Why book price doesn’t and shouldn’t measure “value”
Last week, author advocate Porter Anderson wrote a piece on book pricing called ‘Who Decided Our Worth?’ Do Free Books Give Away Authors’ Value?, in which authors like Roz Morris, Henry Hyde, and others try to build the case for book prices that reflect an author’s “value” and “worth.” Hyde goes so far as to claim that he doesn’t “want the kind of audience that expects free, or even heavily discounted” books, and that “the rise of Kindle is that it has given the audience a sense of entitlement where none should exist.” Anderson basically underwrites this perspective, scoffing at Dan Holloway’s argument that “art should be free, and people should pay for it,” a paradox resolved when the business of selling books is distinguished from the more philosophical question of art’s widespread accessibility.
Ultimately, Anderson seems to endorse Kathryn Magendie’s (seemingly) rhetorical question, “What other professions do we ask, or demand, the proprietors to give away their work for free or so cheaply they cannot make a living on it?”
I’ll give you a minute or so to begin compiling your list in response to Magendie’s question. Mine grew pretty damn long, pretty quickly, beginning with pretty much every small business owner in the world, and ending with a slew of artists and artisans, including actors, painters, poets, jewelry designers, etc. etc., etc. The fact is that many, many, many, many people, in many professions that require creative output, are underpaid for both their labor and the results of that labor.
Then I’ll ask you to return to the question Anderson – and many other authors and author-advocates – want to push aside, but which I want to put front and center in a discussion about a) the relationship between the business of authorship, and b) the differences between worth, value, and price as they relate to the relationship between art and business. And just to make things perfectly clear, here’s my thesis: one of the greatest obstacles to universally higher book prices is not readers, but authors.
By way of explanation, let’s start with Holloway’s distinction between authorship as a business and art as a public good. The existence of museums, public libraries, public art installations, even graffiti, are all examples of art as a public good – that is, as something central to the establishment, communication, and reproduction of culture that any given society values. While access to art is never completely free for those who pay taxes or who buy a ticket of admission to a museum or get fined for an overdue library book, how many people want to pay more to walk through their local art museum or think a fee to check out public library books would be a great idea? In the United States, especially, there is a deeply ingrained belief that access to art is a public right – that is contributes to our understanding of history, our appreciation of beauty, our empathy with the human condition, etc.
Of course, it is often easier to feel this way when the creator of said art is either long dead or not present at the moment of viewing or engagement. And even the U.S. Constitution acknowledges the importance of public access to creative content in limiting the duration of copyright: To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. If we had unlimited copyright, no one could use the Sherlock Holmes character without permission from the Conan Doyle estate; Jane Austen’s descendants could decide whether any works derived from Pride and Prejudice would see the light of day. Just imagine how much Romance might never have been written had Austen’s work not passed into the public domain. Ditto Shakespeare. By contrast, only two films of Georgette Heyer novels have been made, and the film rights to all the books are currently owned by two companies, one in the UK and one in the US, neither of which has exercised them. Further, only one of her books (The Black Moth) has passed into the public domain, so while her work has had a huge influence on the Romance genre, use and adaptation of certain elements is still limited.
Actually, when you think about it, there’s something interesting about the fact that Pride and Prejudice is available for free because it is now in the public domain, while Longbourn will set you back $10 on Amazon, either for the paperback or the Kindle edition. To some degree that difference is a function of time and copyright law, but it’s also a reflection of the production of creative content as commercial business.
Putting aside those authors who insist they are not producing art, even those authors who contemplate their work as art are also engaging with the market as small business owners. They either contract independently with a publisher for the packaging and distribution of their creative content, or they act as their own publisher, undertaking the same functions by hiring freelancers or doing some of the work themselves. In either case, production and distribution are business functions, because they are part of creating a product that will compete in the open market with other products of similar type.
It is understandably difficult for authors to think about their creative content as commercial products, especially when they build fan bases of readers who articulate a sense of deep appreciation for the content (aka the “art”). What is any given work of art worth? How do we value an artistic product? And at what price is the worth or value adequately reflected?
Taking the example of Pride and Prejudice, does the availability of the book for free from Project Gutenberg, for example, mean that the work has no value or worth to the reader? It’s ironic, right, because the art of that work has so transcended the product of the book, that it doesn’t matter how little the product costs, because the book is widely considered to be a work of classic literature and therefore both worthy and valuable. Worthy in the sense that it should be read, and valuable in the contributions it makes to literature, to Romance, to courtship novels and films, etc. But in regard to price, there is really no direct relationship.
And still, books are priced as products, even though their worth and value will likely never be directly reflected in their price. For those novels a reader loves, their value and worth will likely be many times greater than whatever is paid, and for those the reader hates, any price might be too high. If a reader decides any given book was not worth reading, should she be able to get the price of the product back? Or do we somehow separate the reader’s engagement with the book as art (worth) and the selling as the book as a product (price)? When we value a book, we can do so both as art and as product, and how many authors think in terms of their creative content being adequately valued at 99 cents or $9.99? Even the infamous Kickstarter debacle revealed that many different factors go into an author’s perception of whether it is worth writing a book – and that this calculus will be different from author to author.
And this is both the beauty and the danger of the commercial marketplace. In many ways, authors have more freedom now than they ever have. And the fact that we see about a million books published every year is testimony to that, especially when compared with the 600 + theatrical movie releases each year. Just look at scholarly publishing for a stark contrast to commercial publishing. The limited number of books, the increasing consolidations among publishers, and the limited and captive market of textbook users means that fewer, more expensive books are published to widespread complaints that the system is corrupt and in need of reformation.
Of course, we’re not talking about the difference between $10 and $100 here, and authors should be thinking carefully about how they value their work – not only as art, but also in terms of production standards and price. And because reader reactions are, to some degree, unpredictable, these decisions may always be somewhat experimental.
What I think has been wildly overstated is the role of the reader as “king” of the market. Readers, like authors, act independently, and when their buying habits converge, it’s not in a truly coordinated way. Which is part of why authors are getting pushback from readers who feel “blamed” for certain book pricing trends. What readers do have right now is choice, and they have choice, not only among literally thousands upon thousands of newly published books each month, but also among different forms of creative content (television, movies, games, music, etc.). And the reason they have that choice is because so much creative content is being produced. And as much inclusivity within the self-publishing community authors are finding, the reality is that there is a great deal of content for readers to choose from, and many, many content creators who are looking for ways to best find an audience for their work. And in that sense, it’s authors, not readers, who are responsible for setting book pricing. Yes, I understand that they’re doing so to attract readers, but as long as the market remains open, there will likely always be someone who is willing to undercut another author in price on the chance that will build readership, especially with so many new authors entering the marketplace (especially when compared to the number of readers, from which many of these new authors come).
I know that many people do not like the comparison between books and music (although the fact that musicians have to pay for expenses related to touring should be factored into the argument that musicians have more opportunities to generate revenue), but it’s interesting to note that the only album to go platinum by the last quarter of 2014 (aka sell more than 1 million copies) was the Frozen soundtrack. Compare that number to the five albums to go platinum during the same period in 2013, and it’s not so good. Even the number of platinum songs was down, to 60 million from 83 million the year before.
If the sales of digital books are, indeed, plateauing, and so much of the self-publishing market is taking up the digital space, then it’s likely prices will continue to fluctuate downwards rather than upwards. And it’s understandable that many authors will be frustrated by this, and will see it as a “devaluing” of their work. While at the same time, readers will find books they love, and books they hate, and will likely value those books the same way they always have. Some of those books they may have gotten in print, either at full or discounted price. Some they may have gotten used in print or from the library, either in print or digital. Some they may have borrowed from a friend or relative. Do they need to actually pay for those books, and pay a certain threshold price, to value them more or less?
If authors want to offer their books at a higher price, I think they should go ahead and do it. However, to equate price with the value readers get from the creative content of their books as product is, I think, a losing and illogical strategy. Not because readers don’t value books, but because the way readers value books is often so multi-layered and idiosyncratic, and so disconnected from price, that it’s impossible to predict that kind of valuation with any monetary certainty.
Think, for example, about how often people negotiate a price on more expensive objects –cars, jewelry, etc. The higher the price, and the more precious the item, the more exciting it is to get a good deal – in fact, the perceived value of an object can actually increase when someone believes they’ve gotten a particularly good price on something that is deemed to be worth much more than what they paid for it. Measuring worth and value in terms of price is not a straightforward analysis, and in the case of book pricing, it ignores the fact that authors will often reduce pricing after particularly good reader reception. In other words, articulation of value can actually result in a lower price (and vice versa).
Ultimately, I think authors need to clarify what they mean by value – is it the level of profit, the quality of reader response, the number of copies distributed? And what’s worth it to them – selling their books at a product price they think is a good value for their work, trying to maximize exposure through high volume at a lower price, or maximizing profit through whatever combination of strategies works best for them? The answers are going to vary from author to author, and for every author who wants book prices to be higher and free books to diminish in availability, there’s another who will discount heavily, hoping to capture new readers with a deal. Not because readers don’t value books — any more than the competitive author does or doesn’t value them — but because readers, like everyone else, appreciate a good deal, even on things they value highly.
Are you one of those readers, or do you perceive a higher priced book to be worth more to you?