Is An Ebook a Book? And What Does It Mean When You Buy It?

I’ve been weighing in on a fairly interesting post on the Amazon Kindle forum.  The focus is on the idea of getting an ebook version of a physical book when you buy it.  Myself and the original poster think that it’d be a great way for a publisher to add value to their product (I hate using that phrase, though):  a sort of bonus, a thank-you, an incentive for the customer.  Some of the others in the thread feel that that’s basically asking for two copies of the book for the price of one, which “is stupid” to roughly quote one of the participants.

I, of course, disagree.  But it brings up an interesting point that I think lies at the center of the whole ebook problem:  is an ebook a book?  And what does it mean when you “buy” it?

A fundamental level to the problem is the basic question:  Is an Ebook (or an mp3) an actual thing?

This becomes important.  My argument on the whole “buy hard copy, get ebook with it” thing is that I’m paying to read the story.  Some of my money goes towards offsetting the physical costs of the book, such as printing, shipping, storage, and so forth, but the whole idea is that I give money and get a story. If you disagree, you’re welcome to buy blank books all you want.

There’s been various chatting from all sides of the industry regarding the pricing of ebooks: from Apple to Amazon to the big publishers to average readers and indie authors.  Regardless of how you slice that pie, I operate under a few rules of thumb that I have yet to see any significant evidence against:

  • ebooks benefit from the editing done on the original copy of the book; short of formatting issues and concerns, a book won’t undergo a brand new round of rewrites and edits.
  • ebooks also benefit from the cover art of the original version.  It’s possible to commission separate art, but the cover is a book’s identity in a sea of other snowflakes.  I don’t know of many books where the publisher would willingly deviate from the physical book’s art.
  • ebooks have little in the way of material costs:  no printing, no shipping, no storage.  The bandwidth for their delivery is on the order of pennies.

As such, I have one big rule of ebooks:  they should cost less than the dead tree version.

But this particular argument goes beyond that–it’s the third point above that’s quite important.  With not-much-more outlay, the publisher also has another version of the product that they can deliver to me for practically free.  I think it’d be pretty nifty if they included it whenever they could.  Maybe it’s only on a hardcover or trade release.  That’s fine.  Also, any additional costs in producing the ebook are offset by the fact that the publisher is also trying to sell the ebook copy of it.

This argument breaks down if you subscribe to the theory that an ebook is a separate and discrete book in and of itself as compared to the physical copy, but I still remain unconvinced of the whole matter.

The whole thing is a lot like the CD/MP3 and piracy storm cloud.  Lawsuits and suchlike have acted as if the mp3 version is just as “real” as the CD version.  To me, they’re not: I can just as easily see a music label or artist offering free mp3s of an album that I just bought.  They don’t “lose” anything for sending me the MP3s.  I haven’t somehow received two CDs for the price of one.

Note also that this does not work the other way: I don’t expect someone to send me the CD or book if I buy the digital version.  Part of the deal of the digital versions is that they’re cheaper because there’s nothing physical about them, and I’m okay with that most of the time.  If they send me the meatspace copy of whatever it was just because I bought the digital version, they’re out of a discrete and countable unit that they could have otherwise sold, and that’s dumb.

Earlier, I mentioned the idea of paying for the privilege of reading a book.  Even the Kindle Terms of Service support this idea (as much as I didn’t want to admit it at first): you’re not buying a kindle book when you “buy” it in the Kindle store:  you’re paying for a license to read the work.  That idea forms the basis of books in general.

Since I’ve already given you my money, how about throwing me a digital copy of it while you’re at it?  It’s that much more likely to make me want to buy something.  Instead of a one-or-the-other war between physical and ebooks, another way the industry can embrace them is by pairing them together.

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