was brand-new knowledge. Human understanding of life is deepening and broadening significantly, even within our own lifetimes. Learning is building on learning.

    In the meantime, science-fiction authors have wasted no time in speculating about what kinds of life might inhabit these moons. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two portrays primitive life on Europa, and I recently enjoyed a novella called “The Frozen Sky” by Jeff Carlson with quite a different portrayal. Such tales only make me more excited to learn what the truth might eventually be determined to be.

    Wonder awaits us!

    Author’s note:
    I wrote this piece in part as a reply to a comment I read on Twitter this week:
    The European Space Agency has approved a mission to Jupiter's moons to check for fish there. Which will give us something else to kill.
    I find this kind of cynicism and pessimism really disappointing and frustrating. We are living in one of the most exciting periods of human history: the generation in which we have learned that our solar system is far from unique in the cosmos. The best is truly yet to come, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

    If you feel the same way, you might enjoy Annalee Newitz’s article about Neal Stephenson’s Heiroglyph project, “Dear Science Fiction Writers: Stop Being So Pessimistic!” in the April 2012 edition of the Smithsonian magazine.