By February 19, 2010 6 Comments Read More →

Weeklings: Expensive E-books and Unapologetic Plagiarism

KindleWhile agents and authors cheer Macmillan’s stand against Amazon, some e-book aficionados are angry at authors. In an anecdote-rich but fact-impoverished article in the New York Times, Motoko Rich and Brad Stone quote a bunch of people who are willing to pay a few hundred books for a gizmo — but balk at a few more bucks for a book (“E-Book Price Increase May Stir Readers’ Passions“).

“They’re just books,” said Mr. Wagoner, who left an angry one-star review on the Amazon page for Mr. Preston’s novel. “I do other things other than reading.”

If we in the embattled book-reviewing biz need any more ammunition for our own defense, consider the concept of amateur reviewers who review a book based on price — PRICE! — rather than a subjective analysis of the author’s ability to achieve what he or she set out to accomplish.

Frankly, the best reponse to this article was written by Michael Cader on Publishers Lunch.

But also, among the large group of people who do not intend to buy an ereading device, 80 percent cited the price of the device as the biggest obstacle to ownership. Why is the conversation about a few dollars on ebook prices, instead of hundreds of dollars for a device? That’s what most people “can’t afford.”

Of course, now Rich has reported that “Apple’s Prices for E-Books May Be Lower Than Expected” (NYT). Sounds like some people have some Amazon reviews to rewrite!

While many people lament e-readers’ lack of colorful book covers, Charlie Brooker celebrates the same thing (“Why I’m an E-book Convert,” Guardian).

The lack of a cover immediately alters your purchasing habits. As soon as I got the ebook, I went on a virtual shopping spree, starting with the stuff I thought I should read – Wolf Hall, that kind of thing – but quickly found myself downloading titles I’d be too embarrassed to buy in a shop or publicly read on a bus. Not pornography, but something far worse: celebrity autobiographies.

HegemannIn other news, if you’ve found yourself wondering, “Who will be the next Kaavya Viswanathan?” it’s Helene Hegemann, the 17-year-old German author of Axolotl Roadkill (“Author, 17, Says It’s ‘Mixing,’ Not Plagiarism,” by Nicholas Kulish, NYT). Her best-selling novel about club culture is apparently a mashup of her own life — and other writers’ work. All credit to Ms. Hegemann, she is not only unapologetic but great for a pull quote.

Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.

Jim JarmuschI take that to mean that her use of other writers’ work is more authentic than the original authors’? As Laura Miller points out on Salon, Hegemann is essentially recycling something that Jim Jarmusch said much more poetically — not that he’d mind her recycling it, and not that he was the first to say it.

Also in plagiarism news, DealBook blogger Zachery Kouwe resigned after the Wall Street Journal noticed that Kouwe had borrowed more than inspiration from them (“The Accidental Plagiarist,” New York Observer). Kouwe, apparently, shared their surprise:

“I was as surprised as anyone that this was occurring,” said Mr. Kouwe, referring to the revelation that he had plagiarized. “I write essentially 7,000 words every week for the blog and for the paper and all that stuff. As soon as I saw, I guess, like six examples, I said to myself, ‘Man what an idiot. What I was thinking?’”

Harry (Not Larry) PotterAnd J. K. Rowling Faces Another Plagiarism Suit (Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor).

The suit, being brought in a London court by the estate of the English children’s author Adrian Jacobs, alleges that she lifted concepts – wizard contests, wizard prisons, wizard hospitals, and wizard colleges – from his 1987 book “The Adventures of Willy the Wizard: No. 1 Livid Land” and used them in writing “Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.”

Will this one have any more merit than the one in which Nancy Stouffer alleged that Harry Potter was a rip-off of her character “Larry Potter”? Only time will tell.

And, finally, In this comment to a blog post I demonstrate my superiority to the post’s author without citing anything specific.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

6 Comments on "Weeklings: Expensive E-books and Unapologetic Plagiarism"

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  1.' J.C. Samuelson says:

    Agreed that reviewing on price is silly. However, I think it’s equally ridiculous (and substantially more callous) to charge similar prices for the electronic editions as for the print editions. If, in fact, that’s what’s happening.

    It’s easy to see the logic of charging similar prices – it’s the content you pay for, not the package – and it’s true that the publisher should be able to set its own prices. And yet I can’t help but ask, why would I pay the same amount (or more) for an electronic edition? Doesn’t a good part of the cost of a printed book stem from its physical manufacture?

    Just a couple random thoughts.

  2. Keir Graff says:

    J.C., I agree with your basic point, but where’s the evidence that publishers are charging the same (or similar) price for an e-book as for print? It seems to me that most publishers, even the ones who dislike Amazon’s $9.99 price point, accept that they won’t be able to charge $24, as they would for a hardcover. Yes, they’re asking something similar to paperback editions, but you also have to wait a year for a paperback. If readers want the e-book to be released at the same time as the hardcover, then I think it’s understandable that the publishers want to find a price that doesn’t cannibalize those sales.

    But I would like to see patience on all sides. It’s still early days and the long-term implications of pricing aren’t clear to anyone just yet. What I find kind of amusing is the customers who rail against the fat-cat publishers and their titanically wealthy authors. James Patterson aside, book publishing is a pretty threadbare industry compared to most, and there just isn’t as much money in it as many would like to believe.

    I want books to be affordable, but most of all, I want books to be published. If book publishing tanks like the newspaper biz, we’ll all be poorer for it. Sure, small publishers can take up a lot of the literary slack, but they won’t be able to pay great nonfiction writers enough money to go write scrupulously researched works, either.

    Thanks for weighing in!

  3.' Connie Faull says:

    Keir Graff,

    I appreciate that you want the Publishing Industry to come through, I too want to see it suceed. However, being from Detroit, over the last year, I have heard many people in this country rail against the automotive industry as to how they mishandled their own business yada yada yada. We also see the overpaidexecutives in the banking industry who received ridiculous bonuses for helping to crash their own indsutry and with the world’s economy. Don’t we need to take a look at the publishing industry as well and ask, why should I have to pay more for books (especially an ebook that I don’t own, I can’t lend out and I can’t sell on e-bay or to a used book dealer to recoup my money after I’m done with it) just so publishers can keep their ritzy Manhattan offices, be reimbursed for their client lunches or whatever else they do. Don’t all industries, in this day and age, need to take a look at their bottom line and see how they can stop wasting money so they can put out a quality and affordable product, instead of just going a long with “politics as usual” and screwing over the consumers?

  4. Keir Graff says:

    Connie, I couldn’t agree more that all businesses need to look at the top and bottom lines and reevaluate the way they do business. Top-level compensation is often out of whack with sustainable practices, and CEOs get more and more perks while low-level employees are asked to do work that was once done by two or even three people. That said, I maintain that even New York publishing isn’t nearly as ritzy as most people perceive it to be–and, from my vantage point, I’ve certainly seen that publishers have been hacking unnecessary expenses across the board. Personally, I’d love to see them hack those multimillion-dollar advances in favor of strengthening their midlists and backlists, but I don’t expect miracles.

    To the point of e-books, I agree with you that something you can’t own in the same way as a physical book shouldn’t necessarily be priced in the same way as a physical book. But I’m guessing that the savings from not printing physical books probably amounts to a few dollars per book. (I would love to see something concrete on this.) The fact remains that the greatest cost in creating a book is creative effort–by the author, by the editor, sometimes even by the people in sales and marketing. If publishers are forced to work with even smaller margins, the books will suffer.

    I think it comes down to expectations. Do you want your e-book to be available on the same day as the hardcover? And, if so, are you willing to pay a few bucks more? Or do you mind waiting a bit for a cheaper e-book? The primacy of hardbacks is a topic for another day, but I don’t see publishers abandoning them this year or next.

    One blogger, on the Guardian I think, suggested that e-books could be a subscription service–that your subscription gives you browsing rights to a huge number of e-books, as many as you want, but only so long as your subscription is current. Given the impermanence of e-books I wonder if this isn’t the right solution. But I also share the concerns of the recent NYRB essay in which the author worries about the ultimate fragility of a library made of bytes and pixels.

    Thanks for the comment!

  5.' thorn says:


    For a variety of opinions and some excellent information on electronic books and their world, visit the blog:

    The Fictionwise site has been selling DRM-protected e-books for many years. On that site, ‘Wolf Hall’ currently sits at $20.00 for non-members, $17.00 for members. Fine. That’s a hot new title. ‘Infinite Jest’ lists at $17.99 for non-members, $15.29 for members — and it’s been out for over 15 years. Perhaps that’s a bad example, ’cause it’s huge. How about ‘High Fidelity’ by Nick Hornby, a much shorter text. It lists at $14.00 for non-members; $11.90 for members. That book came out in 1995. The customer must judge for him- or herself whether these prices are acceptable. They are about equal to what one would pay for the trade paperback; perhaps double the price for mass-market (if such editions of these titles ever existed). When one considers that the content is licensed material — meaning, first sale doctrine does not apply — e-book adopters may begin to seem a bit less petty in their disgruntlement, regardless how misplaced the one-star Amazon reviews might be.

    And as regards the devices themselves: Yes, they are expensive up front. But have you priced enough shelving to hold 1500 books, lately?

  6. Keir Graff says:

    Thanks for your thoughts and the link. I agree completely that publication date should be a factor in pricing, and that there is a difference between ownership and licensing. I also agree that the customer must judge whether these are acceptable. Ultimately, the customer’s judgment will drive the conversation. What has surprised me is the anger (on other blogs; Likely Stories readers are always well behaved) that some readers have expressed on this issue. They have the power to not buy, and when they don’t, the publishers will find a price at which they will. And even if one thinks that publishers are limo-rolling fat cats, it seems that readers would share the concern of authors who worry about their place in the new pricing scheme. It was hard enough to earn a crust as a writer even before e-readers….

    I do know how much it costs to shelve 1500 books–and I consider it money well spent!

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