Open up Amazon and look at any of the more popular releases of the last 18 months or so and a strange thing will happen. Books that have been well-reviewed in the press show up with 2- and 3- star ratings (out of a possible 5), sometimes even before they’ve been released. Surely, you think, there aren’t that many Advanced Reader Copies floating around out there, dwelling among the grumpy and disgruntled. So then you read some of the reviews.
To save us all the time I’ll tell you exactly what you’ll find. About 80% of the reviews (before release) complain that the e-book costs too much, and that while they haven’t read the book they feel justified in marking it down because of that. 15% of the reviews will be from reactionaries–who have also not read the book–giving it 5-stars to balance out all the naysayers. Then the last 5% will be from eager fans of the author or ARC-holders or Harriet (&*&^*) Klausner actually talking about the content of the book.
While it’s been like this for awhile now, the storm really started brewing with Ken Follet’s Fall Of Giants. At $19.99, it was priced nearly double that of other new releases and the Kindle community about had a collective aneurysm. Since then it’s nearly impossible to find a book reviewed on Amazon without some mention of the e-book’s price and/or availability.* The controversy then becomes whether or not it’s even germaine to weigh the book’s merits against it’s price.
If you’d asked me ten years ago I would have said something along the lines of literature-being-a-priceless-treasure and some-things-should-be-weighed-on-merit-alone. Ten years ago I was an idealist who had just started working in publishing. I still thought that books were sacrosanct. It seems like most of those who still feel that way are busy giving 5 stars to books they haven’t read and getting huffy about the beauty of the printed word with a bunch of tightfisted strangers on the internet. But I can’t feel that way anymore. I’ve handled enough author contracts and royalty checks to know just how commoditised commercial books are. And heaven knows I’ve bought enough books to pay for about 5 cars.
There are indeed books out there that I love so much I feel the impulse to buy them again just when passing them, as though the repurchase will open the door to the wonderful feeling of discovering a great book for the first time. ** But there are more that I end up comparing to movies and TV. I’ve got this mental scale for entertainment, the base unit of which is One Video Rental costing Five Dollars. And for the last three years I’ve been measuring pretty much all my leisure activities against that yardstick. For example: will I get at least two hours of enjoyment out of this activity? If so then yes, it’s worth $5.00. Less than two hours is worth less, but more is a bargain. My ceiling is $18, which is the cost of two movie tickets in the theater.
So as a writer is it tacky for me to start to value books this way? The part of me that’s still idealistic wants to say “yes” and cry foul. Books aren’t the same ordinary things as videos and Facebook games and museum exhibits. They exist on a higher plane and should be treated thus. Then the reader in me who has read more than her share of really awful books (seriously, what are some of these publishers thinking?) feels more than justified. If writers don’t care enough to put out the best possible product, if publishers can’t even proofread the finished product anymore, if any halfway decent story is carved up and sold for parts like a stolen Honda then we consumers are free treat these books like the products the Publishing Industry so obviously thinks they are.
*If there is NO e-book the reviewers mark it down saying “I’d read this if there were an ebook copy.”
**To Kill A Mockingbird; Pillars of the Earth; George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series; Girl Of The Limberlost; Midwife Of The Blue Ridge; The Name Of The Wind; The Warded Man; Island Of The Blue Dolphins; Harry Potter; The Chronicles Of Narnia; Mere Christianity; Surprised By Joy; A Grief Observed; Nicholas Nickleby; David Copperfield; Les Miserables; Guernsey Potato Peel Pie etc.; and so on….