A culture of reading, or a culture of buying?
Last week’s post on digital book prices for commercial fiction engendered a lot of great responses, reflecting some really passionate opinions on how books are priced and how readers make their purchasing decisions. Judging from that completely anecdotal, self-selecting, limited sample, it seems like $12.99 is out of reach for the vast majority of readers who responded, and even $9.99 is on the very high side of affordable and/or reasonable.
In the wake of that discussion, it was brought to my attention that in some quarters my post was being referred to as “entitled,” and as contributing to a market where authors cannot afford to write and culture is killed dead. In case you didn’t read the post, here’s the quick and dirty summary of my argument:
- I have no problem paying $9.99 for a digital book of commercial fiction, since I get fewer rights than I do buying a paper book (resale, licensing, lending and borrowing, DRM, etc.).
- I understand that digital books cost money to produce, believe that intellectual property should be valued independently, and know that creators deserve to be paid for their creative content.
- I refuse to pay $12.99 for a digital book of commercial fiction, especially when I can buy a discounted hardcover for almost the same price, and my rights with digital books are significantly reduced.
- Being charged $12.99 by traditional publishers who were sued for collusion in ebook pricing pisses me off, makes me feel disrespected, and ensures I will either borrow the book or buy a used paper copy in protest.
- Especially when I can now find more than a few professionally (self, indie, small press, etc.) published books for under $5.00. This is one of the reasons I love Harlequin categories. Also, many self-published authors are now using professional editors, cover artists, and formatters to produce their books.
- I buy hundreds of books a year, and recommended read under $4 or $5 is an automatic “buy” for me (note: this translates into thousands of dollars a year that I spend on books).
In the few minutes during which I contemplated the implications of this line of criticism toward my post, I was talking with friends, one of whom suggested that there’s a difference between caring about whether readers actually read books, or whether they simply buy books. Do publishers care if I read a book, or does their interest end when I hit that “buy” button?
Because there are some important differences between a culture of reading and a culture of buying, and when they’re out of balance, book culture (and industry) as a whole suffers.
Publishers are clearly in the business of selling books. This is also true of self-published authors, whose discussions of income, on how to increase sales, and on references like “churning out books” indicate a definite focus on income. As do the many references to authors deserving to be paid for their work, even in the absence of contrary assertions from readers. This is not a bad thing, in and of itself. As we know, publishers need to sell books to remain viable, and many self-published authors do not have their books available for lending in libraries or even in digital subscription services like Kindle Unlimited or Scribd. The affordability for an author of continuing to write is a reasonable consideration, and for each author, that calculation will be different (as will the definition of profitability).
At the same time, if readers don’t read the books they are buying, then how will they know to buy more from the authors they like? We see this in the arguments against the .99 book. How many of us have downloaded a bunch of .99 books and never read them? Books that are so affordable that they can be purchased by many readers with little specific desire to read them can have a similar effect as books that are priced so high that they push readers out of the market, namely that readers turn away from them.
But encouraging reading is as important as effective pricing, because the free or .99 book is often used as a gateway to acquiring new readers, and new readers who love the glom are even more desirable, especially for the author with a large, affordable, and accessible backlist. As a standard, I don’t think .99 serves the digital book market, but it definitely has its place for some authors, especially when those books actually get read.
Reading also leads to enthusiastic recommendation, which, in turn, can lead to book acquisition, which can occur through many different avenues, e.g. purchase (new and used), library lending, or legal sharing among friends. The culture of reading depends on some level of book buying, but it is also friendly to any legal means by which a reader can acquire a book (note: both the culture of buying and the culture of reading suffer from geo-restrictions, but that’s another discussion). The culture of reading is much bigger than the book “market,” because it relies on access and affordability and engagement with books that does not depend on a commercial transaction. And it’s sensitive to the fact that for many, if not most readers, books are a luxury item and therefore subject to purchase limits.
For how many readers is a $3.99 ebook a splurge? And if questioning the fairness and affordability of a $12.99 ebook is “entitled,” what does that make the reader who cannot afford to pay MMPB prices for a book in any format?
Here’s what I do think readers are entitled to: respect for any legal way we acquire a book, regardless of format.
To what are authors entitled beyond the freedom to legally offer their original written work for sale? I think some of the pressure around book prices is related to the idea of paying authors and publishers independent of a robust culture of reading. And while there is overlap between the culture of reading and the culture of buying, reader and author interests in these cultures are not always identical, or even in sync.
When it comes to reading, however, if we’re really concerned with the production and persistence of “culture,” then people need access to cultural products, including books. I don’t see how $12.99 ebooks enhance that goal.
If, on the other hand, the primary concern is one of profitability, then I’m wondering whether the strategy of pricing ebooks at $12.99 is intended to serve another goal – pushing readers back toward the paper hardcover, which has long been traditional publishing’s North Star.
For high volume readers and authors working on a long-term market presence, there is a mutual benefit in promoting both purchase and reading through reasonably priced, well-produced books. However, I sometimes feel that the culture of buying is gaining more and more traction, both from the flood of super-cheap books aimed at grabbing short-term attention, and from high-priced books that are not necessarily any better written or produced than any number of small and indie published works.
My hope as a reader is that more authors use the current diversity in publishing options to bring a more affordable, professionally published products to market, because by eliminating the corporate publisher’s take, they can actually make more money by charging significantly less per book. And I still hold out hope that traditional publishing will adapt to more avenues of competition from self-published authors (beyond merely contracting with those authors or mining fan fiction communities). Ideally, more opportunities for authors to write and sell their work fosters both a culture of book buying and a culture of reading, although it can also result in a flood of cheap, poorly produced books that are trained more narrowly on capturing customer dollars than on expanding reader loyalty.
Why is any of this important? For one thing, books are currently in competition for all sorts of affordable entertainment alternatives, from streaming services like Netflix, to gaming, to any number of app-centric diversions. It’s no longer just book v. book; now it’s book v. other, possibly more affordable hobbies. I know it seems hard to believe, given the sheer number of books in the market, but that may be part of the problem (too much competition for authors, a indistinct glut for readers).
If we’re going to have a healthy culture of reading commercial fiction, there has to be a balance between promoting reading regardless of buying, and incentivizing creators to continue to produce valuable content. And the escalating battle between producers (including publishers and authors) and readers over book pricing is not currently nourishing that balance. We see the accumulated resentments flare almost instantly with incidents like the Great Kickstarter Debacle. And the growing mistrust between authors and readers threatens to undermine our mutual interest in sustaining a vibrant book culture (inclusive of buying and reading).
I don’t think that mutual interest is served well by either the $12.99 ebook or the ubiquitous .99 ebook. On one end, readers are paying almost twice MMPB prices for exactly the same content and more limitations than a print MMPB. And on the other end, how can such a consistently low price support professional production values? I don’t know where the sweet spot is, and it’s obviously not a single price point for all books, but if we want quality books that remain accessible in multiple formats, I suspect that MMPB prices are probably the start of the high end of the range for affordability, while $4-5 is probably closer to the low end.
Ultimately, I think that most readers are just looking to be able to read and enjoy the most books possible within our personal budgets. And I assume that most authors are looking to be able to continue writing in a way that’s satisfying to them – financially, creatively, etc. And somewhere in the middle is a lot of shared interest in making sure that readers have books to read and writers have the means to write. Now if we can only focus on ways to best facilitate that.