Paying for e-Books

Last week I read a blog post which was, in the main, a book review. I’m not going to link to it (for reasons which will become clear), or identify the blogger. I have largely forgotten the review itself, but what has remained fresh in my mind is the following (abridged and most definitely paraphrased) declaration:

I still feel weird about paying for e-books, though, you know? Because I’m so used to getting them for free, or maybe it’s because I object to paying for something intangible, but I just don’t think it’s right to pay for something you can’t touch.


So, this blogger was reviewing a book which was not self-published; it was a novel from a major publishing house. It was actually a novel I’ve read in hard copy, to the best of my recollection. I have nothing against self-publishing, I want to state right at the outset – I do feel that the tendency for self-published e-books to be free through some of the major online retailers does a disservice to the book industry, but that’s an argument for another day. The point of the current discussion is: this blogger felt it was ‘wrong’ to pay for an e-book, just because she couldn’t touch it. I can’t understand her logic.

Hmmm. Maybe if I sit here and scratch my chin for a bit, it'll all become clear... Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

Hmmm. Maybe if I sit here and scratch my chin for a bit, it’ll all become clear…
Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

It drives me crazy when people try to argue that e-books should be free just because they’re digital. I have little time for the mindset that anything you can download should come at no cost; simply making a piece of creative work available digitally doesn’t mean that it cost nothing to produce. The book this blogger was reviewing represented an investment by the publisher in the author, the cover artist, the copy-editor, the proofreader, the agent, the rights people, the legal team, and anybody else who was involved in the creation of the book. Just because it’s not printed, or stored, or shipped to a warehouse, or sold to you over a counter by a human being, doesn’t mean that nobody deserves to get paid for the creation of this work. It doesn’t mean that the reader deserves to get it for nothing.

I do accept that e-books should be cheaper than physical books for all the reasons I’ve touched on above – the fact that they don’t need to be shipped and stored, and so on. But free, if it’s not by the choice of the writer? No.

I felt that the blogger was trying to make a larger ethical statement, too, in the way she phrased her objection: it wasn’t that she didn’t want to pay, it was that she felt it wasn’t right. It wasn’t right to charge a person for something they couldn’t touch. But surely she’s paying for the use of the book, the right to read it, the temporary immersion in its story world? When you go out for dinner, you pay for your meal. Sure, you can touch your food if you want (and if your mama never told you not to play with your dinner), but you don’t get to keep it forever. You pay for the ‘use’ of it, and then that’s it. If you’re the sort of person who downloads music, you pay (or, at least, you should pay) for the right to play the music whenever you want, and listen to it as often as you like. You don’t have a physical album, but the music is yours to do with as you want for as long as you want. You’re paying for the use of it, too. The thinking that because you can press a button and have something delivered to your computer, or your ‘devices’ (a word I am coming to despise) means it has no intrinsic value is anathema to me.

If you’re not willing to pay for something you can touch – i.e. the physical book – why do you think you should get the contents of it (essentially, the same experience) for nothing? If this blogger’s problem was the ethics of paying for intangibles, shouldn’t she have felt obliged to buy the physical book?

Okay, you’re going to have to allow me a little soapboxing. I’ll keep it to a minimum, I swear.

*deep breath*

I can’t bear illegal downloading. I can’t bear piracy. I can’t bear the idea that music and books should be free because they are available online, particularly without the permission of the copyright holder. Some try to argue that they should be free because they’re ‘art’, and art’s for everyone – art is for everyone, yes. But there are libraries, and art galleries, and museums, and places you can rent books online if you really can’t engage with the physical world. In my opinion, nobody can or should work for nothing. Writers and musicians shouldn’t work for nothing just because what they do isn’t tangible. If you want to engage with or immerse yourself in or otherwise enjoy a work of art, then it should be instinctive to pay the person who created that art for their service. Perhaps the system we have now isn’t ideal, and it probably suits an outdated model of commerce and creativity, but that doesn’t mean we just get to chuck it out wholesale. We need something to replace it, something that people can get on board with, something that makes sense to everyone, both consumers and creators alike.

Part of me hates what I’m saying here. Part of me subscribes entirely to the ‘art is for everyone’ way of thinking, and would love a world where everything is available to everyone, borders be damned, and artists could just create art out of sheer love of what they where doing. But I don’t want to see a world where creatives are pushed out of existence through economic necessity, or where the creation of art is placed back into the hands of the wealthy, as was the case in the past. Even if all we pay is a pittance, whatever we can afford, a few cents or pennies here and there, it should be a given that art needs to be paid for by the people who use and rely on it. Surely that way it can keep going, and thriving, and we can all get used to paying for stuff that’s intangible – but nonetheless vital to our lives.

*clambers down off soapbox* *straightens clothing*

I thank you. Normal service will resume tomorrow.

Photo Credit: MonsieurLui via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: MonsieurLui via Compfight cc

Sort of related to this topic is this book, being published in November in the US (I’m not sure about the rest of the world). If I have the pennies, I’ll get a copy, because I think the model set forth by this particular artist may be the ‘right’ one, or at least the most acceptable to a modern audience. Interestingly, I don’t think the payment structure she has put in place for her music is the same one her publisher will be using when it comes to this book – and doesn’t that say a lot about our world and its relationship to art? Anyway. Adios!

8 thoughts on “Paying for e-Books

  1. Kate Wally

    The person who wrote that review *surely* didn’t think their comments through. They clearly didn’t wonder how they’d feel if they’d written the book.

    Nicely said. I look at e-books and marvel at how inexpensive they seem! 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I hope you’re right. I always try to explain to people, when in conversation about piracy, that they wouldn’t like it much if they worked for a week, or a month, or a year, or whatever, and their boss turned around at the end of it and told them ‘well, thanks for that. Didn’t you create some wonderful stuff, there? Surely all the payment you need for that is the satisfaction of creating it. I’m not going to actually pay you. Okay?’ Why, then, would they expect the people whose art they consume (for it is consumption, even if the book still exists once you’ve read it or the painting once you’ve viewed it) to do the same? It seems a no-brainer to me, but you’ll always have those who believe that if they *can* get something for free, illegally, that they *should*. But it’s not ‘getting one over on the man’; it’s doing someone else, someone who has worked hard, out of their rightfully-earned pay.

      Anyway. I’m soapboxing again. Someone shut me up, a’right?

  2. Mark A. King

    Completely agree. If the writer chooses to make it free, think of it as a gift. Or a free trial. You might not like it, but hey, you’ve only lost some time but could have gained something very special. If you don’t like the free book be nice to the author and tell them (politely) what you found in their work that could be improved. But thinking you have a right to a free book because it is not made of paper used just silly. I cannot touch my holiday, but the memories and experiences it gives me and my family are priceless, which doesn’t mean they come free 🙂

  3. MishaBurnett

    And yet many of the same people who object to spending $5 on a digital download because it’s not a tangible product will line up to spend $50 on a ticket to concert that will eject them without a refund if they attempt to record the performance.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yes – exactly so! And people who object to spending $5 on an e-book will happily spend the same amount, or more, on a frappa-mocha-locha-latte-cino (which takes them longer to order than it does to drink…)

  4. Jan Hawke

    Talk about sign of the times *rolls eyes* Cynically I’d say it’s about all you could expect from the vapid consumers of ‘celebrity’ obsessed media and BOGOF culture, although I’m marginally appalled that ‘people like this’ will happily fork out several coins for Hello et al that in former times wouldn’t be fit enough to use as tomorrow’s fish and chip paper…

    The whole eBook pricing is a vexed subject for me though – some of work I’ve spent 99 pennies or less on haven’t even been worth that ofttimes, but mostly it’s too depressing to think that someone’s blood, sweat and tears that sings like choirs of seraphim won’t sell for more than a few quid and a slowly diminishing author’s commission on an already titchy little pie.

    You write first for love I think – you sure don’t get rich quick on it unless you’re already ‘famous’ and incredibly lucky 😮

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yes – of course, nobody writes to be rich unless they’re Stephen King, or whoever. I just don’t think we should have this mindset that writers don’t *deserve* payment, however small. If you’re willing to read someone’s work you should be willing to pay for it, even if it’s only a small amount, and it should be anathema to rip anyone off by pirating or stealing their work. It’s like it’s ‘not as bad’ when it’s ‘only’ someone’s creative work you’re stealing, or something.

      I don’t know. I’m not an economist, nor even a published author (yet…); I don’t have the answers. All’s I got is righteous indignation. 😀

      Thanks for the comment, as always.


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