The real cost of e-books

In ‘Body and Soul: Copyright law and enforcement in the age of the electronic book’ (Australian Book Review, September 2012), Matt Rubinstein raises some interesting points about how writers might continue to make a living. Readers who want more new books have a vested interest in this, and I recommend Matt’s essay as fascinating reading in its own right.

In ‘What is a writer’s time worth?’, I talked about different publishing models, but this post focuses solely on e-books. Unlike a printed book, an e-book is an intangible, insubstantial thing downloaded to your reader, tablet or PC within seconds. It’s easy to forget that it has taken the writer months or years of work to produce the text because the digital file slips onto your e-book reader in no time at all. The huge gap between the time and effort the writer puts in and the weightless, bodiless file you receive encourages us to think that e-books should be cheap or free.

The problem for writers is this: whether the book is printed or distributed as a digital file, the writer has put the same amount of effort into writing the text.

There are two reasons why e-books should be substantially cheaper than printed books. The first is that the publisher doesn’t have to pay the huge costs associated with buying paper, printing books, shipping them around the world and storing them in warehouses. Note that the publisher is saving money, but the writer’s effort is the same as it ever was.

The second reason e-books should be cheaper than printed ones is that thanks to Digital Rights Management (DRM), hardware and software failures and file degradation, readers may find that their printed books last longer and are more transferable than e-books. If your device fails, Digital Rights Management may prevent you from transferring your e-books to a new device. You don’t own an e-book file in the same no-strings-attached way that you own a paperback. Matt Rubinstein argues that the attempt to protect copyright with DRM has backfired. Some readers have decided that it’s easier to download illegal files that have been stripped of DRM, and they have the added attraction of being free.

I’ve often thought that a better way to encourage readers to respect a writer’s need to make a living is to give cheap or free e-book files away with printed books. Buy a copy of the book to keep (and feed the writer) and get an e-book file so you can carry a library wherever you go. This could only work, of course, if readers still want printed books, and not all readers do. Someone could easily buy a printed book and put the free e-book version on the internet within minutes.

How do you convince readers that they should pay for e-books if they don’t realise or care that writers can’t keep working for nothing?  Matt Rubinstein suggests that the way to make paid e-books as attractive as illegal ones is to remove Digital Rights Management (making a legal download as convenient as an illegal one) and bring the price of e-books down almost to the level of second-hand books, because that’s how readers are comparing prices. I’m not convinced this would work; I think the DRM-free legal copy would be passed around quickly, with a price tag below second-hand: zero.

Publishers won’t invest in books if they can’t protect copyright and writers can’t afford to put months or years into writing if they won’t receive any income for it, so we may have reached an impasse.

The other solution Matt Rubinstein suggests is a subscription service: pay a flat fee for streaming access to a huge library of e-books, with writers receiving a subsidy. He suggests bundling this with other sweeteners (discounted e-book readers, broadband plans, etc.) to make paid, legal downloads more attractive.  Would this be attractive to you as a reader?

I’m not sure what the solution is. For many readers, e-books are free, but for writers, they’re proving very expensive indeed.

© JD Ellevsen


  1. I’m curious, is there any documentation for how common the piracy of ebooks is? I’ve never actually heard of anyone doing this, and though I’m sure it happens, I suspect that it is mainly a problem for best-selling authors and very expensive textbooks. (Not that that takes away from the problem you have described.) Or is the problem becoming more endemic?


    1. I agree that it seems the blockbuster authors are subject to piracy much more often, but I’ve seen some authors who aren’t household names commenting on their dismay at finding their books in pirated form. Take first-time novelist Lloyd Shepherd for example. It’s his first novel and already he’s losing sales! See his Guardian article about contacting book pirates:

      What worries me is that piracy creates a mindset of expecting a writer’s work for nothing. Once you’ve downloaded a pirated book by a big-name author, why would you continue paying for other books? Most of the people who download the ‘freebies’ don’t think of themselves as thieves. To my horror, I’ve discovered some white-collar, well-paid acquaintances of mine don’t pay for books, music or films and they think this is just savvy, not criminal. They’re professionals and certainly can’t claim to be too poor to afford books (library book loans are free in Australia but I guess they’re too lazy to go to a library).

      The publishing industry has been unable to measure the extent of the problem: “Attributor estimates that piracy cost the publishing industry $US2.8 billion in 2009 – but they don’t know. In December 2010 the Association of American Publishers reported that ten of their publishers had paid $778,000 to online monitoring services who identified 299,000 infringing titles online – but there is no way to know how often these e‑books were downloaded, and even less chance of knowing how many of those downloads represented lost sales, and how they might interact with future sales” (Matt Rubinstein, ‘Body and soul‘, Australian Book Review, September 2012).


      1. Thanks for the thoughtful follow up. I had no idea piracy was so prevalent, except in the music industry. I have never met anyone who admitted to doing this with books. I guess I should be on my guard when some stranger on the corner whispers, “Hey, buddy, wanna buy an ebook cheap?”


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