The True Cost of Cheap Ebooks

Self publishing advocates clamor for cheap cheap cheap when it comes to ebooks.  The argument goes, basically, just look at the costs!  I can put an ebook online for less than $500; in fact, I can pop it up on Amazon or for free!  There’s no paper; there’s no binding; there’s no production.  Why not make all books accessible to the masses, price them low as possible and make books truly a medium of the people, by the people and for the people?

Why not?

Because in doing so you destroy what you love.

Even Jeffrey Trachtenberg, in his WSJ article today about the “less expensive” nature of digitized books that is already zooming around the Twitterverse misses the point. Mike Shatzkin comes much closer to my point of view, but perhaps with less personal investment.  This feels personal to me, this devaluing of the medium in which I’ve invested a lifetime.  

I believe in equality and fair play in access to education, health care and opportunity.  I believe in innovation and forward-thinking.  And I believe that not all books, and not all writers are created equal.  

Whether by natural gift or by many years of hard work and schooling, the work of those relatively rare writers once filtered through to the public only by traditional publishers** still  deserve to be lauded, paid, promoted, edited and wrapped in a package that signifies something special.  Cheap ebooks leave no room to pay for this, and level not only the playing field, but the stands and the bleachers and even the parking lot.  Everyone plays…and everyone loses.

(Here’s my comment on the article.)

**A clarification–I also believe the large corporations that turned a lovely little industry populated by many small & mid-size publishers  into the current “Big Six” behemoth landscape  do indeed close the doors to many deserving authors.  Self publishing and small presses are now necessities.  But driving down ebook prices for all is not the answer.  


  1. Jody, thanks for the post. I’m not sure I agree with every one of your statements but I do want to be open to all sides here.

    I am an ebook author and my books are priced lower at $2.99. To me, the point of pricing my books at $2.99 is a way to say to a reader, “Look, I’m new. You’ve never heard of me before. But I’m worth the $3 to try!” That’s all they are saying. I’m not trying to devalue books nor trying to steal money from any other writer.

    I tried to go the traditional route. I spent a couple of years talking to agents, waiting to hear from them, and, in the end, getting my heart broken time after time. I went the self-pubbed route to see if I could do it on my own. I haven’t sold a million copies like John Locke but I’ve met a lot of wonderful people (like you), attended some great conventions, made some money, and built myself an author platform. If a publisher came up to me tomorrow and offered to publish me traditionally, I’d listen.

    I’m not trying to destroy the publishing industry… just make my own way.

    Thanks again for a great post!

    • Thanks for a really thoughtful comment, Raymond! And I do agree with you–I made a mistake in not being clearer in my opening salvo. I think down-pricing self-published ebooks as a means to attract a buyer is a perfectly legitimate strategy, and on the whole does not devalue the book anymore than a diamond bought at Walmarts devalues diamonds as a whole. (I’m speaking generally–any individual SP book could be worth a window at Tiffany’s!) What worries me is the argument by extension I’ve heard from some self-publishers and others–that ALL ebooks must be priced that low simply because they’re not on paper. I don’t know what the future looks like, but the irony here (this world is full of ironies) is that John Locke’s model of publishing is all about turning books into interchangeable commodities. I hope that publishing companies continue to fight the good fight and say, no, we believe in this vehicle and we believe the books that are “worth” publishing deserve the editorial & other investments we’re making to bring them to the public in their best form. (A huge tangent here I want to explore at length–so many of these conversation ignore the fact that historically publishers also treat genre books as commodities and use down-pricing to introduce and refine new authors through mass market editions.)

      The biggest irony for me, speaking of ironies) is that I remember being horrified as I sat the first sales conference at Bantam/Doubleday/Dell after Bertlesmann had jumped in–the CEO (formerly from Pepsi, I think) talked about books as “units” and I just couldn’t believe it. Who could think of a book as a widget? Now, John Locke is lauded for rebelling against corporate publishing by doing just that–he’s much more in line with the thinking of the companies that own the imprints, than with the people who are in the trenches of “corporate” publishing. Hey, that’s yet another blog post, isn’t it?

      • That’s completely a new blog post!

        I don’t agree with John Locke (on a few things) about books as commodities. In his book on self-publishing, he looks at books too much like a ‘Boy Band Album:’ pick the right subject, find the target audience, write the right book, and make a crap-ton of money. I feel writing is way too organic than that kind of cold and calculating thinking…

        Yes, a writer should think of his audience and yes, tailoring a few things to make the book more accessible is never a bad thing… but not to write a book on a certain subject/genre just to make a buck! What’s the point of being a writer, then?

        I write books because I want to tell stories. I hope I tell stories that people want to read. I think of my audience a lot when I write because I want to give them as much ‘bang for their buck’ (literally sometimes – explosions, not sex). I price my books because I want them to be affordable but still have value. I’ve tried 99 cents… and felt cheap about it. I felt like I was selling myself short…

        Thanks again for writing the article and having a comments section for me to post my thoughts…

  2. Thanks for Sharing this Beautiful information…

    E-books Tunnel

Speak Your Mind


Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.