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

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