Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

The Value Is Not Just in the Content

Value, value, value. That seems to have become one of those buzzwords invoked in defense of corporate publishing's status quo. But what is value, exactly?

Of the "agency model," Hatchette CEO David Young has said, "It allows Hachette to make pricing decisions that are rational and reflect the value of our authors' works." Harper Collins CEO Rupert Murdoch echoes with, "There is no doubt we have been at the forefront of the global debate about the value of content." Okay, so value is related to content. Clear enough.

And as a reader, consumer of books, and paid writer, I see it as a foregone conclusion that creative content should be solidly valued. However, I also don't believe that either publishers or readers actually value books based on content alone. Rather, I believe that the valuation of books, inclusive of the original creative content, is an accumulated evaluation. As many have noted regarding digital devices and digital books, each gives the other meaning and functionality. It is the same with all of the components that comprise a book, from format to author branding to the actual words on the page/screen. Reading is an experience, and it is shaped by how one reads just as much as by what one reads. And that experience begins even before the reader has the book in hand.

Clearly price is associated with value in a somewhat delicate balance. If people are asked to pay too much for books, we will buy fewer books and less content will be sustainable in the marketplace. If we pay too little for books, content can be perceived as de-valued, either because the creator gets little or no financial benefit for writing or because there is simply so much content available that consumers cannot or do not make discriminating choices. Macmillan CEO John Sargent expressed this concern in reference to digital library lending:

"I don't have to get in my car, go to the library, look at the book, check it out," said John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, which publishes authors like Janet Evanovich, Augusten Burroughs and Jeffrey Eugenides. "Instead, I'm sitting in the comfort of my living room and can say, "Oh, that looks interesting' and download it."

As digital collections grow, Mr. Sargent said he feared a world in which "pretty soon you're not paying for anything." Partly because of such concerns, Macmillan does not allow its e-books to be offered in public libraries.

Incentivizing sales seems to be at the center of Sargent's logic here, in that from his perspective, digital lending provides a disincentive for people to buy books (I'm not sure how this argument applies only to digital book lending, but that's a different piece). Rather than seeing the convenience with which people can download books, either in a library lending or online purchasing capacity, Sargent views the convenience and the lack of price as devaluing books: "pretty soon you're not paying for anything." For Sargent, value is explicitly connected to price and to the paying customer. Free is perceived as valueless. And it's not a coincidence, in my opinion, that a publisher's profitability depends in part on how many and at what price books are sold.

As I've said elsewhere, I think books are both typical and atypical commercial products. They are subject to the same costs as other consumer products – of acquisition, production, distribution, marketing – and are clearly part of the stream of regular commerce. But many people do not see books as mere products, but rather as works of art (commercial art, perhaps), as entertainment, as collectibles. And there is a tension inherent in valuing and pricing a product that is part of the stream of commerce but comprised of original creative content.

To the author, the value is likely far beyond any commercial compensation. To the publisher, value can be connected to many things, all of which ultimately relate to profitability and sustainability (more on this later). And for readers, value is variable.   A book that fails to interest, educate or entertain (depending on its purpose for the reader) can be perceived as absolutely valueless, regardless of the price paid. A book that offers premium characteristics, from well-crafted and produced illustrations to rarity, can be perceived as particularly valuable. And so on.

What makes things so complicated from the reader's perspective is a) different readers will value books differently, and b) value and price are not necessarily connected in the way Mr. Sargent seems to think they are. And even more problematically, these two variables are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

Different readers value different books differently. In fact, the same reader values different books differently. Some readers focus expressly on the content of a book. The work of author X is inherently worth more to them than the work of author Y. Or the writing in one genre is inherently viewed as more valuable than the writing in another genre. Some of these valuations are made on the physical book itself, while others are not.   And perhaps most difficult to parse is the way value is calculated both at the point or acquisition or purchase and after consumption (reading).

For example, I was happy to pay the trade price for Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union because it has such a beautiful cover, illustrated inside and out, and because it has deckled-edged pages and seemingly high quality paper. Consequently, the physical packaging of the book made it more valuable to me upon purchase, increasing the price I was willing to pay for it. And fortunately, I've been loving the novel, which means that the value I place on the book as a whole will definitely match or even outweigh the price I paid. I've also been known to pay a premium for relatively thin hardcover books, although according to a survey Jane conducted a few months ago, I am in the vast minority on that. There are other cases where I am loathe to pay the mass market price for an ebook, or where I refuse to buy a new book at all.

But in all these cases, the decision to purchase or not is most often based on a pre-purchase valuation of the book relative to price and a number of other factors. That is because for the most part the reader cannot know how to value the book's content at the point of purchase; rather a host of other factors influences the decision to purchase: price point, paper quality, cover imagery, format (hardcover, trade, digital), convenience of purchase, presence of DRM in digital books, etc. The valuation of content is something that happens after the book is consumed, while the decision to purchase is largely driven by non-content related factors.

For example, when Jane started talking about how great Karina Bliss's What the Librarian Did was, I knew I would love the book. She told me about it on the phone, she tweeted about it, building my anticipation. By the time I purchased the book from eHarlequin.com, I knew I was going to love that book so much that I downloaded in a format I generally don't like (secure epub, aka ADE). And I did love the book. But I also loved being able to talk about how much I loved it with Jane and recommending it to other people I knew were looking for a well-written, emotionally poignant Romance. My reading experience of that book started days before I even purchased the book and continues to this day, as I talk about how much I enjoyed it. And I value the whole experience, even though the book is clearly at the center of my experience. By the same token, a negative experience, with anything from purchase to format to content, can make me regret everything connected to that book, from the moment I decided to buy it to the second I was finally done with it.

Which is part of what makes those arguments from publishers like those I cited above even more frustrating for me. Because I don't feel as if I'm being urged to value content for the sake of content. Rather I feel as if I'm being asked to accept the publisher's valuation of books based on the publisher's set price. Even more importantly, I feel as if I'm being asked to keep my focus on content value when the publishers themselves are admittedly influenced by a whole host of factors in how they value and price books. As Motoko Rich's recent article in the New York Times illustrated, costs of production influence price, and those costs are connected as much to the content as to the marketing, packaging, printing, and distribution costs of books. Advances are paid to authors in widely varying amounts And are we supposed to believe that the content of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue is comparable in a positive or negative way to the content of Audrey Niffinegger's Her Fearful Symmetry or Andrew Young's The Politician? That a midlist author's creative content is less valuable than that of a John Grisham or Nicholas Sparks? That the work of literary fiction is more valuable than that featured in mass market? And if content is key, why the valiant push to hold onto the hardcover-centric model of corporate publishing? If the goal is to encourage readers to value content, why not put out as many books in as many formats simultaneously as possible?

Because, perhaps, just like the reader the publisher values the book based on many different things, many of which have nothing to do with the content itself. And I think that's natural and good. Moreover, I think a better understanding on the part of publishers about how readers value books will lead to better risk-taking on their part and on better valuation of content at the point of publisher acquisition. For me, as a reader, the issue is not so much the devaluation of content, because both good books and bad have both sold and sat on shelves since the beginning of bookselling. And if publishers really want readers to be the stewards of content valuation, I suspect supply would have to be extremely curtailed.

I don't begrudge a publisher's superior valuation of profitability; that's a core value of the free market. However, I do think corporate publishers need to understand that the way we all value books is a comprehensive and dynamic process, one that changes from reader to reader, and from book to book. That it encompasses more than content, even though content may be the most substantial element of the reader's experience. Because the reader cannot value the content upon purchase, however, valuation may initially be made substantially on non-content related factors. That doesn't mean readers don't value content; it simply means we value more than content, just like the publisher. When I buy a book, I am buying an experience, and it encompasses everything between searching/browsing for that book through purchase, reading, and sharing my responses to the book via review, Twitter, and other online and real-life discussions.

This is definitely an unsettled and exciting time for both storytelling and technological innovation. And for all of the differences publishers and retailers and readers have when it comes to how we value books, we will always have the books themselves in common. We just need to figure out how better to capitalize on those commonalities.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

17 Comments

  1. Kim
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 05:12:24

    Thanks, Janet, for taking the time to share your thoughts on value.

    And thank you for the cute cat pictures! We have spent more than $1800 to ship two cats with us to Hawaii and find new homes for three other cats we rescued. But it’s a small price to pay for the warmth and companionship of our feline friends.

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  2. Stevie
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 05:18:11

    Janet said:

    ‘However, I do think corporate publishers need to understand that the way we all value books is a comprehensive and dynamic process, one that changes from reader to reader, and from book to book.’

    I, on the other hand, do think that part of the problem derives from an inability on the part of some bloggers, and, indeed, some readers, to recognise that many publishers have a very good grasp of this.

    There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Harlequin springs to mind, though oddly enough their vanity launch was initially wildly applauded here and on some other romance blogs.

    Frankly, people who don’t even recognise what a brand is, much less comprehend how trashing it can destroy a company, are unlikely to have much to offer on the valuable publishing advice front…

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  3. Bronte
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 06:35:11

    @Stevie:
    Ouch. Obviously you’re not here to make friends and influence people.

    The price versus value concept is an interesting one. My two most valuable books are a first run of testimony of two men by taylor caldwell that I picked up at a second hand book store very cheaply, and a hardcover copy of tennyson’s poems that is about 90 years old. You can practically feel the history leaping off the page.

    My most expensive book is a textbook. $450 worth of invaluable pages. I need it so I guess I value it but I sure as hell don’t like it.

    By the by, the cat pictures are awesome!

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  4. sao
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 06:37:10

    The value of a book is proportional to the number of people who enjoyed it. Publishers have no idea how many people read the printed books they publish. So how can they value them relative to a one-person only e-book?

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  5. Jessica Andersen
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 06:51:15

    Jane said– “… the physical packaging of the book made it more valuable to me upon purchase, increasing the price I was willing to pay for it.”

    This resonated for me. Although I’m usually strictly a mass market girl, when I picked up Nora’s first wedding planner book (sorry, blanking on the name– the one before BED OF ROSES, about the photographer) in trade paper, I got a total kick out of the faux dustcover effect, the textured edges to the pages, and the overall feeling of the book in my hands.

    Did I enjoy the story? Absolutely. But it was worth the trade price to me because the packaging made the reading experience feel more luxurious to me.

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  6. DS
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 07:07:27

    Thanks, Janet, for the pointer to the Michael Kinsley piece. I particularly chortled at this one:

    $2.00 to cover wild overpayments to 15-minute celebrities or Washington bigshots for books that will never earn back their huge advances but the cost has to be amortized somehow.

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  7. RStewie
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 08:27:51

    I think that publishers will have to continue to arbite the value of their products. Publishers determine value essentially blind to the actual market, especially for new authors, but their set price-points have served them well in the past because it is expected that a MMPB is $5-7, and a trade is $9-13, and a hardback is $15-20, etc.

    Right now the “value” of a book to the publisher is determined by its format, with only the variable costs associated with it (author’s advance, book-specific advertising, etc) determining the difference in each book’s actual profit margin.

    But they will see this valuation evolve as more e-publishers open and provide the same or similar content for lower prices, or based on a different valuation. At the moment, though, it seems that this valuation scheme is still thriving, because epubs base price on length–author recognition, previous sales within a series, ect, aren’t factored into it.

    I don’t think it’s realistic to expect publishers to price based on reader valuation of books. 1. They don’t generally sell directly to the reader. 2. They have no way of knowing until after consumption, what the reader’s valuation of the product is. 3. I don’t think readers REALLY want pricing based on their valuation…I’m thinking here of some successful series out there, and the fact that their subsequent stories would be more expensive based on the series’ popularity. Ouch.

    However, I DO think that some of the factors that readers take into account should be noted more specifically by publishers. They already know that the physical presentation of the product will determine value (quality paper, cover design, etc), they already know that a hardcover is valued more highly by those who buy hardcovers. But what about the value of DRM-free ebooks? What about the value of being able to organize your ebooks by author or title? Or the value of being able to loan an ebook? Or the value of a MMPB/ebook combo?

    These are the valuation factors that publishers need to start paying attention to, because these are what will help them justify higher price-points to consumers.

    sorry this was so long.

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  8. Jane
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 09:13:30

    @Jessica Andersen I thought that Berkley did a great job of publishing the NR book. It looked like a book that you would want to keep.

    I think it’s very insightful of Janet/Robin to point out that even publishers don’t value the book based on content alone. Content is merely one part of the overall equation. I know that when I buy a children’s book, I am adding value to the story because a) I get to read it with my daughter and b) it is a book that will last several weeks.

    I also think that value is informed by past experience for a reader. I.e., if I have a bad experience with a retailer, publisher or author (and by author, I mean author’s book), then the value of the next book from that retailer, publisher, author is going to be lower. Conversely, if the past experience is good, the value of the next book will be higher. I think that is what pushes readers from mass market to trade to hardcover.

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  9. Ros
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 09:17:33

    The reality is that the value of a book can only be determined by the market – how much people are willing to pay for it. That’s why some books end up being remaindered and sold at very low prices, while others can sustain a high-end hard cover price for a long time. Production costs are irrelevant to value – if the book is priced too high, people won’t buy it, no matter how much it cost to produce.

    But value is notoriously hard to predict. Part of it depends on the quality of the content, but that’s no guarantee of sales either. The non-quantifiable value that you mention – the experience of talking about a book with your friends, for instance, is something that publishers can hope for but not do much about.

    I think that ebook pricing will eventually settle down at a level that consumers are willing to pay and publishers are willing to accept, within certain margins. That’s how the market works. But because the market is so new and evolving so quickly (and because there are two distinct but dependent markets – for books and for reading devices) it’s going to be subject to greater fluctuations in these early stages.

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  10. DianeN
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 09:40:10

    Macmillan is being extremely short-sighted by refusing to sell digital copies of their books to libraries. I’m sure their thinking is that they will only sell from their print catalog because they make more money that way. But here’s the thing–I’m a library paraprofessional with many years of service, and I know that most if not all libraries purchase both print and digital editions of the same books. MacMillan is shooting themselves in the foot by offering us just one format. And even if we assume that there are some titles that libraries would buy only in digital format, meaning MacMillan gets less money for them, don’t they realize that many library users (myself included) borrow books because they’re not sure they want to buy them? I do this all the time, and when I find books/authors I really love, I usually purchase them. The bottom line, which they don’t seem to get, is that the more copies a library has in multiple formats, the more likely it is that people will fall in love with a series, an author, or a title, and end up buying their own copies.

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  11. Ariena
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 11:04:59

    Nice insight, Jane. Posts like these keeps me updated about the *cough* digital book and debate of both sides. Hmm, right about MacMillan and Harper Collins seems to follow their steps. A lot of people are pissed at/that Harper Collins are also delaying all their ebooks about three to four weeks later than the paperback/hardcover books.

    And value is important. Peoples preferences differ, but its the amount of money we will gladly pay for the book, its values and its content. I’d also want to add the quality of the story, but that’s pretty much 50/50. I’ll grudgingly say that I’ll pay more than $9.99 for an ebook IF its a hardcover release (but there are too many hardcover releases that don’t even deserve it) but hell no should it be $13/14 and higher. There really should be a price range, even though it varies. I like the reading digital experience and damn it all if the publishers forces me to enjoy the feel of a book in my hands (I do buy physical copies occasionally) and pay that price. Blah, its complicated territory with publishers tugging the ropes. As for values? Their kind of moves aren’t helping at all.

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  12. Robin/Janet
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 11:14:44

    @RStewie:

    I don't think it's realistic to expect publishers to price based on reader valuation of books.

    For me, it’s not about getting publishers to price books based on reader value (I tried to point out how complicated that whole concept is); it’s about recognizing that creative content is not valued as an independent, isolated thing. Rather, both publishers and readers value content within certain contexts, inclusive of other factors. Even when editors acquire manuscripts they are looking at saleability and potential popularity among readers, and their perceptions of quality and value are shaped in part by those factors.

    In my opinion, when many publishers talk about the value of content, with concern that readers will value this content less and less in a digital or a lower-priced book environment, it’s good way to get readers to buy in to concepts like “quality” and “creative rights,” but it’s not even reflective of the way publishers themselves view and value content, let alone the way readers do.

    @Ros:

    The reality is that the value of a book can only be determined by the market – how much people are willing to pay for it.

    If you are speaking of value merely in terms of price, then I totally agree with you.

    And, in fact, I think that’s another layer here — the way value and price are becoming conflated such that publishers worry a lower price point will translate into a lower valuation for the book.

    In my opinion we need to revisit those terms, which I’m trying to do here in just the most tentative, introductory way.

    As I read the Motoko Rich article yesterday, I had the same sense I’ve had for months: namely that corporate publishers are trying to adapt digital to their existing hardcover-centric business model rather than innovating the entire model to adapt to changing market realities and technologies. And it strikes me that one of the reasons things are proceeding the way they are is that there are these publisher perceptions of value connected to books that are intrinsically linked with a *specific* format and a specific price point, not because there’s any natural relationship there to preserve, but because that’s how they’ve done it for years and years.

    Whether it was a wise strategy to begin with is up for debate, IMO, but as a reader who consumes both digital and print books, the direction I see some of these corporate publishers moving — with windowing and the so-called (not necessarily an) “agency model” of pricing — I’m going to be purchasing far *fewer* of their books, which doesn’t seem to me to be encouraging my investment in their value.

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  13. TKF
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 11:57:02

    I guess I just don't buy all that many hardbacks, so it’s hard to really care all that much about how publishers want to price the eBook versions of HB releases. *shrug* Especially as the ones I do buy, I'll still want to buy in paper, since those are the books I want to be able to display on my bookshelves (like Jane's example of Yiddish Policeman's Union, part of why I'm buying that book is for the beauty of the object itself).

    The only thing that really irks me is when the massmarket version has already been released but the price of the eBook has not been adjusted.

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  14. MaryK
    Mar 02, 2010 @ 16:46:36

    @Robin/Janet:

    And, in fact, I think that's another layer here -’ the way value and price are becoming conflated such that publishers worry a lower price point will translate into a lower valuation for the book.

    I agree.

    Do I think books by my favorite authors are valuable enough to justify hardcover prices? Yes.

    Can I afford to pay hardcover prices for all my valuable favorite authors? No.

    Lots of things are highly valued yet unaffordable. Hawaiian vacations, Monet paintings, spa pedicures. I love/value pedicures, but I can’t justify paying for them regularly.

    With ebooks, it seems like publishers are trying to charge luxury prices for low quality goods.

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  15. sao
    Mar 03, 2010 @ 01:32:37

    I have trouble when people talk about hardcover versus paperback prices. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a full-price hardcover fiction book, except for my kids or a classic, like Pride and Pred, in which case value is all about presentation.

    I regularly spend $25-30 on new, hardcover non-fiction, but only books that have had two or more excellent reviews.

    So, when people talk about the price of a hardcover versus paperback, I find it hard to state what *the* price should be.

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  17. Linda Banche
    Mar 03, 2010 @ 11:39:08

    @DianeN: I do exactly the same as you — I try a new author out at the library. Then, if I like the book, I buy it, and all the author’s other books, too. I’ve bought a lot of books this way. If I had to buy all the books I’ve tried, I wouldn’t have bought so many books.

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