Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Kindle e-boycott

A new manifestation of aggrieved privilege has erupted over the prices of's Kindle e-books: Some disaffected customers have called for a boycott of all Kindle e-books that cost more than $9.99.


Some Kindle e-books, the revolutionaries say, are more expensive at $9.99 than the paperback versions at $7.99. Some Kindle e-books are more expensive than the tree-book versions you can get at discount emporiums. It is absurd to pay $18 for an illustrated e-book whose color photos look like hell on a black-and-white Kindle screen.

And when you are finished with a Kindle e-book, you can't pass it along to a friend or your public library or sell it at a used bookstore. You can reread it on your Kindle (or iPhone or iPod Touch), but that is all.

Worst of all, these rebels say, an e-book requires no paper, glue, shipping or printing, so it has "no production costs."

Pardon me, but that last is absolute nonsense.

It costs money for publishers to acquire books, sometimes big money. Authors expect to get paid for their labors, and some of them command hefty advances. Editors and designers must be paid. Promotion personnel must be paid. Insurance and rent must be paid. Stockholders expect a return on their investment.

What's more, Kindle e-books are purchased and downloaded via wireless, saving their consumers considerable time and gas for trips to the bookstore. Convenience has a price, like everything else.

Still don't want to pay more than $9.99 for an e-book you can get in an instant via wireless? Call the library, put in your reservation for a new novel, hear six weeks later that it's finally available, then drive 20 minutes in your gas-guzzling truck to pick it up.

Or drive to Barnes & Noble and buy the tree-book -- at a discount if it's popular.

Or don't buy it at all. Nobody holds a gun to your head and says, "Read this book or I'll waste you."

Big bad doesn't set the prices of the e-books it sells -- the publishers do. The formula is a percentage of the tree-book cover price, usually about three-fifths. Is it surprising that a thick illustrated history that sells for $50 in hardcover will go for $22 as an e-book?

In my opinion, this silly rebellion is part and parcel of the shortsighted selfishness at the heart of the dark side of the Internet: People want things for free, never mind what it costs to produce them. They expect their news for no charge, although gathering and disseminating it is expensive. They rip off writers and photographers without paying a nickel.

The cultural commons of the Internet is a wonderful thing, but we must never forget that it always comes at a price.


  1. Rant all you want, author-guy, but don't pick on libraries!

    Mine gets me everything I ask for (inter-library loan is the greatest invention since paper money), and does it quickly. I can check the catalog online, and reserve online; if I keep up with the NYTimes Book Review (it's hard!) I frequently get the new books first, so there's no waiting.

    And not only isn't it 20 minutes away, but I'm next door every Wednesday at Rotary. Nor is my Vespa a gas-guzzler!

    When talking about the cost of e-books, it's the marginal cost of production the non-payers are arguing about.

    Actually, I don't want books for nothing; I pay my taxes to support the library! But I admit the thought of buying e-books that provide no more than the ability to read them myself, and not pass them on or keep them for a rainy day, is a deal-breaker. Not to mention the cost of the Kindle-iTouch thing, the size of its screen, the lack of color pictures, the ...

  2. Pete, apologies for hurting your feelings about libraries, as unrepentant politicians would say (snicker).

    Seriously, I didn't mean to cast aspersions on libraries. I use them myself, especially for their 50-cent used-paperback racks.

    But I would argue that the marginal cost of production cannot be separated from the actual cost. Without the actual cost, there would be no marginal cost.

    If e-book sales are cutting into sales of tree-books, then "marginal" seems the wrong word, doesn't it?

    True, Kindle has no color. The iPod Touch does, however. Not that it can compete with an oversized illustrated book printed on slick stock that smells good.

    As for the Vespa, can you ride it to the library in a driving sleetstorm? (No fair asking if I can do the same in a Cessna.)

  3. Isn't it interesting that the boycott headquarters seems to be's own reader forum? Jeff Bezos could order the thread killed any time he wanted, but he must have confidence in the way his company does things.