Mar 2 2010
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.