The Value of E-Books

In Monday’s issue of Time’s Corner, I asked my readers this question: What are ebooks worth to you? What are your ebook reading practices? The replies not only included a broad spectrum of reading practices, they also contained a variety of opinions on the value of ebooks. I decided to focus on the former category in today’s Thursday Thread. The latter is included here.

In my mind, ebooks should always be cheaper than a new hard copy — there is no iterative cost to an ebook, and they have the drawback of being not only a non-transferrable purchase but also being technically only licensed to me and not owned by me. In practice, I’m usually willing to pay about 10% of the print price for an ebook. I started to say I would pay up to $5, but if the book is only $10 in print, I wouldn’t pay more than maybe $1 or $2 before I just bit the bullet and bought a new or used copy. But if I see an ebook listed for more than $5, I almost immediately dismiss it; it would have to be a very expensive book, like Frisardi’s translation of the Convivio which cannot be had for less than $125, before I would consider paying a double-digit price for the ebook.  


Regarding value: publishers are going to charge whatever is the most they can get without losing significant sales numbers, not listen to this logic, but [ebooks] should cost the hard cover price, minus whatever percent of that price represents the physical production of the book.


ebooks are worth a lot, depending on the content. ebooks are products, just like books. they’re digital, which is (i think) the crux of this discussion, and people are still deciding if they like paying for digital things. however, placing worth on something because you can touch it is the wrong way to think about worth.

worth has to do with output compared to input. you pay for spotify because the enjoyment you get from listening to music is worth $10/mo to you; you pay for a car because the usefulness of a car is worth $10K or $200/mo. cost ultimately comes down to how much people will pay for the product, so the question of worth comes down to whether or not the output justifies the (cost and time) input.

books (e- or not) have two potential outputs: enjoyment and ideas. if you’ll get $500 worth of ideas out of a book, then it should be worth up to $499. if you get 8 hours of enjoyment out of a book, the amount you’re willing to pay for it should depend on how much you value your leisure time. it’s important to keep in mind that a book’s output isn’t binary: you’ll get ideas and enjoyment, and you should factor in both.

i suppose this stance begs a few questions, so i’ll try to address some counter-arguments at a high level:

1. yes, there are counter examples. some books shouldn’t be ebooks, and i suppose some people shouldn’t buy ebooks.

2. maybe different people should pay different amounts for the same book. maybe there should be a variable cost, or a pay-what-you-want model for books. some people will get more value out of a book than others, and maybe those people should be able to recognize the value and compensate the author for it.

3. no, i probably wouldn’t pay $500 for a book, but i have paid that much for what is essentially an ebook because i believe i will get at least that much value out of it over the next several years.


To me, one of the main reasons why ebooks are worth less is because they tend to have copy-protection software, so there’s no guarantee that they’ll even work in 5 or 10 years. My physical books will be good for the rest of my life, and in some cases probably my kids’ lives.

The “they don’t use paper” argument doesn’t make much sense to me. My willingness to pay for a book is determined by how much value I get out of it, not how much it cost to produce. If you printed Pride and Prejudice with one word per page, I wouldn’t suddenly be willing to pay $500 for it because it used so much paper. Conversely, I am sometimes willing to pay more for an audio book than a physical book, because I have much more time in my day for listening than for reading. An audiobook download also doesn’t require paper, but since it’s more useful to me, I’m willing to pay more for it (though if I can get it for free via Hoopla or Libby, I will definitely take that!).


A Man Smudges Productively

Austin Kleon writes about chalkboards, quoting this NYT article:

In many fields of science and investigation, blackboards have been replaced with whiteboards or slide show presentations. But chalk is cheaper and biodegradable. It smells better than whiteboard markers and is easier to clean up, mathematicians say. It is also more fun to write with.

One of the chalkophiles he cites says that “the value [of chalk] is in using it up.” This is one reason I love using wooden pencils. Yes, you have to sharpen them, but you get to measure your work against the diminishing length. Empty pens, too, give me the same satisfaction.

Austin’s post reminded me of this NHPR story (that’s New Hampshire Public Radio) about why mathematicians love using chalkboards. Here are a few of the juicier quotes.

On the sound chalk makes on the chalkboard:

It’s much louder than any other writing implement would be. And as a result it’s much harder to interrupt somebody who’s writing on a blackboard. So if you’re up there, it’s like there’s this noise that keeps you from saying “Wait a minute! What about this?” whereas if you’re writing with a marker on a whiteboard, it’s easier to interrupt. This actually leads to longer flow of thoughts, which is important in mathematics; you’re not breaking it up as much. So that’s one possibility.

On the size of the writing:

You have to write big. Easier to see. But also it means you can fit fewer character on, you have to be more concise. And frankly, conciseness is what mathematics is. Mathematics is distilling information down to the minimum amount of characters. That’s really the essence of it. So that contributes to it.

On “productive smudging”:

Another thing he talked about that’s actually useful, and this is my favorite one, he said that blackboards smudge productively, which is just a great line. You know, you’re writing on a blackboard and oops, you make a mistake, you can rub it out with your hand, or you rub it out with an eraser. And it’s really easy to do. But it’s really hard to do it completely. You can’t get rid of it entirely. There’s always a little bit of a smudge and you write over it. And I’ve always thought that was a bad thing. And he argues that for mathematics, and particularly mathematics research, it’s a good thing because a lot of math research involves taking existing concepts and applying them in new ways. And so if you’ve written an existing equation everybody’s familiar with and then rubbed out a part of it and written something new over it, there is a visual sign that you have taken an existing concept and tweaked it, which is sort of like a reminder to the people in the audience that this is how you approach it. This is not some new thing you’ve brought down from on high, it’s an alteration of an existing one.

A Green Man

[Edit – I’ve actually finished this book now. I found this short post sitting in my drafts folder, so I’m Frankensteining it.]

I’m partway through Roger Deakin’s (not the cinematographer) book Wildwood, and I’m finding it almost exactly what I hoped: meditations on trees that vary from detailed (a whole chapter on ash) to general (living in houses made entirely from wood).

Random thoughts:

  • Wood is a bridge between man and metal. Knives have wooden handles. Guns have wooden stocks. The once-living connects the living and the dead.
  • David Nash, sculptor: three-dimensional art (sculpture, for instance) is experienced in relation to the human body, two-dimensional art is experienced more in the imagination. Also, objects increase in size when put indoors and decrease in size when put outdoors by a factor of about one-third.
  • Lots of interesting thoughts from Barthes and Ruskin on architecture and technology. Barthes: cars are the modern-day Gothic cathedral. They are almost mystical in their summation of our culture.
  • A bunch of crazy words: juglone, thwmps, bothy.

A Man’s Power Over Nature

Let us consider three typical examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peace-time, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature. If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man. Any or all of the three things I have mentioned can be withheld from some men by other men—by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production, or those who make the goods. What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their recurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

~CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pp. 68-69


TV Assures a Man it is Entirely Harmless

Everybody knows that TV is mostly false and stupid, that almost no one pays that much attention to it—and yet it’s on for over seven hours a day in the average household, and it sells innumerable products. In other words, TV manages to do its job even as it only yammers in the background, despised by those who keep it going. TV begins by offering us a beautiful hallucination of diversity, but it is finally like a drug whose high is only the conviction that its user is too cool to be addicted.

~Mark Crispin Miller, excerpted in Harper’s in 1986

A Man Likes to Repeat Himself

W. H Auden’s biographer, Edward Mendelson, wrote,

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

According to Mendelson, we moderns are hopeless romantics, allergic to repetition. How would marketing departments across the country feel to learn that their promises to constantly innovate are nothing more than romantic puffs?

Combined with this overweening optimism is the worship of the new. Our culture is addicted to novelty. In the days of Shakespeare, “innovation” meant the same thing as “confusion.” Those who constantly upended the past were dangerous, out of their minds. Now, of course, we are so hyper-aware that others may have something or know something that we don’t, we race to adopt new fashions, electronics, attitudes. We have convinced ourselves that keeping up with the New is our civic duty. And if we meet someone who doesn’t read the newspaper, doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter, and doesn’t have an iPhone, we treat them as some kind of fanatic. They must be tripping on something to want to avoid the New.

A Man Considers the Church as Medium

John Durham Peters writes on media and theology:

Any theology of revelation is necessarily also a theory of media. Theophany is a media problem. God needs to assume a sensory shape or work sensible effects to reach humans the classic theological issue of the Word made flesh. Any revelation is, in a way, a short-term incarnation. A burning bush, clouds of smoke and pillar of fire, thunder, voice, writing, and a highly selective glimpse of God as he departs are some of the various modes of theophany surrounding the revelation on Sinai. The mountain itself is a kind of medium, which is declared holy ground and off-limits to the footsteps of the children
of Israel.

I don’t have time to develop this at the moment, but I think we ought to consider the church as a kind of medium, communicating Christ to the world.

A Man Presents Some Quotes about TV

I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.

~E. B. White, 1938

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box.

~Edward R. Murrow, 1958

What the American people don’t know can kill them.

~Dorothy Greene Friendly, 1958

While it is true that this medium has always been in a constant state of transformation, the changes currently in process are among the most significant in its history. The very term may become less and less useful as a description, a name, for a set of interrelated communication phenomena now replacing what we have known as “television.” […] Short of massive disaster, there is no way to look at this medium and say “this is what it was; this is what it is.” “Television” has been and is always becoming.

~Horace Newcomb, 1996

A Man Had a Thought About Tech-Wise Families

I started an online book group with a couple of friends, David K. and Jon B. The second book we read (just finished last week) was The Tech-Wise Family, by Andy Crouch. It was pretty good, holding the football steady so we could kick off a lively discussion. I’m not going to summarize or review it here. I just want to talk about something Crouch says in the section called “Shaping Space.”

He says that his one key recommendation, his if-you-only-remember-one-thing-from-this-book recommendation, is this: “Find the room where your family spends the most time and ruthlessly eliminate the things that ask little of you and develop little in you.” Good advice. Push yourself to become skillful in things. Pursue wisdom and gain courage. When I started to think about how I would apply this is my family, however, I immediately had questions…

My wife and I are sitting on the sofa in our living room right now, she reading, I typing this sentence. The wall opposite the sofa is mostly covered with books. To the left of the bookshelves is an electric keyboard, piled with sheet music. Above that hang two guitars. Now, this seems to pass the tech-wise assessment test. Books and musical instruments ask a lot of you and develop a lot in you, right? That may be true, but that’s not why we have them in our living room. We have the books because we enjoy reading. We have the instruments because we enjoy playing them. We hope that our daughter will enjoy both activities, too, of course, and so far, she does.

But let’s imagine that we had on the wall of our living room, not books, but a giant TV (like we do in the bedroom, ahem…). And let’s imagine that, after reading Tech-Wise, my wife and I agreed to ruthlessly eliminate the TV and replace it with a complete set of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. Would we grow apt to pull a volume down and flip through it? I don’t think so. Far more needs to change than the furniture.

I still think Crouch’s advice is good. (And you should still read the book.) The architecture and layout of your home will affect how you spend your time there. But I think we need to spend more time thinking about the role enjoyment plays in all of this. I can all too easily imagine a father and mother who, determined to ask more of their family, make their home a place where nobody wants to be (including the two of them). If you are really trying to wean yourself off your TV or smartphone or Netflix subscription, start with something small and enjoyable. Instead of the Great Books, replace your TV with a bunch of Tintin and the Complete Calvin and Hobbes.