Depending on location, a Big Mac nowadays costs between three and five dollars. Meanwhile, ebooks are increasingly priced between $2.99 and $0.99 —less than a Big Mac. Indeed, many authors feel compelled to offer their books entirely free of charge, at least for limited periods. The reasoning is that if readers like your “freebie,” they’ll go on to buy your other books. With 4,500 new books published in the English language every day, the competition for readers is fierce, and you’ve got to get your readers hooked somehow, right? “Freebies” and low prices are supposed to attract readers.
But do they?
There are now so many “freebies” on the book market today that a free book is no longer much of a novelty. Readers can peruse the various sites, see what’s being thrown after them at the moment, and select what appeals to their momentary whim based on the cover, the genre, the cover blurb etc. Readers interested in a free read will rarely buy their next book; they’ll just look for the next freebie.
On the other hand, it is human nature to value things that are costly. People don’t necessarily like the way a Mercedes looks — but they love the prestige of owning one. (God, won’t you buy me…. Etc.) Without bothering to look inside, people ooh and aah about a house that cost 10 million bucks or a yacht that cost 100 million (it doesn’t even have to be seaworthy!). But how many people can really taste the difference between a bottle of wine that costs $5 and the one that costs $500? Would you want to be put to the test?
So does it really make sense to price books below the price of a Big Mac?
What is a Big Mac? It is a consumable, which MacDonald’s assures us is always the same not matter where or when you buy it — i.e. the same quality and quantity of beef, the same rolls, the same veggies. There is never supposed to be anything unique or creative about a Big Mac. It is only supposed to provide an admittedly large but nevertheless finite number of calories for consumption. You buy a Bic Mac to eat it, absorb the energy it pumps into your system, and move on. You don’t want to keep a Bic Mac around to savor year after year, nor do you want give a Big Mac to your friends and family for special occasions such as weddings, birthdays or Christmas.
And a book? By definition and per copyright laws, each book is a unique creation. It is neither a consumable nor a commodity. It is not even a replication of someone else’s work, unless it is a translation or a re-issue of an earlier book. Books are some of the most popular gifts of our age, and a book has no “shelf-life.” It can survive decades, centuries, even millennia (e.g. the Bible, the Iliad).
So why should a book sell more cheaply than a Big Mac? Do readers value books so little? Or are we, as authors, devaluing our own products? What do you think?
Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader has a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg. She has published numerous works of fiction and non-fiction. Visit her website: http://www.helenapschrader.com for a complete description and reviews of her publications, or follow her blog: http://schradershistoricalfiction.blogspot.com for updates on current works in progress, recent reviews and excerpts. Her most recent release, Defender of Jerusalem, tells the story of the historical Balian d’Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187.