Some time in college I read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and everything changed. The way I saw humanity, the world, and how the two go together was completely different. Pretty much the same thing happened when I read A People’s History of the United States. It wasn’t just learning about events and people that weren’t taught in school, but learning that history is a story that changes depending on who is narrating. What do you think those books are worth to me?
What is it worth to parents to see their children finally turn off the TV for a few hours because they simply have to find out what happens to Harry, Hermione, and Ron? What about a really good book club discussion? Looking up at the clock and realizing you’ve been in a different world for three hours? How about a dessert serving of entertaining escapism that picks you up after a terrible week at work? Or that moment when your friend tells you they absolutely loved the book you gave them? That it changed their life? That it saved their life?
I started thinking about this after a brief, exchange on Twitter about the price of ebooks. Someone voiced what I think is a pretty common sentiment; publishers are going to struggle as long as they insist on charging more than $10 for what is essentially a computer file. I responded that you don’t really buy a file when you buy an ebook, in the exact same way that you don’t buy a bunch of paper and some ink when you buy a book. You buy the efforts of an author, editor, and publisher and all the infrastructure it takes to get a book out of an author’s head and into a reader’s hands.
But it occurred to me that I’ve been spending way too much time explaining how much books cost and not nearly enough time talking about much books are worth. What is the value you get for the money you spend? Many people are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on devices they are going to replace in a year or less. Or $25-250 or even more on dinner and drinks with friends. When two hours of movie entertainment costs $10-15 (or more) why should we be taken aback by $15 for an experience that will last at least ten times as long. (That you can give away or sell to someone else if you don’t like. Try giving a movie ticket to a friend of yours who you think is more likely to appreciate the style of the film.) Check out this post at Beyond the Margins by Randy Sue Meyers for a similar discussion, complete with research.
The point is that what a book costs in terms of money and what a book is worth are very different things. I’m not saying everyone should drop everything and spend hundreds of dollars on books or that books and ebooks should be more expensive, but that we should think of the price of the book second. So if you find yourself in a bookstore considering buying a book, remember that rainy Saturday afternoon you spent as a child reading Treasure Island, or your own child jumping around for joy with the latest Harry Potter, or passing along A Grief Observed to a friend who needs it, and then check the price. Whatever it is, you’re holding one of the best bargains around.
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