I’ve been thinking a lot about how we value online things in light of a few interesting posts I’ve read recently. The first was Walt Crawford’s post about some negative reactions people had to his charging money for the electronic version of his book. One critic wrote:

But seriously, Walt, $29.50 for a paperback is bad enough but $20 for the download? Downloads are free.* I could understand maybe asking for donations. Charging a buck or two is acceptable, if you want to be a dick. But $20 for a PDF is madness. Like, RIAA suing tween music downloaders for their parent’s retirement fund level of madness.

A commenter on another blog wrote this:

Since his book is published through Lulu.com, you can get an estimate for how much it would cost to manufacture the book on a per item basis: less then $10. Since he bought an ISBN, there’s some retail markup but even factoring that into the cost, he’s pretty much doubling the price for the printed edition. Charging twice as much as the printed edition for a download is a clear cut case of shenanigans.

Where does this idea come from that any creative work available online should be free? It’s ok to charge for a printed book, but to charge for a PDF of a book is unreasonable? If so, where is a book’s value? Is it in the paper and ink used to print it? Is it the weight of it in your hand? Or is it in the words and the creative work put into it? A book’s value comes from the creative work of the writer, and that should have value no matter what format it’s in.

Take me for example. I wrote a book that came out a year ago. It is currently only available for sale in print. No one has ever told me that I have no right to sell my book and make what little money I do from it. If I took that book and started to sell it online for less money (but not for free), I would be doing nothing different than if I only sold it in print. I’d just be making my book available via another format. I guess I fail to understand how something being in a different format ends up having less or no value.

That’s not to say that I don’t understand why some people give away eBooks for free. There are lots of good arguments for it from a marketing sense. It gets you more exposure. It makes people more likely to buy your books because most people really don’t want to read a book online. So if that’s the way you choose to market your book, great. But there are still lots of folks who charge for books in PDF, like Tim O’Reilly (this is a book I’m dying to read) and 37 Signals (though they also have a free version).

So many of us have argued vociferously that what we do online has value. Some argue that writing a blog should be considered towards tenure. Others argue that blog posts are as valuable as (if not more valuable than) journal articles. If the effort of what we put into our stuff online is equal to what we put into print, then there should be nothing wrong with making money from it. I don’t understand how one can say that people shouldn’t make money from their creative work because it’s online, but I think we all have these subtle (and sometimes unconscious) assumptions about certain things that we think should be free because they’re online. (And what we sometimes forget is that just because something is free doesn’t mean the person who created it isn’t making money off of us.)

And creative work isn’t the only thing that’s undervalued online. I’ve been wanting to create an online conference for some time; a conference that sort of fits into the big space between something like Internet Librarian and something like Code4Lib. We need a conference for librarians who are tech-savvy enough where most of Internet Librarian is a review, but who would feel totally over their head at a Code4Lib. There are a lot of us who fit into that category. We also need online conferences. We aren’t all in the position of being able to travel all over the country several times a year, so it makes sense to develop online alternatives. And technologies have come so far in recent years that an online conference could be developed that would be highly interactive and provide real value to attendees.

Why have I not bothered to pursue this yet? Well, other than the fact that I’m really busy, I haven’t done it yet because I don’t think people will value an online conference in the same way they would value a physical one. When most folks sign up to attend an online webcast or something like that, they rarely ask their supervisor for the time off to do it. They rarely tape a sign to their door saying “at an online conference” so people will leave them alone. And if something comes up at work, they will likely leave the webcast to deal with it. Hey, I’ve done it. I actually had a student in the grad school class I taught last semester who had his reference shifts scheduled at the same time as our synchronous online class sessions. Talk about continuous partial attention! The fact is, people will not value an online conference/webcast/chat session in the same way they would a physical one. They will not carve out their time in the same way. And as a result, they will be likely to drop it when something else comes up.

We talk so much about wanting to have more professional online interactions, especially at a time when flying has become almost intolerable. But we don’t give them the same amount of weight as face-to-face interactions. And I think until we do, we will not have truly successful synchronous online conferences.

Thanks to Laura Crossett who really got me thinking about the “2.0 Aesthetic” and what it means for us not to value things because they’re online.

*No, downloads are not free. Bandwidth does cost money and when something becomes a runaway hit, it can get extremely expensive to provide access to it. We can download This American Life for free. But it cost WBEZ $152,000 for the Internet bandwidth to distribute the show in 2007 (please give them money to keep This American Life freely downloadable — I did).