Although I’m not exactly a devoted reader of John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, a Twitter retweet last week drew my attention to a recent post, in which he announces that readers protesting ebook prices on his “Big Idea” posts will have their comment deleted:
Why? Primarily because here at the tail end of 2011, I find the subject boring and I find the people who get huffy about an electronic book not being [insert price you believe for whatever reason an eBook should be] are exhibiting a particularly tiresome sort of entitlement, to wit, that owning an electronic book reader means that you are possibly obliged to announce your opinion on book pricing at every turn. See, the thing is: You’re not. You don’t have to. At this point, I wish you wouldn’t.
But it doesn’t stop there. Scalzi goes on to insist that such complaints are “kind of mean to the author,” and that
. . . going into a comment thread of a Big Idea and making a big show of why you’re not going to buy the book because of a price point that the author very frequently has absolutely no control over kind of makes you a dick. Authors are already neurotic and twitchy about how the book is going to be received; you going in and announcing “I will not buy your book for reasons entirely unrelated to your writing and about which you were given no say” is really cluelessly rude. If you want to complain about the pricing, please do — to someone who actually has the wherewithal to do something about it, namely, the publisher. They are not hard to find and e-mail.
Without a doubt, Scalzi has the right to delete comments on his blog, and at least he’s giving people fair warning that he will do so in certain circumstances. That’s not what irked me about the post. What irked me is this belief that readers who protest book prices to the author are “entitled,” a word that in the context of his post suggests that we are somehow overstepping and over-reaching beyond what is our right. That, combined with Scalzi’s belief that readers have easy access to publishers and that not utilizing it is “mean to the author,” struck me as just plain wrong. Numerous supportive comments to his post honestly surprised me, as did a point Scalzi brought up to me in a long Twitter exchange, namely his belief that the big 6 publishers regard readers as their customers – which stands in contradiction to what even the publishers themselves say. And while I certainly understand why authors would get frustrated and even resentful over reader complaints about pricing, I think Scalzi’s argument is, at best, myopic and mistaken in regard to readers, authors, and publishers.
The Nature of the Book
There is an ongoing tension around whether books are the same or different from other consumer goods. Is the book a sacred cultural artifact or a commercial product akin to a vacuum cleaner or a kitchen appliance? The rise of digital books suggests that even within the realm of books there is a hierarchy of cultural value. Eloquent eulogies to the paper book abound, elevating its status and calling into question whether something that’s not printed and bound can even be called a book. Publishers currently treat digital books differently from print books, both in royalty structure and pricing (i.e. no so-called agency pricing model for print books). Scalzi argues that “eBooks are not special snowflakes; they’re just books in electronic form. As someone who prefers to read in eBook form, you are not substantially different from someone who prefers hardcovers, or trade paperbacks, or mass market paperbacks,” but what about books in general?
The Nature of the Reader’s Relationship with the Book
My own view is that books are both a commercial good and a cultural artifact, which means that behavior toward them will be a hybrid of consumption and critical engagement. And one of the biggest aspects of the commercial nature of books is the price. Under the current so-called agency pricing (Charles Petit does a great job explaining why it’s not really an agency model), big 6 publishers set the price of books, but consumers still primarily acquire books via retailers, which have long been considered the customers of publishers. As cultural artifacts, books are creative products, and readers are conditioned to identify them primarily with the author’s name on the cover. In the broad universe of books and readers, what is the likelihood that a reader will identify a book with its publisher? I know for myself that even now I’m much more likely to know a non-agency book’s publisher than I am one from the big 6. Some of those non-agency books I purchase direct from the publisher (e.g. Harlequin), but most I still buy from a retailer.
The Nature of the Reader’s Relationship with the Author, the Retailer, and the Publisher
When I learned that publishers don’t view readers as their customers, so much made sense to me. My inability – until very recently – for example, to find a contact link on the Penguin publishing site; Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s failure to include readers in his letter on the agency stand-off with Amazon; the seeming hostility to digital demonstrated by big 6 leaders like Simon and Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy, who unselfconsciously explained the practice of “windowing” digital releases, admitting that,
“The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback. We believe some people will be disappointed. But with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”
Hachette CEO David Young added, “We’re doing this to preserve our industry. I can’t sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices. It’s about the future of the business.” And the big 6 business model is built around the hardcover, something I do not believe reflects the priorities of the reading public as a whole.
I know it’s not personal; I understand that publishers, like all commercial businesses, are profit-driven; I don’t doubt that publishers know consumers are end-users of their products. However, their business model has not included readers as customers. Digital growth is beginning to challenge this tradition, but as the publishers themselves admit, it’s a challenge. Part of the problem is that big 6 publishers have decidedly not made themselves accessible or even recognizable to readers. Frankly, I’d love to know when it became easy to contact publishers directly, because that certainly has not been my experience.
Consumers sometimes vent their complaints about a product directly to the manufacturer; however, as gazillions of Amazon reviews demonstrate, the retailer is the likely first stop for the consumer, because they have a direct customer relationship with the retailer. And as readers, especially readers online, we identify books with their authors, more and more of whom have websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts. In their own way, authors have become like direct marketers of their literary products, not necessarily selling books directly, although more and more authors are, in fact, publishing their own books and selling them via retailers.
Which brings me (FINALLY!) to my central question: why is it inappropriately entitled behavior for a reader to complain about ebook prices to or in the presence of the author?
If ebooks are not “special snowflakes,” then why wouldn’t we expect readers to act any differently from other types of consumers? Consumers complain to the store; book consumers also complain to the authors. But, Scalzi says, authors can’t control their book prices, so it’s “mean” to complain to them. I’m not going to debate the question of whether authors can or cannot control prices, because for me that’s not the point (although clearly self-publishing indicates that author can create an environment in which they can control the price of their books). Rather, I’ll focus on this: among retailers, authors, and readers, the only party not in contractual privity with the publisher is the party Scalzi insists has the burden of dealing with directly. This just strikes me as fundamentally illogical.
Even if I accept Scalzi’s assertion that big 6 authors can’t control price, as contractual partners with publishers, does that invalidate the reader’s right to protest? Authors make choices in what publisher they contract with, and maybe some authors want to know the deterrents readers face in buying their books (this goes for geographical restrictions, too, for example). As Dan Gillmor, director of ASU’s Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, pointed out in his recent Guardian blog post,
Sure, I can afford the higher prices. But the greed of the publishers has inspired me to make different plans. Now I reserve bestsellers at my local library – run by people who love books: imagine that! – and read them whenever they are available. What were impulse purchases of books that sent revenue to publishers are now impulse reservations that do not. If I have to wait a few weeks, no big deal. I should have remembered that all along.
How many readers are now forgoing purchase of big 6 books because of so-called agency pricing, even if they can afford the higher prices? Is this something authors want to know? As authors continue to reach out directly to readers to market their books, I don’t think it’s reasonable to view readers who complain to the author about prices as misbehaving. Because as popular as it is to say that the reader rules, if that were truly the case, I’m not sure the big 6 would even exist, let alone have been able to establish so-called agency pricing.
And do I even need to address the question of whether it’s “mean” to complain about prices to the author? The person who has commercially sold his book in the hopes of making money from it? The person whose name is figured most prominently on the book itself?
Why Shouldn’t the Reader Complain to the Author?
I’ll give Scalzi this: he’s right that I don’t “have to” complain about the price of digital books. What I think he’s dead wrong about, though, is that complaining about the price of digital books is a form of illegitimate entitlement.
When I purchase a digital book from big 6 publishers, which I do infrequently if the price is not reduced, I am denied the right of first sale, which is one of the most fundamental copyright principles. More and more, I am also being denied the kind of editorial and formatting quality I associate with a higher book price (even print books have declined in size, paper quality, and editing, which creates another pricing issue, but I’ll leave that aside for now). But to abdicate my own rights under copyright law in purchasing a digital book means that I am ultimately buying a lesser or at least more limited product. And just as I don’t think it’s anywhere near reasonable to pay $15 or $20 to rent a movie, I don’t think it’s reasonable to pay print prices for DRM’d digital books.
So what about publisher costs? The current print model demonstrates clearly that price is not determined purely by the cost of producing an item, so I don’t find that a helpful argument in determining the cost of digital books as compared to print. With the big 6 business model built around the hardcover, the growth of digital books is not a good thing, which means that publishers do not have much incentive to promote their growth unless the model is changed. With debates over whether so-called agency pricing has helped or hurt authors, it’s unlikely that authors will stand united for or against the practice.
All of which makes it more likely than not that if readers protest digital pricing, they will do so to authors. Even if authors feel that is unfair. Which, in some cases it might be. And perhaps it’s not the most effective venue of protest, although I don’t think it requires subtle interpretive tools to read Scalzi as dismissive of readers who protest digital prices period. But how does lodging the protest with the author’s online book marketing presence make the protesting reader a “dick”? How is the reader’s frustration about an ebook price any different from an author’s frustration over, for example, a royalties structure? I know there are authors who forward reader comments to their publisher. Not every author does this, nor should readers expect it. I think we all have to accept that for the most part people act in what they perceive to be their best interest. The question here, I think, is whether pricing is in the interest of the author, as well.
Without a doubt, the primary perceived interests of readers, authors, and publishers are not always in alignment. But when we have direct evidence that digital book pricing is aimed at slowing digital growth, which in turn potentially slows digital sales for authors and deters readers from buying their books, I think price is a shared concern between authors and readers, one which we are all reasonably entitled — and perhaps should be encouraged — to discuss. Except, of course, at Scalzi’s blog.