A Thought on the Shifting Ideal of Value and Price

I read this piece in the Bookseller today and there were a couple of comments I’d like to address. First, here’s one from everybody’s favorite literary crusader, Doug Preston:

“I think Jeff Bezos is an evangelist as much as he is a businessman. He believes he’s making the world a better place and I think he’s less concerned about making a profit. Now that might sound like a nice thing but if you study history you’ll realize it is the people who believed that they were right, believed it absolutely, who are the ones who do the most damage.”

Can’t disagree with him there. It is very true that people who believe that they’re right even in the face of mounting contradictory evidence, are capable of doing the most harm. All I can say is, as such, Preston himself needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

But his relative cluelessness and lack of self-awareness notwithstanding, there’s another quote in the piece that I find far more interesting. It’s from author Germaine Greer:

“Amazon wants to sell e-books at less, so they should. They should cost less because they don’t have to be put together, stitched, printed, designed, blah, blah, blah. If you skip all that and all you have got is a ribbon of text on a Kindle, then it should cost you pennies, frankly.”

Now this is obviously going to set some people on edge. I, for one, am not down with the pennies assessment, but I do agree that the pricing for ebooks should reflect the far lower production costs. As a side note, does anyone else find it kind of ridiculous that many publishers are now openly dismissing production costs as not that big of a deal yet at the same time arguing royalties need to stay low to cover those expensive costs? Which is it? I think it’s pretty obvious that they’d like it to be both, depending on the question they’re answering, and who they’re answering it to. Remember, just a couple of years ago, these same publishers were swearing up one side and down the other that ebooks weren’t cheaper to produce than print, and some even went so far as to suggest they might actually be more expensive. The massive profits publishers are pulling in from ebooks today shut that line of thought right up, exposing it as the lie it always was. Anyway, back to the quote…

Here’s a tweet I found in response to it:

“Ebooks should cost what readers are willing to pay for good writing, editing and design. Many readers value those far more than pennies” — Caleb Woodbridge @calebwoodbridge

Here’s where I have an issue. The word “should” in respect to what readers want to pay is out of place. There is no place for should there. Readers will pay what they want to pay, be it $20 or just the pennies that Greer suggests. There’s no should involved, only what the market will bear. But this got me thinking about the notion of value and how that relates to price. Sure, it would be nice if readers were interested in paying high dollar for concepts and ideas within a story but, and here’s the kicker, they never have. Nobody in the industry had a problem with that, either, up until they lost control of pricing and fell behind the curve on reader expectations.

I’ve found myself comparing newspapers and book publishers a lot lately, mostly because the Amazon/Hachette dispute has exposed more of the underlying strategy of the publishers. It’s a strategy that appears, on its surface, to mirror the strategy that newspapers used to decimate their own business. This is another example of that, I think.

Contrary to what you may have been told, newspaper readers never paid for the content in the paper, they paid for the bundle of services including coupons, circulars, classifieds, etc, etc. The bundle they bought wasn’t even priced to reflect the value of the content. It was done so to maximize the audience to better support the exorbitant ad rates because that, and not selling content to readers, was where most of their revenue came from. But as the value of their bundle declined, the industry decided people should pay for the content. Not only that they should, many believed almost religiously that they would. They were wrong. Some have but most won’t, principally because they were not paying for that content in the first place. Nobody in that industry segment had any problem with it, either, so long as the ad sales kept flowing. Once that dried up, though, their argument switched to one of value and what readers should do.

Books are having the same problem. It’s popular in some circles to claim books aren’t commodities but that’s disingenuous. People have always paid for the container not the content. Pricing for books of similar form have always been eerily consistent based on the form. There was never any kind of premium pricing going on between similar books that I’ve ever seen. In fact, the more popular books were usually subject to more discounting than others. Oddly, ebooks are exhibiting a far greater range of pricing relative to its form than almost any other type of book, yet that’s hardly ever mentioned when folks start discussing the issue of pricing. Funny, that.

Now that the value of those older containers have diminished somewhat, and ebooks have emerged as a potentially very cheap type of container, the discussion is starting to turn to one of the value of the content. Just like newspaper readers never paid for the content but the packaging, book readers have never paid for the content, just the packaging. And that’s leading to suggestions about what readers should do. According to some, they apparently should now pay for something they’ve never paid for in the past. That argument simply doesn’t fly and, unless you’re interested in watching book publishers piss away their business like newspaper publishers did, it’s not one anybody should be interested in pursuing.

The difference here is that should absolutely applies to people producing and selling books. People buying them, however, are under no such requirement, nor will they ever be. The pricing structure for newspapers was to sell to a mass audience to support ad rates. Pricing in books was to sell mass numbers of similarly commoditized books in total to stores and other retailers. There was never any point that the value of the content inside was the principle driver of the price, except to the people buying them. Even then, that value has been established by the practice of commoditizing book prices based on their form. As newspapers learned the hard way, you can’t just shift gears and expect people to pay for something they’ve never paid for when it’s convenient for you to do so. There is no such word as should when dealing with the choices readers will make for themselves.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Containers

I was just reading this summation of the Nick Carr-Clay Shirky battle royale over whether the book is a valuable cultural artifact or simply a container for content that, in its physical limitations, shaped the forms of that content and could be dying out for good, digital or otherwise. To be honest, I was actually glazing over a bit reading it. It’s fascinating, don’t get me wrong, in a high-minded philosophical way, but I think I’ve intellectually moved past all these discussions of form and transition. Why are we still arguing any of this?

Anyway, one particular comment attributed to Carr temporarily pulled me out of my glazed meanderings:

“In response to an email from Wired magazine founder and author Kevin Kelly on the subject, Carr gives some examples of valuable forms of media that he believes have been lost or diminished: namely, “the oral epic poem, the symphony, the silent film with live musician accompaniment, the dramatic play, the short-form cartoon, the map [and] the LP.” And he argues that the book, the movie and the video game could also fall into this category.”

I think Carr has a fundamental misunderstanding about how, exactly, each of these forms of creative effort reached a point of widespread acceptance and popularity. He’s got something of a cart before the horse kinda argument, seemingly implying that media companies arbitrarily decided one day, possibly for higher profit, that CDs were better than LPs, and stopped making LPs. It was the people buying CDs en mass that made that decision for them.

Nothing, not one thing is stopping anyone from making LPs today. In fact, they’ve become quite the successful boutique business for some artists, Jack White comes to mind. But in doing so, you have to either admit that you’re creating a form with a notably smaller market to sell to or you also have to undertake efforts to build a market to go along with the product. The form isn’t obsolete or diminished in any qualitative sense (other than the strictly cumulative monetary decline from the height of the wax album era. But surely, Carr’s discussing high-minded art here, so simple free market economics can’t be what he’s referring to, can it?). The only problem the LP has is that most of its paying market has moved on to other content forms more convenient to their lives.

It’s not up to me as a writer to decide what the optimum forms of creative expression are, nor is it up to Carr, Shirky or any of thousands of other media industry pundits. Even publishers, movie studios and music companies (who have discovered this truth sooner and far more harshly than the others so far) despite their capital reservoirs and strengths of distribution and marketing, have only a limited, minuscule ability to direct those choices.

In fact, there is no one person who can make this decision. The forms of content that reach any level of social application do so beneath a critical mass of regular people deciding in unison what they’d like to spend their money on. CDs overtook LPs because the buying public wanted it so, because CDs had advantages that fit more cleanly into the conditions of their lives at the time. For that same reason, CDs have been usurped by almost totally ethereal electronic forms. Books, print or digital, will live or die by the same hand and there’s nothing Carr, Shirky or anyone else can do about it.

It seems more and more like the publishing industry is missing a very essential point of its existence: we all live at the whims of the people who buy the product. They seem to be forgetting that we in the creative fields of endeavor have to produce both content and form that large numbers of people value enough to pay for. Not just enough to want to watch, listen to or read, mind you, but actually lay down hard cash for. That decision is, has been, and will forever remain in the hands of our audience. The creative forms that service their needs, and most ably makes the case for that aforementioned exchange of currency, will win out. The ones that don’t will end up tacked on to Carr’s list of lost art forms. 

Frankly, I’ve always believed culture belongs to the people. If large enough numbers want print, there’ll be a market for it. The same for digital. And if a super-majority develops that wants some form of the written word that hasn’t been invented yet, usurping both print and ebooks, that’s as it should be.

Every new form that comes along adds new possibilities for the artist. Every old form pushed aside becomes part of a rich tapestry of history and experience that helps shape the use of new forms. LPs didn’t die, they become a foundation upon which mp3 players were eventually built.

If art is your only intent, the old forms still exist, have at it! But if you’re also trying to pay the bills, you’ve got to go where the money is. And that money is scattered about in the pockets of every person out there who’s looking for something to read. Nothing else really matters.

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