Books' Prices and Writing's Value

As painful as pricing issues may be in the marketplace and in authors’ efforts to put together a living, the real question is what happens in the public mind when pricing goes through the floor?

Image – iStockphoto: mrcmos
Image – iStockphoto: mrcmos

Blurring ‘Our Dignity, Our Value’

“The biggest issue is one that will be difficult for us to recover from…the degradation of our worth as creatives.”

That line is from a piece here at Writer Unboxed a year ago, in May 2015. Our colleague Heather Webb, in As Writers, What Are We Worth?, was anticipating a groan heard ’round the world.

Last month, when I led a round-table discussion at Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum, our topic was “Re-Thinking Ebook Sales and Understanding the Consumers.” But what drew the biggest response was book pricing.

“The consumer,” one of our publishers said, “is in perpetual confusion. No way to understand what a single book costs or how to value our authors’ work.” And at the influential publishing house Bastei Lübbe AG, executive board member Klaus Kluge is calling book prices “staggeringly low” in an interview with Sabine Schwiering Tert at

In the UK in January, Penguin Random House CEO Tom Weldon told my Bookseller colleague Benedicte Page: “”One of the biggest challenges in 2016 will be e-book pricing: how do we maintain the value perception of our quality content and maximize revenues across all formats for both authors and publishers?”

A year later, Webb can see clearly now. Here’s what’s happening on a daily basis to authors’ work in the marketplace:

When we chat about it, she tells me, “I’ve been noticing this group of readers who troll all the author Facebook pages and websites, Goodreads, etc, for giveaways and they never buy books. They don’t have to. Makes me a little nuts.”

She’s not alone. If we triangulate our German associates’ concern for the “confusion” in the readership about what a book costs today with a nod to London’s PRH chief Weldon’s worry at the highest corporate level with Webb’s lament as she writes, “We can’t lose sight of what’s truly important,” then something bigger than “perma-free” and the per-page-view payouts of Kindle Unlimited comes into view.

Porter - Provocations in Publishing logo header WU
Provocations image by Liam Walsh

Everybody’s a Critic. An Author, too.

What have we done to the idea of writing’s value? How fuzzy is this math going to get?

That’s my provocation for you today. How are today’s pricing problems affecting what Webb characterized here last year as “our dignity, our value, and the viability of this industry”?

Books were always commodities of a kind, and buying second-hand romances by the grocery-bagful didn’t start yesterday.

But the Wall of Content, as I call it, is doing more than loom over us. Digital means never having to say you’re out of print. It also means you’re in competition—forever—with everything since Gutenberg. With both the trade and the self-publishing sectors in rampant over-production as they are today, you’re facing a sheer rock face of competition for every glance your book might get, let alone a read, let alone a sale. Your price is in free-fall.

And we can look to our cohorts in Hollywood for a little guidance here, too. You may not remember what the advent of Blockbuster video and then Netflix did to film. But those of us who watched those developments roll in know. Suddenly there were films everywhere, peopled with actors who are not quite the stars they look like speaking dialog that’s as wooden as they are, in strangely unsatisfying knockoffs of other films.

Image - iStockphoto: camelt
Image – iStockphoto: camelt

We can’t entirely blame independent authors for this gauzy focus on pricing in books. As the indie insurgence began to impact the trade a few years ago, authors who had never been able to get past the agents and editors, the dreaded gatekeepers, found that they could self-publish in our digital age. But self-selling was a different thing.

When you have no marketing department behind you, when you’re not even listed in a publisher’s catalog or recommended to a Barnes & Noble buyer—and no one’s ever heard of you in the world of books—the one way you might turn the head of a potential buyer cruising Amazon is offer a low price. Or no price. “For free” may be a grammatically deplorable phrase (“free of charge” or simply “free” is correct), but for a time, it had a happy ring among consumers who could stuff their e-readers with books by folks they’d never heard of: today a lot of those free slush-files still remain unread on those e-readers, which have been supplanted by tablets.

If the trade was aghast at Amazon’s institution of $9.99 as a viable price for the ebook version of a hardcover hit, it’s tempting to mutter “all is forgiven” now. I know many authors who’d love to get $9.99 for their ebooks. Free downloads by the hundreds might feel exhilarating, but your take-home pay? And while it’s popular to hunker down in the bloggoria and shoot the breeze about the “sweet spot” between $2.99 and $4.99, what frequently is not mentioned is frequency: how many of those things do you have to sell at $3.99—even if you’re getting 70 percent—to put together an income?

Indie/hybrid icon J.A. Konrath, doing a terrific job last week at BookExpo America on a panel about authorship, might have surprised some of the fight-club followers of his blog posts when he said, “If you want to reach the most people possible, you sign with one of these big publishers…. [But] most of us don’t get that invitation to the big show.”

And nobody forced the industry to follow the self-publishing sector in driving the car right on over the cliff. For a time, a UK publisher staged a 20-pence promotion on some of the hottest titles of the year. Now, the bigs are in “new-agency” pricing contracts with Amazon that somehow have them charging high “this price set by the publisher” prices for ebooks at the very moment that the industry needs to energize its digital investments, not price them out of reach.

The Price of Respect

As painful as pricing issues may be in the marketplace and in authors’ efforts to put together a living, the real question, as Webb has suggested, is what happens in the public mind when pricing goes through the floor?

In the readership’s collective mind, the bottom has fallen out. The digital decoupling of price from assumptions of aesthetic and artistic value may, in the long run, prove second only to the Wall of Content, itself, for its impact on publishing’s new context. This has happened in other industries, of course. In news, in music, in freelancing, as many of us discussed in a recent look at the Huffington Post’s use of writers it doesn’t pay.

Webb’s phrase was “degradation of our worth” as creative people. A difficult devaluation is under way. ‘Tis bootless to exclaim, as Marshall McLuhan told us so long ago, “All media work us over completely.” We knew nothing of his genius then. Sadly, we do now.

Far beyond all those craft considerations of how to keep your protagonist dry when it rains, this question of how the world sees literature’s value (in every genre), writers’ value, writing’s value, is about as unfocused and queasy a quandary as you’ll find in publishing.

There’s more: Read the full story at Writer Unboxed

By Porter Ander­son

Writer Unboxed: Books’ Prices and Writing’s Value: Careful What We Asked For?

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