Why Are T-Shirts More Valuable Than Ebooks?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

My brothers-in-law recently started a T-shirt sales website. Grizz Riley.com sells comfy, cool T-shirts for $25. I fully support their entrepreneurial launch. But I couldn’t help thinking about it in comparison to publishers, selling ebooks for a just couple of bucks. It struck me as odd that our society values ebooks at a fraction of the price of a T-shirt.

These fine T-shirts sell for $25 each.

The company I work for, Booktrope, sells most of its ebooks for $2.99. We’ve just distributed our 2 millionth title, so we have a lot of data to go by, and we’ve found $2.99 to be the sweet spot for ebook pricing. Why so low?

The price of an ebook—or any product really—settles out at whatever amount the market can bear. It’s the old law of supply and demand, right? But with that logic, ebooks would be more than five times more plentiful than T-shirts. Neither ebooks nor T-shirts are in short supply. Certainly there are plenty of both. So that doesn’t explain why T-shirts cost so much more than ebooks.

These fine ebooks sell for $2.99 or $3.99 each.

These fine ebooks sell for $2.99 or $3.99 each.

Maybe it’s brand cache? A car from, say Bugatti, is much more expensive than a car from Hyundai. And certainly, big brand publishers can—and do—charge more for ebooks than indie publishers and authors who self-publish. But no matter how fine their reputation, there aren’t many publishers who can get away with selling an ebook for $25, the price of a single T-shirt.

When comparing T-shirts to ebooks, let’s not even look at the price-per-hour scale. How many hours go into the production of an ebook? The writing, the editing, the proofing, the cover design, the production…a book can take years to finish. But a T-shirt? Well, designing the graphic on the T-shirt might take a few hours, but I’d argue that at most, it takes as long as designing a book cover. So the relative value of ebooks-to-T-shirts can’t be attributed to the work involved in making them. Ebooks take much more time.

Let’s look at the price of an ebook versus a T-shirt in terms of its overall value in your life. Right now, you can get HarperCollins’ Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup for 99 cents. Nintey-nine cents! Reading that book, with its profound insights and gripping descriptions, could possibly change your perspective on humanity. But its going rate is less than a buck! Will a T-shirt stay with you for the rest of your life—at any price?

I settle into the uncomfortable conclusion that our society simply values things like clothes higher than books. Why else would we shell out $25 for a T-shirt but balk at buying a mystery for that price?

But what can we do, right? Wait a minute, maybe we can do something. Why doesn’t the publishing industry add T-shirts to our lists! Sell one shirt for $25 and throw in an ebook for free! I bet if we run the numbers, we’d come out ahead.

10 thoughts on “Why Are T-Shirts More Valuable Than Ebooks?

  1. Cheri

    I’m a bit of a tightwad, so here’s my justification: I’ll wear the t-shirt 25 times over its’ lifetime, making it $1 per wear. I’ll only read the book once, since there are so many other books I want to read. Cost per read = $2.99, which sounds good to me.

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  2. Hattie

    You can’t compare the two.

    Stating something should be costed according to the amount of effort that went into it is irrelevant. Things are just not costed that way, as you hint at when acknowledging the difference in car costs due to branding/perception of quality/actual quality/clever marketing. It’s about the perceptions and use the the end user gets out of it. It’s also about production costs, marketing, potential audience size… trying to connect an ebook (why just ebooks?) with an item of apparel which serves a completely different purpose for the purchaser is just playing with statistics at best.

    If it’s meant to be a thought-provoking piece about how you feel books should be more valued, then state it. Don’t just try and push for a relationship between things where there isn’t one. It just invalidates the argument.

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  3. Pete Nikolai

    When buying clothes, we tend to think in terms of how much better we will look or how much comfort the item will provide per dollar spent. When buying books we tend to think in terms of how much entertainment or helpful information we hope to receive per hour spent. Time is our most scarce resource. Bottom line: Most people value what others think of them more than becoming a better person. Improving my image is relatively quick and easy. Self-improvement is difficult and expensive—even if books are cheap.

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  4. jon

    I think I missed the part where you mention how the cost to make a t-shirt is probably more than $2.99 and that is for each t-shirt sold. What is the cost to make each e-book. And you do mention time – but unless they have outsourced all management of t-shirt production, sales and shipping each t-shirt will add time to the sale. Is the same true of each e-book sale. I appreciate the argument, but there is so much missing that it is too easy to dismiss. Maybe a more well thought out long form article could be interesting.

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  5. jwharm

    When you \purchase\ an e-book, you are actually purchasing a license that allows you to read a digital version of the book. That license is revocable. It cannot be transferred and often cannot be shared. Typically, you are limited to accessing the e-book through a single ecosystem (eg, Amazon Kindle or Apple iBooks). To me, such a license has less value than a t-shirt!

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  6. Jon Jermey

    You can buy t-shirts for a dollar each at the charity shop, and indeed also on EBay:

    http://www.ebay.com.au/itm/Rabbit-Pipe-Wonderland-Hobo-T-shirt-Singlets-Mens-Womens-groovy-retro-funky-T-/310416136768?pt=AU_Womens_Clothing_2&var&hash=item48463e5a40&_uhb=1

    …if all you want is a cheap t-shirt. Presumably your brothers-in-law believe that their t-shirts have some unique and desirable qualities which make them worth 25 times that. Whether that’s true or not is something the market will reveal. Just as only the market can reveal whether sufficiently large numbers of people want to buy ‘Just Friends With Benefits’ to make you regret setting the price so low.

    But in the meantime let’s stick to Economics 101: an item is worth only what someone will pay for it.

    Reply
  7. Jon Jermey

    Update: I see now that the eBay site is a bait-and-switch trick, and the cheapest t-shirts on eBay are actually $4 with postage. My apologies; but the point about charity shops remains.

    Reply
  8. LS

    I own maybe 50 t-shirts and until they wear out I have no need to buy more. At least half of these shirts were gifts, hand me downs or purchased as a fundraiser.

    I read 2-10 books a day, have a physical book collection of over 6500 books, and a 3000+ ebook collection. I have given the publishing world far more money than any clothing store, and if they raise books prices, it will just mean I will not be able to afford the 5-6 new releases I buy a week. It would also put a stop to me buying the ebook versions of of my existing paperback collection.

    There is also no good reason for an ebook to be the same price as a paperback, it should be at least $5 cheaper, if not more. They don’t need to use paper, ink or glue, and there is no warehouse storage or transport involved. Also, like mentioned above you are only buying a license to read the book.

    My books are some of my most valued possessions, but it’s simple, if ebooks are cheaper, I will buy even more than I do now. If t-shirts were cheaper, I would still only buy as many as I need.

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  9. Brian Hoffman

    Cheri is right. The marginal utility of the tee shirt is greater – 25 uses versus 1. Another problem with this analysis is this. The value of an object (or service) is never determined by the effort to create it. Otherwise janitors would be millionaires and doctors would make minimum wage.

    The market, in all its mysterious ways, determine value. The lower price of ebooks allows readers to consume more. So, to get the same utility out of ebooks I’d have to buy 25 and spend almost $75. Therefore, ebooks are worth more than a tee shirt.

    One last thing. It doesn’t take any brain power to wear a tee shirt.

    Reply

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