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The Fair Price of Books that May Not Even Be Books at All

While we take every opportunity to encourage book lovers to support their local indie bookstores, we’re not blind: we understand there are many, many ways to aquire books at less than retail price. From whole sale bookstores to Scribd to the Kindle Unlimited program, it’s pretty easy these days to get your hands on a steeply discounted book, or in the case of subscription services, books that cost…well, we really don’t know how much those books cost, do we?

These are the questions being grappled with today by French bibliophiles, according to a recent article in the Economist (log-in required).

“A law passed in 1981 bans the sale of any book at anything other than the price decreed by its publisher,” says the article. “But the advent of e-commerce and e-readers has prompted questions…. Can you fix the price of a book if it is part of an all-you-can-read subscription service? Are audiobooks books at all? And what of authors who self-publish?”

According to The New York Times, “audiobook sales have doubled in the last five years while print and e-book sales are flat.” So with more people listening to their books and no growth in people actually reading, are they the same medium, or different?

Psychology Today offered a fine counterpoint opinion piece, which I’ll summarize here: while listening to audiobooks can be good because you’re engaging with literature at times you wouldn’t be otherwise, such as when you’re washing dishes or working out at the gym, that engagement is not the same engagement as when you’re reading a physical book. Listening to audiobooks is passive; reading is active.

Ultimately, I think it’s fair—necessary even—to consider audiobooks and written texts as fundamentally different mediums. Asking which is superior is a bit like asking, “Should I see the movie or read the book?” or even “Should I read the summary article or the entire book?” They are different forms based on the same work. Which one you should engage depends on what you are willing to give to it (time, above all) and what you hope to get out of it.

Either way, publishers and authors (and in the case of audiobooks, the narrators) need to be paid, regardless of how much the book is selling for.

So what do you think? Same medium, or different?