I don’t want to make my blog here all about nothing but ebooks, or nothing but writing, or nothing but indie publishing because honestly, I’d like to give you more than just that. It’s the concept of value-adding, where an object or service’s price point includes something extra.

It’s understandable, because so much of what we purchase really can’t be lowered in price. We already pay far less than the true cost of much of what we buy, so it’s easy to reach a point where lowering prices is unsustainable. The indie ebook success stories I’ve studied fall in and around this concept of adding value, and the question of value is one that needs to be approached from all sides.
There’s been much controversy in the publishing industry as traditional publishers feel their way into the murky waters of digital literature. The cost of effort to launch a book is rarely the same amount as the perception of the book’s value from a reader’s perspective, even in the best of cases. E-publishing is even more perception-driven because the lack of the tangible, material representation we know of as “book.” On the one hand, as a society, we’re used to shelling out 24.99 (or more likely, 16.99 at the discount) for a hardcover, 5.99-7.99 for a paperback (and grudgingly, 9.99 for a “name” paperback), and 9.99-12.99 for a trade paperback.

Our perception of value comes from the physical materials (hardboard/pasteboard, wood pulp, ink, fancy foil letters with raised fonts, the ability to prop open a window or stabilize a wobbly table leg), because why would we pay a different price for the same story? Consequently, people are far less inclined to pay 9.99 for an ebook (perhaps because you can’t prop open a window with it). Many of us still remember shorter novels running around three bucks and a little change, and longer novels still available for five bucks. Others can remember 99 cents for a category romance or cozy mystery or an SF classic.

Not everyone thinks ebooks should be cheaper because of the materials (or lack thereof). It’s been well-established (by traditional media articles in newspapers and magazines–both off- and online versions) that the physical materials cost hardly anything. Even the warehousing and shipping is fractional.

Costs come from the people involved in launching a book–editors, copyeditors, marketers, typesetters, publicity directors, and of course, the CEO of the company who may or may not be very vaguely aware that there is, in fact, a publisher of books somewhere down between the sixth sub-basement and the parking garage, but who very definitely wants his or her cut as well. And that’s not even including the author. Whether or not all these people deserve their hunk of the pie (or are even getting a fair shake at the hunk) is a topic for another blog. This one’s about value, and the fact that people, whether rightly informed or not, seem to place ebook value somewhere between 99 cents and 9.99.

Part of the reason is, of course, Amazon’s arbitrary price point. 9.99 seemed like a nice middleman between hardback and paperback at one time. So where did the 99 cents come from? The answer to that, is the people. More specifically, the people who adopted iTunes way back and became comfortable with paying 99 cents not for a song or a story or an app, but for a Unit of Digital Entertainment.

Our ebooks, then, are measured in Digital Entertainment Currency. A unit of digital entertainment is roughly a DRM-crippled song. A portion of a current episode of TV, and perhaps a full episode from last-season. A unit of digital entertainment is one-third to one-fifth of a useful, functional app, and anywhere from 1/60th to 1/20th of a PC or Console game with playability of somewhere between 10 and 40 hours.

Your ebook is not competing with your paperback, your hardback, or other books. It’s competing with all the forms of digital entertainment available to an internet-connected user. When you’re considering price–for authors in how you value your work, and for readers in what you’re willing to pay–keep in mind you’re measuring against a more diverse yardstick than you might think.

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