Why Should E-Books Cost Anything at All?



As you'll recall, Tennessee is one of the 15 states that joined the lawsuit against Apple, Macmillan Holdings, Penguin Group USA, and Simon & Schuster Digital Sales, charging collusion and price-fixing — a faceoff Pith in the Wind contributor Betsy Phillips described memorably as "an all-bad guy battle royale." You may also recall Nashville's most famous bookseller Ann Patchett going on The Colbert Report and giving Amazon a verbal lashing that was as delightful to watch as it was dead-on.

All of which is to say, read the column by Chapter16.org's Margaret Renkl in this week's Scene on e-books and what you might call the high cost of low prices:

As the friend and editor of many talented writers, I have read in manuscript any number of excellent books that so far haven't seen the light of day because some gatekeeper hasn't deemed them worthy, or because they're well-written but don't fit into a clear marketing niche, or because the author isn't photogenic enough for Good Morning America. Starting out now is particularly hard, not only for literary novelists but even for authors of thrillers and YA and other genres that still sell well. Publishers are too often timid, afraid to take a chance on an unknown. Virtually every "surprise" bestseller today is a book that dozens of publishing gatekeepers passed on before someone took a chance and got behind it.

Here's the thing, though: getting behind a book costs money. There may be virtually no production costs in converting a Word file into an e-book, but that doesn't mean there are no production costs in making it a book worth reading. Someone has to edit it, and editing takes time and skill and diplomacy and courage: Editors have to figure out how to make a writer's work better while preserving the author's voice. They have to find a way to make the writer cheerfully — or at least willingly — go back and back and back to the page until the book is just right.

There's a lot more than a block quote will do justice to here, so please give it a read if you care about books and writers. I've drawn parallels between bookstores and record stores before, but it's an imperfect analogy, especially because the ancillary stream of income available to musicians — licensing for soundtracks, commercials, etc. — simply do not exist for authors, for whom touring is not even remotely as lucrative (even in a best-case scenario) for the vast majority.

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