Should older books cost less?

Should older books cost less?

Amongst the other angst I’ve seen out there about e-book prices is people being mad that a publisher will set the same price for a thirty year old novel as for a new one.

That’s an interesting concept to me.

I don’t know why an older book should be worth less.

Aren’t you getting the same value?

Isn’t, say, Stranger in a Strange Land* worth what the latest Star Wars novel is?

Books don’t decay.  Oh, I suppose standards have changed…you might be less likely to get some swear words or sex scenes in an older book.

But is that really what sets the value of the book?

A used book, of course, is different.  I don’t like that the spines may be broken or there may be writing in them or stains and such.  Even a thirty year-old paperback which is very good shape has a limited lifespan. 

But a thirty-year old book converted into an e-book?

Good as new!  🙂

Seriously…the download doesn’t have a shorter life expectancy when the book is older.

“But,” you say, “we pay less for a paperback when it comes out a year later.”

Yes, but I don’t think that’s just because it is a year old.  It’s also because the paperback is printed in a cheaper, more perishable format.  Hardbacks are expected to last longer (and have a better resale value) than paperbacks.

I’ve read people saying that they feel like the author and the publisher had time to make money the first time around.

Oh, but few of them did make money.  Some did, but not a lot of authors.

Also, that’s something I see people do: they want to have their prices based on something other than the value to them.  That’s not unreasonable, in one sense.  If I knew it took somebody ten years to gather the data for a book, I might be willing to pay more for it. 

But I would think the book would have more intrinsic value to me in that case as well.  If it took ten years because the author was lazy and inefficient, then I don’t want to pay more for it.

There is that spoiler factor, I’ll give you that.  There are some books where I want to read them as soon as they are released, so I don’t hear anything about them.  Same idea for me as wanting to see a movie the first weekend. 

However, isn’t that spoiler factor the same if the book is six months old as sixty years old?

How about books in a series?  I think there could be increased value in being able to go right to the next book (or ten or twenty books) in the series without having to wait.

I just can’t see why older books are inherently deserving of a lower price than newer books.

Yes, of course, if they are really old, they are likely to be in the public domain, and then you can usually get them for free.

That’s a different situation, though.  No royalty has to be paid, and the distribution costs for e-books are virtually nil.  So, some people give those away for the good of the community, and others do it to up the value of their sites.  

If I had to pay something for an H.G. Wells book, I’d be willing to pay the same thing I paid for a new novel.

I know Wells is good…older books have gone through the filter of time.

So, seriously, tell me, because I’m curious: why do you think older in-copyright books should cost less than new books?

* Stranger in a Strange Land has been recently released for the Kindle, but I’m not linking to it.  I’m saddened that it’s been released by Penguin with text-to-speech access blocked.  However, I’m happy to see that Glory Road by Heinlein is being released by Macmillan…with the text-to-speech available (that’s their company policy).   Hmm…I just looked at several Heinliens…I saw another Penguin and there were several Macmillans…and at least one from Simon & Schuster (which also blocks text-to-speech).  Oh, and to show you that they are still figuring this out, Penguin has two versions of the same Heinlein book.  One is 294kb, the other is 349kb, although they both indicate 224 pages.  That difference may be due to a cover, perhaps.  The smaller file size version is SIX DOLLARS more.  That’s right: you can pay $11.99 or $5.99 for the same book from the same publisher.  The cheaper, larger file-size book says it is “Digest Size”.  My guess is that they converted both of them, not realizing they were the same.  The two source editions may be different prices, of course,  This suggests that they convert the books pretty automatically…and I’m guessing that the age of the book isn’t part of that process.  As a former bookstore manager, automatic pricing is…wow, I went through a number of adjectives on that!  I’ll go with…um…inattentive.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

7 Responses to “Should older books cost less?”

  1. Frank Skornia Says:

    I don’t think that older books should be less expensive than newer ones. You go to the bookstore and you’ll see the paperback version of The Eye of the World (which is about 20 years old now) at the same price as the paperback version of the latest book (The Gathering Storm, which actually isn’t in paperback yet, but it will be the same price). Granted, those are books from the same series but it does show that age doesn’t matter with the story in the book.

    What does bug me though is when the eBook is noticeably more expensive than the current standard paper copy of the book. By standard I mean either hardcover at release or paperback when it comes out. At the very least, they should be the same price, since its the content that matters and you’re getting the same content. Now, I wouldn’t mind a lower cost on the eBook since you don’t have the freedoms that you have with the paper copy (lending, reselling, etc.).

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Frank, thanks for writing!

      Generally, the issue with the e-book being priced higher than the the p-book (paperbook) is that the retailer (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) is discounting the p-book. When I look at list prices, it’s unusual that the list price for the p-book is cheaper than the consumer price set by the publisher under the Agency Model. The “sales agents” (like Amazon) can’t discount the e-books.

      That doesn’t make it right, it’s just the reason. 🙂

  2. Dalmane Says:

    I do not think that you should be comparing classic DTB to e-books.

    If I owned the e-book and could change anything I wanted with it and could use it on any reader, I might agree with you…

    I have some old hard cover books and if I converted them to an electronic file it just would not be the same. The real book would be worth more, because it is a tangible thing…You can hold it, examine it, smell it and anything else you can think of…You cannot do that with a file…Especially one you cannot change anything on dur to DRM.

    The whole pricing issue with e-books is stupid. You are not buying anything except a license to read the text on a specific device.

    If I died tomorrow, no one would get my e-books, except for Amazon, unless I put all my account information in my will.

    Maybe publishers should consider publishing all their e-books in a DRM managed PDF format and be done with it.

    I would pay more for a book format that I could put on any reader.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Dalmane!

      I (and I know some other people) consider the e-book to be more valuable that the p-book (paperbook…what you are calling a DTB, “dead tree book”), for a number of reasons. Two of the key ones are: that you can redownload the books whenever you want (so they don’t decay over time and you don’t simply lose them in the event of a fire or flood); you don’t have the storage costs you have with p-books. The value of being able to read the books as I age (with increasable text sizes and, in many cases, text-to-speech) far outweighs the value of the book smell to me. 🙂 I can smell my Kindle, if I want…not a big deal for me, though.

      Now, if you are someone who resells books, the value of owning a copy of a p-book versus a license chnges. I’ve never sold a book in my life, so that doesn’t help me, but for people who do, that’s an argument for them to stay with p-books.

      You might find my earlier post on the issue interesting:

      As to the inheritability, I strongly recommend you put someone else on your account now (whether that’s a lawyer or a family member). That will make for a seamless continuation of ownership. I have an earlier post on that as well:

      As to having a DRM managed PDF, yes, you would probably pay more for it (and Adobe would be dancing in the streets) since everybody would be paying a licensing fee to one company. There are universal formats now: txt, for example (which can not contain Digital Rights Management). Major publishers don’t use it, of course, and you are right, a way that they could charge you and you could use it on any device could be attractive.

      However, I have to say, both Amazon and B&N books can be read on such a wide variety of devices I don’t feel very limited. Their reader (Kindle or NOOK), PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, iPod touches, Blackberrys, soon, Android devices (which may include the Alex reader, although that’s not clear yet)…

      If you think that p-books are worth more (and many people do), you’ll likely pay more for them most of the time…so the market will tend to agree with you. Right now, publishers haven’t really gotten the hang of pricing for consumers: I think when they do, you’ll find that e-books are generally less expensive than p-books. That’s what you see now if you compare the paper list price to the e-book consumer price for books under the Agency Model. What the publishers need to figure out is the discounting part of the p-book side.

  3. threeundertwo Says:

    Interesting that you should bring this up. I recently came across “Watership Down” at Amazon listed at $4.86 or thereabouts. I made a mental note to pick it up later because I remember how much I enjoyed that book. I’m kicking myself because it’s now listed at $12.99. That price to me, should be reserved for a hot-off-the-press new release with a lot of hype around it. I just wont pay that much while I have so many other great books to read on my Kindle.

    Likewise, I was thrilled to see that Larry McMurtry has finally changed his attitude and decided to allow ebook versions of his works. “Lonesome Dove” is priced at $12.99. I’m slightly more forgiving of this pricing, since it won the Pulitzer Prize, but I still haven’t purchased it, nor am I likely to in the near future. Had the publisher priced it at about $8-9, they would have made far more sales, in my opinion.

    Hopefully in cases like Watership Down, publishers will have enough data before and after price changes to see the effect of those changes on sales numbers, or perhaps sales rates.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, threeundertwo!

      Watership Down is an interesting case. You can’t get the mass market paperback directly from Amazon (or from Barnes & Noble). The only paper version that’s available new is list priced at $16.00. They are making it a prestige item.

      Fortunately, e-book prices are easy for publishers to change. Unfortunately, the tradpubs (traditional publishers) have really only been pricing for consumers since April 1st.

      They’ll figure it out, I think. The main thing they need to do is hire some retail pricers.

      I also think it’s possible that the Agency Model will go away or be massively revised after the first year (which is reportedly the length of the Apple contract).

  4. Me :-) Says:


    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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