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[publishing] More on ebooks, pricing and licensing

As I observed recently [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ], The perennial “ebooks should be free, charging for them is theft” argument is now playing out at io9.com.

There is a fair amount of supportive commentary there, but also quite a bit of the usual arrogance, ignorance and acrimony about why ebooks should be free. It seems to boil down to the idea that the author/publisher is greedy and doesn’t deserve to be paid twice for the same content. This is closely coupled to the misconception that ebooks obviously don’t cost anything, and therefore charging for them is theft.

As I said before:

When you buy a print book, you aren’t buying the content, you’re buying the edition. Otherwise everybody who bought a hard cover would be entitled to a free paperback, a free audiobook and a free movie ticket if the book were filmed.

This is driving me more and more toward my nascent view that a book (in any format — print, audio, ebook, what have you) is a license, not a product. The story is the product. The format is a delivery channel. The ebook “debate” gets obscured by the long-running and rather sordid experience of the music industry, as well as the whole bit torrent culture of pirate video. I’m also increasingly coming to view “information wants to be free” as a pernicious meme, as it completely devalues the content Producer to the short-term benefit of the content Consumer.

In the long run, would I write even if I weren’t paid? Sure. I did for years before I was paid. But why should my writing, if it has value to readers, be free? The thing I always want to ask ebook activists is whether they’re comfortable with their work product being free, simply because I don’t think I should have to pay for it? Tom Tomorrow touches on this in his cartoon this week.

And you know what? I’m not going to sell t-shirts or something. I’m not even interested in doing format conversions to sell my backlist online. I’m a writer, damn it. My best and highest value is writing.

It’s insulting and demeaning to be called a liar and a thief by readers who don’t know anything about the processes of publishing, copyright law or professional ebook production, and yet are certain of both their facts and their moral high ground. It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect in full deployment.

I’ve always said the story belongs to the reader. I believe that in the bottom of my heart. Story is not an economic right, however. Buying a hardback then paying for an ebook is no different from buying a hardback then paying for a paperback or an audiobook. But there’s a growing culture online deeply invested in denying that, and they’re very happy to demonize authors as part of their denial.

Note, please, before you comment, that I am not making an argument for any particular price point on ebooks. I am also increasingly coming to favor the idea of bundle pricing, which is in line with my view of books as licenses rather than products. I think ebooks should be cheap, and possibly free if promotional considerations indicate. But that’s a decision for my publishers to make as part of their marketing process, not a natural law of information, nor an entitlement of the reader.

I think the hardest part of this discussion for me personally is getting people, especially the activists, to see how caught in the middle authors are. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been told I should just switch publishers, or force them to change my pricing. That kind of thinking is another example of the profound disinformation and ignorance about the process of publishing, and how it colors the passions of readers.

People want to read. I want them to read. Writing is work, just like plumbing, law, medicine, retail, bus driving, teaching or anything else. Like any work, it should be compensated according to its value. When you want your ebook for free, you’re devaluing writing to nothing.

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