Cheap eBooks: Good or Bad?

As I idly requested last week, Chad has more fully explained his thoughts on pricing Open Letter’s new ebooks at $4.99 for a limited time. Essentially, his argument is two-fold:

1. that too-cheap ebooks (i.e., full-on novels for less than $5.00) promote an idea of books as disposable entertainments; but,
2. that cheap ebooks can provide a kind of “advertising” for a small publisher like Open Letter, helping move people up the ladder to the $13.00 paperbacks

I do think there’s something to the idea of ereaders promoting an idea of books as disposable, though I don’t think it’s overly related to price. My own take is that our culture is sufficiently awash in remainders, garage sales, huge library booksales, used mass market paperbacks, etc, that we’re already rather comfortable with getting a real book for $1.00 or $2.00. Sure, 99 cent ebooks with further promulgate this idea, but I think it was already pretty fixed in the mind of your average book lover pre-ebook.

But then there’s the actual ebook product, something I’ve discussed on this site before. As much as I’ve gotten used to reading books electronically, I just can’t get my brain to consider it an ebook a real book. If I really like an ebook that I’ve read, I’ll want to go out and buy a “real” copy. It’s interesting to note that I don’t have this same kind of dichotomy with bound galleys and finished books (even though, theoretically, the galley isn’t actually a “real” book since there will be subtle differences between it and the finalized, printed book). Clearly, to me, this is something to do with having a printed thing to read versus having a bunch of computer code that will be displayed as a book in the presence of a certain device.

But anyway, I think Chad’s idea of using ebooks as loss leaders sounds about right, and I like how it essentially gives primacy to the printed book as the final repository of value, both for a reader and for a publisher. Maybe in the end low prices will be what saves us from a world without printed books.

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I kind of have mixed feelings about the whole ebooks vs real books matter. On one hand, with ebooks, the paper industry would stop cutting so damn many trees which is good. I like trees. Also, with ebooks, the authors themselves are also publishers, meaning lower prices and the money going directly to the author. I’m perfectly fine with that. It’s the same as with the music industry, and people self-promoting their albums and so on without need of record labels. One other benefit of ebooks would be that you can carry loads of them on some Kindle or whatever, and not having to drag along a whole backpack of books with you wherever you go. I’ve always thought that knowledge should be free, and cheap books are basically giving people that might not afford expensive books a chance to read those books, gain knowledge, etc. I’m buying my books from a neat little website called allyoucanbooks, and for a monthly fee, I can download whatever books I want. That would be another benefit of ebooks. You can get them anywhere, fast and easy, with the click of a button. Saves a lot of time, considering our current society’s hectic lifestyle.

Now with classic books, yes you get that feel when you actually flip the page, the feel of the paper on your fingers, etc. But other than that, I sincerely don’t know why people hang on to this type of writing books.

In my mind, times are changing, technology evolves, and these publishing companies are left behind, catering to the needs of a few through “ancient” needs.

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