Time is Money

I’d been planning to post today about ebook pricing because I’d be grateful if you could take a look at this poll which Neil Clarke is running on his LiveJournal. The more information we get the easier it is to provide people with what they are willing to buy.

Had it been me doing the poll I would have asked a supplementary question to the people who said they would buy from big stores but not direct from Neil or myself. It must be pretty obvious that we get more money if you buy direct, so what is the attraction of big stores? Is it the convenience of Amazon’s one-click purchase? Is it the payment method? (Taking credit cards costs money, so you need a high turnover to justify it.) Is it concerns about security or reliability? This is, I think, a major issue in the online marketplace.

While I was thinking about this, however, a light bulb went off. A week or so ago, during the debate on $0.99 ebooks, Cat Valente asked why people are prepared to pay $6 or so for a latte, but not $3 for a book (the exact amounts are probably wrong, but the idea is there). I think I might know the answer.

When you buy a latte (or a movie ticket, or a CD, or whatever) you expect to get the enjoyment out of it almost immediately. There is no major investment on your part. When you buy a book, however, you only get the enjoyment out of it if you spend the many hours necessary to read it. We all live very busy lives these days, and our time is valuable. Many people I know (including myself) already own more books than they can hope to read in the rest of their lifetime. So when you buy a book you are not asking yourself “can I afford $3?” (or however much it costs), you are asking yourself “can I afford 10 hours?” (or however long you estimate it will take you to read it). If you are going to read it, the cost is much less of an issue, and you may well be prepared to pay a lot more given the amount of time it will amuse you for.

Does this make sense to people? Because if so it suggests that the only effect of cutting the price of books is to try to encourage people to buy books that they won’t read.

[I note that the same does not apply to Clarkesworld and Salon Futura. What is happening there is that we are trying to find the price people will pay for the convenience of having an ebook edition of something they can get for free online.]

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20 Responses to Time is Money

  1. kirsten says:

    well, i am a “potential” customer. that is i am one of the great horde of people who have email, have computers, look like we know what we are doing… and are terrified you will find out we dont.

    i have yet to manage to make an ebook work. i dont understand how they work. the closest i have is pdf.. and i HATE books on pdsf because its a hassle to turn the page.

    so, you want my business? have a clear, easy to find button with “new to ebooks?’ on it. when i go there explain in simple plain language how i get one, what i need to work it, and etc.

    i will buy more from big stores than the author partly because i am ashamed to ask the author how something works, but not so much with big stores….

    also i know many people who feel that its less embarrassing to ask for a return, or help, or what not from amazon

    dont forget bundling!people buying a lot fo other stuff from amazon will throw your book in the pile more easily than making a “special trip” to buy from you.

    lastly….credit cards are a big deal. you can solve that with a paypal button to an extent..but you have to put a big sign on it says “pay by credit card with our PAyPal account” lots of people only think of paypal as direct from their bank.

    • Cheryl says:

      Thanks, that was very useful. I do, of course, have an “about ebooks” section on the store’s website, and a sign saying we take credit cards, but they may not be obvious enough.

      I’ll post something in a day or two which I think may help you with getting started.

  2. Neil Clarke says:

    I didn’t ask the question because I’ve already had feedback on the subject. Amazon/B&N/Apple will load the ebook onto your device for you and provide one-stop shopping. Going direct or to indie ebooksellers requires you to manually load ebooks and causes your archives to scattered around the net.

  3. A couple of answers:

    1. I buy nearly all of my e-books through Kindle. It is the one click purchase that is the appeal, yes. Also, there is no overhead of then getting the ebook on to my e-reader. Also, the ability to preview the ebook is very important. Previews may sit on my Kindle for a while. I only then make the purchase if I know I’m going to continue reading.

    2. It is frustrating, that even passionate readers baulk at paying for books. I’m exactly the same, we all are. Just as frustrating how many people submit to ‘zines, and how few subscribe to them. I think perhaps the approach with prices is about variability. There’s certainly a case for .99 price levels if you are trying to get people to try a new product. And theres also a case for much higher pricing to establish something as a premium product.

    My tuppence worth…

  4. CarolC says:


    You raise a very good point about how confusing the terminology around ebook can be to people who don’t eat, breathe and sleep computers! I poked about the internet to find a sensible explanation of the main points and one of the best I found was at…. Cheryl et al.’s Wizard’s Tower Bookstore 😀


  5. EMoon says:

    The “time is money and the time spent reading factors into the cost” thing doesn’t work for me at all. Despite having more books than I can easily read, I do not consider reading time when buying books, and just recently bought eight or nine paper books in a bookstore because I spotted them and the first five pages looked interesting. (Admittedly, the last of the group went in my stack because it was thin, and I thought it wouldn’t take as long to read as the fattest.) I don’t think reader-bookbuyers consider the time it takes to read a book “cost” in comparison to money (cost in time to read a different book, yes.)

    The desire to get something for the cheapest possible price does, I think…but latte sellers are not undercutting one another to the extent that e-book sellers are. In the days when gasoline stations had price wars, people would (as my mother pointed out) spend more on gas–plus their time– to drive miles across town or even another town if nearby, to get it for 1-2 cents less per gallon, because it was “cheaper”. It’s feeding frenzy, not any kind of balanced thought about time and money.

    The desire for ease of shopping–the one-click purchase thing–is a more conscious contributor to online shopping decisions (or online v. realworld shopping decisions.) And here is where time = money. Online shopping eliminates the time spent going to the stores and prowling around for what you want. Online hunting can still take time, but you aren’t spending time in the car, bus, or train getting to the store (only to find, much of the time, that what you want isn’t there.)

  6. Yonmei says:

    I don’t buy ebooks (so far) partly because I don’t own any device which is really convenient for reading them on (obviously I have a laptop, and obviously I read fiction on that, but if I just want to settle down with a book, everything else I can do on my laptop is a distraction from reading.

    But partly because no one seems to have resolved the problem of being able to browse before I buy. I want to pick the book off the shelf and estimate the length (yes, this has to do with time-investment, but often thick is better if I already know I like the writer). I want to feast at least briefly on the story and the prose inside, not a chunk selected for me by the author but whatever part of it I choose to glance at.

    And of course with real books, if I decide I don’t want to keep/can’t be bothered to finish, well, I’ve wasted £6.99 or whatever, but the book itself can be left in a charity shop or even on a train seat or a hotel lounge, ready for the next person with a fiction emergency – so someone else will get good value out of what I bought.

  7. Coth says:

    It makes sense to me, and it is years since I started making exactly that calculation and adjusting my buying decisions accordingly. I still buy more books than I read, but nothing like as many books.

    In common with some others on this thread, I make little current use of ebooks. If I picked up a travelling gig again then I’d buy a reader, and the time element would be a factor in which reader to buy.

    On a slightly different note, I buy quite a few of the books I actually buy as new paper books from actual bricks-and-mortar bookshops, and pay higher prices for them because I value being able to browse among real books while considering my purchases. I consider the extra over on-line price as the payment for a better buying experience. It is still a pity, however, that I can only afford to take time to browse a few times a year.

  8. Mike Scott says:

    People are prepared to pay more for a latte than for an ebook because they can see that the supplier incurs a maginal cost in getting them their latte. They have to pay for the materials, the barrista’s wages, and so on. By contrast, the cost incurred in selling an extra copy of an ebook is as close to zero as makes no difference — the costs of the author’s time, editorial work, marketing, etc., have already been incurred, and the extra copy makes no difference to those costs. Pricing stuff where the first one sold costs $100,000 to make, and all subsequent ones costs $0, is difficult.

  9. The question for me on e-books is not whether I’m willing to spend $3 for a book, but whether I’m willing to spend well over $100 for one. I don’t have an e-book reader, because most of my reading falls into one of two categories:

    1) Endeavour Award reading, which is done with physical copies. I can’t begin to imagine the logistical nightmare of trying to do it with e-book readers as long as there is no industrywide standard format, plus it would exclude potential volunteers who don’t have any kind of appropriate device.

    2) Odd stuff I find at Powell’s, which is either out of print or made for small enough markets that the companies are not motivated to make e-book versions.

    Yes, e-books can be read on other devices. I load the Hugo voters’ packet onto my netbook and read it on the train, but it’s not a lot of fun reading it on something that can’t display a full page all at once. So until the electronic-only work that’s worth over $100 to read comes along, or I happen to buy a device for other reasons that also happens to be functional as an e-book reader, it’s physical books for me.

  10. V says:

    The distinction for me, as I make the point on the Clarkesworld blog, is between reading material as object and reading material as tool (whether tool for enjoyment or tool for reference). I want to own physical copies of books that are worth owning as objects. But I don’t want to fuss with hardcopy for books that are tools. In addition, I do wish that more books I get had bundle options so I could read the electronic version and not risk dropping the lovely signed personalized copy in a puddle when I drag it out in the world to read, and get angry at myself. I view books as a luxury, one that I allow myself to indulge either by going to conventions, or going to the library, mostly. So cheaper ebooks won’t mean I’ll buy more; it will still have to be something I really want. And either a good review, an interesting blurb, a recommendation from a friend, or an author I know will be what inspires me to buy.

  11. twilight2000 says:

    In general, I’ll buy from the author if I know the author is selling, but I tenacious that way.

    I wonder if a “group” (like lulu?) sales point where authors sell their stuff collectively would work? A place to send folks as an alternative to Amazon? I suspect if there were a central site, one owned by the authors as a collective, we could drive traffic to it more effectively.

    The problem that some people have about “ebooks not being worth anything” doesn’t explain why folks buy at Amazon instead of from the author – in fact, the author should sell more if that’s the case because it’s clear that you (the author) are selling work you created – which should make it worth more not less.

    What “Kirsten” said above: “pay by credit card with our PAyPal account” lots of people only think of paypal as direct from their bank.” is important too – a *lot* of folks think paypal is only a direct pull from their bank account and they’re not willing to make it available to just anyone…

    But for me, realistically, it’s many of the same issues “Yonmei” has – i don’t do ebooks because I can’t give them away, I can’t browse them, I can’t even lend them in most cases – so any price on an e-book as the downside of not being able to leave it on a bench for the next reader (mind you, I could “leave it for the next reader” in an online fashion if such a place existed…)

    • Cheryl says:

      a central site, one owned by the authors as a collective

      You mean like Book View Cafe?

      And while my own store isn’t a collective, it does give the vast majority of what you pay to the small press publishers we stock.

      I can’t give them away, I can’t browse them, I can’t even lend them in most cases

      That’s only true of books that have DRM. None of the books I sell (or the ones Neil sells) have DRM.

  12. Susan Loyal says:

    While you’re entirely right that I already own more books than I’ll be able to read before I drop, I haven’t noticed that’s decreasing the number of books I buy at all. On the other hand, I’ve mostly stopped going to the movies because two tickets cost between 20 and 23 dollars here, and for that I’m used now to being able to buy a couple of books. (When tickets to a movie cost approximately half the price of a hardback book, my husband and I went to the movies about once a week.) Commestibles are all about where I am, what mood I’m in, etc., while entertainment is about perceived (and comparative) value. For reasons that continue to be unclear to me, I have relatively little hesitation about spending $11 or less on an ebook. (Below about $4, that goes down to almost no hesitation.) Get the price to $12, and I have to deliberate about what else I want to buy that month, and whether I want those titles more than this one, etc. At .99 I don’t think my frontal lobes even engage. I just buy the thing. (If everything cost .99, no doubt that would change.) Where magazines are concerned, I compare cost/value to $2.99 per month for Asimov’s. There’s some irrationality involved. Asimov’s often doesn’t have more than two stories I enjoy in an issue. Clarkesworld often has two stories I enjoy. But Asimov’s offers several more possibilities per issue than Clarkesworld, so I find myself hesitating to spend the same amount for the two magazines. I bought Neil’s .99 issue at once.

    Where Salon Futura is concerned, it’s all about payment methods and credit card charges for currency exchange. (I stopped doing business with The Book Depository over an inadvertent double charge that resulted in the worst customer service experience I’ve ever had.) Given that I have additional fees applied for overseas charges and for currency exchange, I think very carefully before I purchase anything from the UK these days.

    • Cheryl says:

      Where Salon Futura is concerned, it’s all about payment methods and credit card charges for currency exchange.

      Yes, I know. Not being able to sell in US$ is killing my store. But then if I sell through someone else’s US store I get much less money. Also Dark Spires is available on Amazon.com and no one is buying it. I’m not sure that Salon Futura would fare any better.

      • Susan Loyal says:


        I just bought Dark Spires from the amazon store, for what it’s worth. And if I’d realized that it was available that way, I’d have bought it much sooner. My bad. If Salon Futura were available from amazon.com at either .99 or 1.99 per issue, I’d buy it. I don’t know whether that makes it worth offering there. ($2.99 puts it into the “compare with Asimov’s before commiting” heap. I might buy it. Sorry to be so irrational, but consumer behavior mostly is. I gnash my teeth over every PS Publishing title I want, because I hate the inconvenience of ordering directly from them, and I hate the Royal Mail charges. Now there’s something that would get me to order from your store and frack the credit card extra charges! PS Publishing ebooks. Yummy.)


  13. The time thing is definitely a factor for me. I buy a LOT of books, always have, but I haven’t been buying much in the way of e-books largely because I already have a wealth of electronic material to read, much of it review copies.

    Which is not to say I am cheap, but I am absolutely measuring my time, and my time with the family iPad is limited. Things may change when I get my own! But between my laptop and the iPad and real books, and all that other stuff in my life, time is something that is squeezed very thinly.

    On the one hand I am starting to feel oppressed by the teetering pile of books on the To Read shelves in my hallway, but I also live in fear that once I start acquiring ebooks, with few space boundaries to guide me, I will go crazy and end up eying my over-stuffed iPad with the same amount of stress and wariness.

    So in the long term I am all for ebooks, and I suspect as my walls start to groan in protest that a good chunk of the thousands of dollars I spend each year on books will head in that direction – but in practice, just not there yet. I don’t want to mindlessly acquire e-texts that I’m never going to have time to read.

    Having said that, I’ve spent a small fortune on digital downloads of audio plays and audio books in the last three months because they feel like they are entertaining me and buying time for me simultaneously.

    Ahh, time. If you could sell that as a digital download, I’d be all over it.

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