If You Can’t Respect Your Work, Nobody Else Will Either

I’ve talked before about how I feel that self-publishing is working, at least in part, to deflate the value of books. I’m not one who is willing to blithely accept the notion of “sell it for what will sell the most copies.”  I don’t subscribe to the dollar book pricing. Yes, I understand some writers make money this way, and economics in the digital world is a different animal than the physical, but I am still holding to the idea that books are worth more than a buck, regardless of what works.

Honestly, I think writers would sell for whatever the market perceives is reasonable, whether it’s $1.99 or $9.99. The problem of course is making headway in a glutted market. It’s not like there is limited store space. There is no scarcity of supply in the digital book world. Demand, of course, is limited. There are only so many readers out there. In this scenario, there is going to always be downward pressure toward zero. If we want to alleviate this pressure, two major issues have to be addressed.

  1. Book Quality
  2. Reader Expectation

These are complicated, interwoven issues. As a writer, the biggest thing under our control is the product/story we put out there.  Everything about the words on the page are under the control of the self-published writer.  You don’t have to answer to anyone. This is both boon and bane.  There is the danger in being your own boss to assume, that because the product is yours, that you always know what is best for it. This isn’t true in the business world and it isn’t in books either.  As with all creative works, the artist is often too close to it to see potential flaws. This is why editing, copy-editing, cover artists, and the like are so important. Sometimes people with knowledge and experience in your field have expertise and a viewpoint that are better than your own. To not use or ignore them results in a poor product.

When you ignore that which will make your product better, you do so at your own peril and jeopardize any chance of success. You also create that downward pressure on the products around you. Consumers look at their product choices and if the majority of them are of a certain quality, an expectation is built and the perception of value declines. Think of it as something like a neighborhood of houses. The more shoddy homes there are the less overall value there is to all of the homes, from the mansion down to the shack. Basically, don’t build a shack when you have the capability to build a mansion. And if you don’t know how, find out from those who do. If you can’t afford to, save until you can. In the end, if you can’t do these things at all, then don’t build.

Yes, I said it. If you can’t write a good story, don’t know if you can, or find yourself in a position of not being able to, then don’t do it until you can. I realize that in an open market such as this, everyone has the right to put their product out there, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Have respect for the story. If the readers don’t then they aren’t going to value your books, and more significantly, they aren’t going to value other books as much either. As a consumer, I don’t want it to be difficult to shop for products I like and find worthwhile. If I have to struggle through an endless array of cheap products to find the good ones, this lessens the value of my shopping experience and lowers my expectation of the products as a whole.

Which brings me to reader expectation. Readers want good stories. They expect to be able to get them. You want reader expectation to be high. If they perceive value, they’re willing to pay more. Self-publishing has been working against this perception of value. Let’s face it, one doesn’t expect much for a dollar. It’s an impulse, throw away value item. One doesn’t expect much for a dollar and one isn’t terribly disappointed if one doesn’t receive much for that investment. Self-publishing is playing off this idea of giving a valuable item at a throw away price in order to generate interest in the product.

There are problems with this idea. It’s a balancing act between value and expectation. What I’m seeing in self-publishing (at least with fiction, which is where I am coming from) is that readers are developing an expectation of low value because they are having to spend on poor books in order to find good ones. If you are finding only 1 book in 3 at $.99 that is worth your time, the mindset is that you spent $3 to get a good book. Books are an odd and difficult product to market because it’s hard to perceive its actual value without purchasing, and it’s not like you can return it for a refund if you don’t like it.

We’re getting to a point, however, where readers are going to expect, even demand that books be at the dollar throwaway price, because they have to pretty much waste their money on products they don’t like in order to find one they do. There are some out there who believe this is a perfectly acceptable mode for publishing. If your product is good, your cheaply priced product will lead buyers to be willing to spend more down the road. The problem is, there’s some tipping point in all of this somewhere, and I don’t know where, that the cost vs benefit exceeds what the reader is willing to tolerate. Readers will spend so much in that effort to find the good books, that they will not be willing to pay more because the investment to get there is just too high.

Unfortunately, we may be close to this point already. The expectation for a dollar book isn’t great. It doesn’t take a lot to exceed this expectation, which leads to the mentality on the producer’s end that you only have to be “good enough” to exceed this value. If you can make a “good enough” product to make money at the impulse level, which requires less time and investment on the production end, there is no incentive to make the product better. Basically we get a book market where writers crank out mediocre or worse books because that’s all that is required to meet reader expectations. It’s a vicious circle of driving down the value and quality of books.

In the end here, respect for story as well as value is pressured ever-downward. If the writer doesn’t have respect for the product, how is the reader suppose to? Now, I’m not saying all writers are like this at all. There are plenty of great writers out there, but there is a growing population of writers out there who don’t or perhaps more difficult to deal with, the writers who aren’t experienced or knowledgeable enough to even understand how they’re feeding into this cycle. My point of all of this rambling is essentially this: have respect for your work writers and also respect for the reading experience; if you don’t believe you need/have to put out the best possible product possible, readers won’t expect it either, and they won’t value what we do as writers.

The New Publishing Era: Is It All Just Economics?

There has been a bit of recent buzz through the publishing blogosphere recently about the Department of Justice’s impending suit against Apple and the Big Six publishers over their Agency Model agreement. What it comes down to is the notion that they conspired, i.e. worked together as a group, in order to fix the prices of ebooks at a certain level.

There have been lots of “OMG!” statements made, some positive and others not so much about this potential development. On the one hand, we have consumers (readers) cheering the notion that once again, the market (Amazon) can crank down ebook prices and make more mainstream authors available at lower prices. On the other, there are those who say that the inability to set prices at a margin that actually makes a profit will doom publishers as things currently stand.

Somewhere in this passing volley of  words, it has been mentioned that the ones who will suffer the most from this are the authors. This has been a fairly quiet voice, as most of the statements have been coming from the publishing industry and the consumers. There have been a few comments made (that I’ve seen anyway) about the effects on authors, mostly to the effect of either, it will have little effect, to they will lose money and the midlist authors will get squeezed out of the publishing world.

The problem with most of these statements is that there is little empirical data to back them up. And let’s face it, coming up with that kind of data is notoriously difficult in the publishing world. So, we get a lot of anecdotal evidence, opinion, some of which may have some merit or maybe not. It’s hard to tell honestly. Predicting anything in publishing is a crap shoot.

Some things we do know:

  1. Readers want to buy books as cheaply as possible.
  2. Readers want to get value for the money they do spend.
  3. Publishers need/want to make money. They can’t survive otherwise.
  4. Booksellers want to make money. They can’t survive otherwise.
  5. Authors want to make money from their work. Their creativity deserves compensation.

It’s pretty basic economics at this level. It’s the two basic forces of a market competing against each other. It’s how they interact that gets very complicated and difficult to sort out. Some people will say that attempting to limit the market is a fool’s errand, that given free reign, markets in a time of change will at some point settle at a new level. There will be winners and losers in this changing time, with those who embrace the change generally coming out ahead.

Where things will settle down the road is difficult to prognosticate on. If trends are any indication though, we can see that books, at least on a digital level are coming down in price. We have the upper end of $10 (more or less) down to the bottom level of free. The DoJ is on the side of consumers in this battle. You don’t sue for price-fixing unless you believe consumers are being put at a disadvantage. In a consumer driven economy such as ours, the consumer rules all. If you asked any reader if you’d rather pay for your books or get them for free, the vast majority are going to say free. What a consumer wants and what a consumer perceives as being a valuable commodity worth paying for can and often are two different things.

In the world of books, most readers will tell you that some books are worth their weight in gold, while others aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on or in the digital case, the memory they take up on the ereader. In the case of this battle, we aren’t talking about value though. The DoJ is saying simply that consumers should not be inhibited by anyone from getting the lowest possible price for their product.

It’s important to note here: value is not a part of this equation. The DoJ is not concerning itself with books. It’s not their place to determine what a book’s value is, merely to make sure the market is not restricted by businesses when it comes to consumption. What do you do though, when that protection is destroying the value of the commodity, when protecting the consumer, in fact, helps destroy the very business providing the product?

Yes, I’m predicting here, and not based on any hard facts. But here is what I do know:

  1. Books have value, some more than others obviously, but they do provide a valuable service to consumers.
  2. A valuable service/commodity should be paid for. In the case of books, this means they should not be free.
  3. Perception is a powerful force in the market. If the dominant forces in the market tell you that something is worth X amount, then over time, the public’s perception of that something is going to be X.

In the book market, Amazon is the dominant force, holding the largest market share relative to everyone else. They are the dominant force in the changing of the book world. They have inserted themselves into the traditional chain of author-publisher-bookseller-reader. They are attached to the reader/consumer. They sell things, a LOT of things. Their entire modus operandi is to bring consumers in and have them buy things from them. Nothing wrong with this at all. They do it very well and have every right to do so. But they are amoral when it comes to books.

They don’t sell books because they have value. They don’t care if a particular book will change your life or make you hurl it across the room in disgust. They don’t care about art and culture and how they interact with one another. They’re a retailer. They don’t have to care, and honestly it’s not in their purpose to care. I don’t begrudge Amazon their indifference to creativity and what value it might have. It would be nice if they did, but I have no right to complain at them for not doing so. For them, it’s all economics.

And that’s the problem. This new era of publishing is devolving into little more than an economics game. Self-published authors put out books for free or $1 to attract readers. It’s become a viable option for some. Amazon wants this to work because cheap brings in the consumer. The closer than can drive a book’s value to free, the better business it is for them. I don’t believe they give a damn one way or the other what a book sells for or whether an author has much chance in hell of making any money off of their books, though they’ll certainly use the exceptional success stories to flaunt their model. Some will and do say, “So what? It gives everyone a chance to succeed.” It does, though percentage-wise I’d like to see any numbers that say your odds of success are any better than they were the traditional way. But the more people that can try, the more consumers it will bring into the store, and that is all Amazon wants/needs.  They want to sell things, and books aren’t one of them. Selling books is simply a gateway to get consumers into the store to buy other things, much like any store will entice consumers in with a particular sale item in the hopes of selling them other things. Only here we have an entire industry as the sale item.

It’s all economics for the Amazon’s of the world. Value is not a concern to them, at least when it comes to books, and as an author that really bothers me. We are the carrot being wagged at the door. As a whole, the reading public isn’t concerned with this or perhaps they would be if it was even on their radar. It’s not though. This is a problem far beyond economics though and a whole other post.

As an author, I take offense at being the carrot. It’s demeaning and says my creativity has no value other than it’s ability to entice consumers through the door. More people should be outraged over this fact, but they aren’t. It’s not something even in the public conscience. Creativity is a declining value in our society, and Amazon just happens to be the one reaping the biggest benefits from that. Their platform for books only proliferates this perception.

Don’t get me wrong though, I believe writers (or any artist) deserves a venue for putting their work out there for the public to see, value, and consume. But when I begin to hear the collective cheers for lower prices via things like the DoJ’s suit, I want to tell people to really look at what is going on here. The Amazon’s of the world are devaluing creativity and artistic works, not for the purpose of bringing art to the world, but to be used as a vehicle to access other commodities. It’s being done at the expense of those who do value creativity and art (and yes, try to make money from it as well, but there’s a big difference when you’re invested in the product yourself).

While I can’t say it will come to pass, there lies the possibility here, that the misuse of creative enterprise to further secondary consumption will in the end, destroy the creative enterprise. In other words, if Amazon keeps up this economics of devaluing books to get consumers in the door, it’s going to trash the art of writing, because in the end, artists are not going to want to produce their art if nobody values it.

The Value of Story

Most comments I post on twitter might get two or three mentions. Yesterday I posted a random thought inspired from someone else’s tweet, when I realized, with some annoyance, that people spend more on greeting cards than they do on many of their ebooks. The past couple of years have seen enormous changes in the publishing. It’s so easy to put a book out there for people to read, at least in the digital world, and even creating a paper version isn’t that difficult with a little time, effort, and money. And of course, over these times of great, digital expansion, we have seen a price war of sorts.

Readers do not want to pay more for a digital copy of a book than a paper version. This is completely understandable. While the difference in creation is actually not very much (printing/distribution costs only make up about 10-15% of total), the perception has been that they should be significantly less. The internet has developed into a strange creature, spouting forth billions of bytes of free information. There are people who put up creative media for free all over the place on the internet. We can find videos, photography, digital art, music, and of course, books. Unfortunately, I believe this fantastic avenue for expression and communication has done a disservice to the value of art as a whole.

You can go to places like amazon and scribd and assorted other sites and find free books. Finding something you might like is a bit more difficult, but again, if you are willing to put in the time and effort, you’re likely to find something. There is an ever growing pool  of digital stories out there and I imagine that it will only get bigger as time goes on. Being able to sort through this is another issue worthy of another discussion. But, not only can you find free books, there are also many that fall into the 1.99-2.99 range. Now, let me be clear. I have no issue with people charging whatever they want for their books. Avid readers likely love this because it means they can buy more. The casual ready likes it because they don’t have to spend as much. All great for the consumer pocket book, and because of the way royalties are set up, an author still makes more per book at these prices.

So, it’s all win-win, right? On the surface I suppose this is true. Authors can make more, assuming of course they can garner the sales (all success stories aside, this is far harder than many writers might think). Readers can buy more books. All things digital should be cheap anyway! There’s no physical product. This psychological difference between physical object and mere representation is at the heart of this for me. The thing is, stories take place in your imagination. There is no physical product. Whether the delivery of the story is on paper or on screen, the actual product exists in your head. So, should the method through which you receive the product diminish its value? I’m going with no on this one.

Back to the greeting card comparison. Greeting cards typically run from about $2-6. Much like books you can send people free ones on line (though they aren’t as nice to look at). What are you paying for when you buy a greeting card? Typically you are conveying an emotion to someone, whether it be sympathy or joy or thanks. Is it worth $5 to convey a heartfelt emotion to someone you care about? I’d hope so. But that requires going to an actual store and finding an actual good card and then writing a worthwhile message. The same with books. You can browse on your computer, kindle, nook, or whatever, and get a book with a couple of clicks, as opposed to the the trip to the book store, which takes more time, more gas, and more effort to find something worth reading. Once again, the perception that making something easier and cheaper to get means it has less value.

With nearly any sort of art/craft, it’s value goes up the harder it is to collect. Make it cheap and convenient and its worth goes down. I see this happening with books and the digital flood. Convenience and ease are washing out the value of the story. In a few years, there will be millions of titles available through digital bookstores. Of course there are benefits to this. My little rant here has little to do with the benefits provided by the rise in digital publishing. This is all about perceived versus actual value. Digital publishing is lessening the value of the story. I pay $10 to go see a movie. Two hours of having my imagination filled with story. Hopefully it’s good. If not, then I feel like I wasted my money. If movies were all a buck, I’d certainly go see them more often, but would I perceive them as being as valuable? No. The investment was small enough to outweigh the possibility of it being bad. This is what I can see happening with digital books. If they’re cheap enough, I won’t feel like I’ve wasted my time if they were crap.

Honestly, I don’t want to get to that point. I don’t want stories to be de-valued to the point they are on the same level or less as greeting cards or a song download. Good stories are worth a damn movie ticket. Great stories are worth far more. If and when I get a digital reader, I won’t buy the dollar books or take free ones either (unless we’re talking promotional items, which is a different story). While I, as an author, certainly want people to read my stories, I’m not going to contribute to the devaluation of the written word. People buy too many stories for a buck and they begin to think they’re all worth a buck. This perception and mentality really bothers me. Storytelling is worth far more, to me and to our culture.

Ok, rant off. Not even sure I made sense with half of that. Lol. Happy reading/writing everyone, and I hope you enjoy your Valentine’s Day.