A Question of Value

August 31st, 2010 · 28 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

I’ve been thinking about the topic of the value of books a lot. Not for days. Not for months. Years. However, recently I’ve been angered by the implication that readers are cheap, that they won’t pay a proper price for books, that they don’t get it. Whatever it is.

These assertions are not untrue.

They are also not entirely accurate. Perspective is everything, nuance matters, and I have thoughts. Of course.

What is a book worth? Well, there’s list price created by the publisher. That seems to be the value referenced by publishers. Then there’s the price consumers actually pay. That gets more complicated, of course. You have to break it down to various levels including the price for the first sale and the price for the second sale. Library patrons pay a different price; we call that “property tax”.

Oh, and then there are the books acquired for free.

This is what I think about when I hear publishers talking about this, that, or the other devaluing the price of content. And by devaluing content, they really mean consumers paying far less than publishers would like. This is absolutely a valid concern.

Once consumers get lower price points in their minds, they might expect to pay less all the time. As noted above, the way consumers acquire books means they pay varying amounts for the same product; I’d wager the number of full retail list price sales is greatly outnumbered by all other types of sales.

Resolution: the price I pay for a book has absolutely nothing to do with how I value the book. This leads me to an inescapable contention. When publishers talk about the value of books, what they really mean is the value they have assigned. Conclusion: publishers are as responsible for devaluing the content of books as anyone else in the food chain.

Recently, some friends and I discussed an author we love. Or loved. Two years ago, I realized I was wasting my money on her work (wasting: paying hardcover prices for not-so-great books). I thought it was me. A few months ago, a friend warned me against buying the author’s current release; I confessed I’d already made the decision not to do so. Very recently, the author confessed in a public forum that she’d been off her game with her recent releases. Health issues. I can sympathize, but I kinda want a refund.

The publisher sold readers a book they knew was not very good. Yes, the publisher had to know. Someone on the editorial staff (presumably) read the book. Someone with (presumably) enough discernment to realize the book was crap. Someone who should have had the guts to say to the author that the book didn’t pass muster. You know, instead of foisting bad stuff on readers.

This particular author writes hybrid genre fiction. She is contracted to produce, at minimum, a book a year (surmising here, I don’t know her particular deal). She’s reached that point in her career where her publisher has her slotted as a hardcover author. This means, quite often based on her track record alone, readers are paying big money for titles that, by her own admission, weren’t her best work.

So much for the gatekeeping function of publishers. Is it any wonder that readers are confused? How are we supposed to discern value when we cannot trust publishers to perform the most basic duty of vetting books for quality?

I was lucky. I bought my camel’s straw book by this author for my Kindle, meaning I paid a mere $9.99. I felt ripped off. Now, there are rumblings among this author’s core audience (my peer group included) that they aren’t going to buy her in hardcover, maybe even mass market paperback, anymore. Seriously, would you pay that kind of money for a book that reads like it’s been phoned in?

The publisher has entered into a contractual relationship with the author that pretty much dictates a certain price point for each book. Costs much recouped, readers be damned! I wonder at what point does it become obvious that readers are slipping away, and word-of-mouth is so bad that the publisher investment becomes a liability?

(Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get the value of a catalog and all that. Indulge me. Focus on the meta-issue.)

So the value of this author’s books to me have dropped from “must buy” to “must consider” to “oh, no, not without five, maybe six, strong trust network recommendations”. This happened before she admitted she was submitting less-than-optimal work. That she confesses her sins after the fact angers me. It angers other readers. Or it angers the ones I’ve spoken with.

Today on list I’ve participated in since the mid-1990s (yeah, that is right), a reader complained about cliches. Another reader chimed in with a more egregious example from a major publisher. Big five, six, whatever. In this book, every time the author meant to use the word “bollocks”, the final, printed, for sale edition of the book substituted “bullocks”. If you are semi-literate, you know the difference.

The truth is, as readers, we have no idea how good a book is when we purchase it, nor can we guess at the quality of what we get, generally, until we read the entire work. Yes, there are publishers (hello, Unbridled Books) who have a tight, focused list that reflects a consistent point-of-view while publishing a diverse list. I love it when I can trust a publisher. I feel the same away about Harlequin. It’s a compliment to both publishers. Readers may not love every book published by these houses, but they know there is a certain focus they can trust. Very few large publishers offer this kinda, sorta guarantee.

There are no real clues for the reader. Think about it. Paul Harding’s Tinkers was originally released at a $14.95 price point. uncharted terriTori by Tori Spelling was released at a $25.00 price point. One of these books won a Pulitzer Prize. So price is no good way to determine value, or even quality. Yet, that seems to be the focus of major publishers. Value equals price, which is far different than the actual work being sold.

For readers, every book from a large to major publisher is a crapshoot. We cannot tell what books were victims of a bidding frenzy gone awry, a need to fill a slot on a list, a misguided notion that this is what readers want, a contract being fulfilled, damn the torpedoes.

The value of a book assigned by a publisher — and I will happily acknowledge exceptions — is not arbitrary, but that is because publishers, like all smart businesses, must look at the commercial value of a product over the quality of the words and ideas within. Book prices reflect many factors, but they do not always reflect the value of the work.

However, the value assigned by publishers feels arbitrary. I read books by long-time favorite authors and wonder if any sort of editorial discernment came into play. I read books by literary wunderkinds and think to myself that someone was buying swampland. I read non-fiction that reads like my junior high diary. I am certainly not proud of those years. Please stop me if I ever again fancy myself a poet.

I see that every quasi-celebrity on the planet can sell a book. I know that some people will buy it. If anyone can point me to one of those books that truly transcended the genre, I am obliged. Otherwise, I use these books as Exhibit A: How Publishers Devalue Their Own Content.

I try not to judge. Publishing is a business, and I am not one of those precious types who views publishing as being somehow above it all. Believe me, I get it, more than most. All that schlock keeps the lights on, keeps editors in health insurance, pays for the time and nurturing of really great books, no matter what genre/category the books falls into. Publishing is business. Writing is an art. Sometimes, the two simply do not fall into sync. Sometimes they do.

How can you tell, until you read the book?

So, I want to turn this around. Rather than accusing retailers and cheap consumers — and we are cheap, particularly in this economy — of devaluing content, how are publishers enhancing the consumer perception of the value of books?

Are they rejecting crappy books from established authors? Are they offering advances based on reality, the marketplace, rather than fantasy? Are they pricing books base on that same reality? Are they listening to what readers say?

This is not an idle thought. It’s been brewing for quite some time. Maybe it’s part of my long-overdue Reader’s Manifesto. I cannot accept publishers making the “value of books” argument — and they have done so with increasing vehemence since the Kindle bookstore ensured that readers latched onto the $9.99 price point for ebooks — when publishers are not doing a damn thing to support their contention.

(Side note: while I have been poking along on this piece, Nathan Bransford posted about the services publishers provide (and how it’s changing). It doesn’t necessarily answer the full question of value, but it gives an idea what goes into the process, and, ahem, it reminds authors of what publishers do for them. We need this same message for readers. They don’t know and they don’t care and they cannot begin to fathom what’s going on without some basic education. Times, they have changed. No more man behind the curtain.)

At least Hollywood provides me sufficient trues via trailers and commercials to know when a movie is simply going to be horrible. They are really good at signaling to viewers about what to expect. And I generally pay less for a movie anyway. It’s somehow easier to stomach the loss of ten dollars than the loss of twenty-five to thirty dollars.

I value books I paid $6.99 for over books I paid $24.99 for. I recommend books I’ve paid $26.99 for over books I bought for $14.99. I evangelize books I bought for $9.99 in the Kindle store while warning readers against books I purchased for $9.99 in the Kindle store.

The price of a book is set by the publisher. The value of a book is set by the reader.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

28 responses so far ↓

  • Frank Lowney // Sep 1, 2010 at 6:44 am

    So, how will we know the value of a book prior to purchase? Is there a Web 2.0 solution available? You know, where people go to digg, like and so on? A place where astro-turfing and other abuses are somehow neutralized?

  • J. Nelson Leith // Sep 1, 2010 at 6:46 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. We need more brazen honesty about the ways that EVERYONE is contributing to the decline of publishing.

    The main flaw I see in publishing is the inability to think strategically/long-term. To make money today selling a POS novel by some famous pundit (Beck for example) that sets the bar of expectation so low that anyone who actually reads it will never want to buy another novel again … this sort of thinking is rampant, and industry suicide. It is essentially an investment in consumer apathy.

  • ¿Quién necesita editores? Opinan: Newsweek, Ray Conolly, Seth Godin, Mitch Joel, Phillip Goldberg, Ursula Mackenzie, Paul Carr y el que aquí escribe | Fran Ontanaya // Sep 1, 2010 at 8:29 am

    [...] http://www.google.com/search?=download+harry+potter [4] Books­quare, “A Ques­tion of Value”, http://booksquare.com/a-question-of-value/ [5] Indus­try Sta­tis­tics, quar­terly US trade retail eBook sales, Inter­na­tio­nal [...]

  • Fran Ontanaya // Sep 1, 2010 at 8:42 am

    “The truth is, as readers, we have no idea how good a book is when we purchase it”

    There is a name for that: The Market for Lemons.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_for_lemons

    Products that require greater effort or higher skill to make them good (cherries) are driven out of the market by bad, cheaper products (lemons) because consumers can’t tell the difference and will pay only the average value. The cycle repeats until the market only sells lemons.

    I’ve read some suggest that networks and communities for sharing information about the products tend to appear spontaneusly to fill the gap. In the case of books, though, I think the expertise of the masses is still a bit fragmented.

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 1, 2010 at 9:39 am

    @Frank — as far as I know, that kind of curated information for books is still mostly in the discussion phases. There are places like The Complete Review that do this kind of work, but it’s not open for contributions in the same way Digg is. However, it is a fine resource. I think, however, there’s a question of taste to be considered, and one thing I harp on when it comes to reviews is the importance of a trust network — people whose taste you trust enough to latch onto one of their recommendations.

    This can be done in a Digg-like environment, of course…

  • Mary Tod // Sep 1, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Hello Kassia – your August 31 post points up how the dynamic amongst authors, agents, publishers and readers is changing so fundamentally. I too have been disappointed with the latest book from a favourite author and in the bookclub I belong to we often comment that the editor did not do their job of paring down and tightening a manuscript. I believe that readers will form an increasingly important role in assessing value using social media and other tools to provide reviews of what they read. Bloggers who specialize in a particular genre or a domain of interest will also be important players in the review process. One that comes to mind is Reading the Past (http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/ ), another is Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/ ). I think of this as the democratization of the review process.
    I have been developing a series called The Business of Writing jointly with literary agent Chris Bucci of Anne McDermid & Associates. One of our posts is called Old World – New World (http://onewritersvoice.com/2010/07/30/old-world-new-world/ ) and in it we have tried to diagram the changes pressuring all involved in bringing value to readers. In another post, So Many Options – What’s a Writer to do? I was struck by the potentially diminishing role of traditional publishers. I hope you find these of interest.

  • Susanne Dunlap // Sep 1, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Thanks for this thoughtful rant, Kassia! As an author and freelance editor, I agree with so much you say. Just today I had a client say, “what about all the schlocky crap that somehow manages to get published?” It doesn’t seem right to earnest, struggling authors trying to break in.

    On the other hand, my editor recently told me over lunch that sometimes she has to buy books that are not her cup of tea, where the writing doesn’t excite her, because she knows they will make a lot of money for the company. On the flip side, she will also buy books she knows she’ll lose money on because she loves them.

    It’s not really an excuse or justification, only something that adds to the difficulty of ensuring the quality of a published book.

  • Pauline Baird Jones // Sep 1, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Good summary of the problem. I always enjoy your blog posts. One thing I’ve also noticed, in the loops I’m on, *publisher brand* is starting to trump author brand, i.e. readers are aware of and HATE the Agency 5 model and they are noting and boycotting publishers, tagging those books on amazon, etc. If sales are low, those authors get punished for having poor sell through, but it is the publisher doing the damage.

    I’m surprised at how many authors aren’t aware of their kindle editions and the problems their publishers are giving them by following the model.

    The other thing I find amusing, publishers find it perfectly okay to look at THEIR bottom line, but if readers consider cost, we’re demanding and whiny? It was a huge shock to me to discover I (as reader) am not the customer of major publishers, that their customers are bookstores, etc. That still makes me blink in shock. So those tv ads are directed at bookstores, not the reader? They need to figure things out fast, IMHO.

    Keep the heat on!

  • susan // Sep 1, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Your points are valid. How distressing it is to shell out big bucks for a hardback, and find rampant typos, misused grammar, mistakes…all the things an EDITOR should have fixed. Then to find a sow’s ear that’s been promoted as a silk purse–that’s worse. Of course, this is where reviews come in handy, but as the recent kerfuffle about Franzen/Picoult/Weiner shows, not all books one wants to read are reviewed.
    Friends’ opinions help; so do Amazon reviews (the one-star ratings usually far more enlightening than the five-star “I loved it” type) If those reviews are all in lower case and misspelled, you can safely ignore them, but some very thoughtful people do review. But then…it’s all subjective.
    One does feel that publishers could be just as happy selling widgets. Don’t they care about literature (by which I mean all books, genre, non-fiction, so-called literary–the word in print)? My feeling is, not so much.

  • Kelly McClymer // Sep 1, 2010 at 10:52 am

    As an author, this is what I most want a publisher for. To see past my blind spots and make sure my book is the best it can be. I grumble when my favorites are not well edited because they sell well. I think of the book I might have read if the editor didn’t want to avoid the ego battle. But, to be fair, fan readers take a lot to give up on a fave, so what’s in it for the publisher to risk angering a star author? J.K. Rowling is my hero for refusing to meet an arbitrary deadline and delaying her books until she was certain they were ready.

  • Patricia Rice // Sep 1, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Thoughtful post. I think every facet of the industry, from publisher to reader, shares a part of the blame, though. My editor works extremely hard to see that my books are the best books possible. If there are errors, they are mine. If there are formatting errors in my Kindle editions, I don’t know about them because I never see them. So I’ll blame techy gnomes. Those bullocks filling that poor hero’s pants could very well be a copyeditor error–someone who never came across the right word but knew the wrong one. Humans are error prone.

    But readers who keep buying $24.99 books because they recognize the author’s name are also to blame for devaluing the book if that author suddenly starts writing tripe and they keep buying them. What publisher will stop publishing an author if the books sell?

    I wish there were an ideal gateway, but I fear that gateway is our own individual minds and pockets.

  • Clive Warner // Sep 1, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    “so, what do you expect me to do?”
    “I expect you to die, Mr. Bond.”
    – Except that he won’t. James Bond is eternal even though Ian Fleming has long passed away.

    Then there is the Patterson Production Line, in which endless “Patterson” novels are produced by teams of ghostwriters.

    IMO both these are fraud.

  • Rui Almeida // Sep 2, 2010 at 1:30 am

    Two or three years ago I would agree with your point of view. Nowadays, I don’t believe de consumer/reader is so vulnerable. The speed that reviews are spread is so fast that you can easily avoid a bad buy. Plus, there’s the various networks in which you’re envolved that function as a safety net. These two effects can protect you, and in fact is quite frequent to watch some price adjustment or market repositioning, higher or lower, in reaction to the market perception – My point is, I believe that today the invisible hand acts faster then ever.

  • Debbie Whittemore // Sep 2, 2010 at 6:08 am

    Thank you for voicing so much of what book lovers think. For everyone of us who refuses to buy the schlock that passes for the Bestseller List, there are enough readers who keep buying those production-type books. It’s a Catch-22. I also agree that editorial standards have devolved…I am shocked at the errors I see in books from reputable publishing houses. That said, publishing and reading are both in one of the biggest and fastest technological fluctuations in history and are having very real problems in keeping up

  • Richard Adin // Sep 2, 2010 at 6:18 am

    A small point. You wrote: “Someone on the editorial staff (presumably) read the book. Someone with (presumably) enough discernment to realize the book was crap. Someone who should have had the guts to say to the author that the book didn’t pass muster.”

    First, publishers are spending less money on editors than on typesetting these days under the guise that few people recognize errors or care. Sadly, they are right.

    Second, the quality decline is a reflection of the literacy decline seen in the general population. By literacy, I mean the ability to both read and comprehend what is being read. This trend of decline affects the quality of the books we see in the marketplace because as older, more literate editors retire or price themselves out of the mass market, their places are being taken by younger less literate editors — the same editors who do not know the difference between “bullocks” and “bollocks” or don’t know how to use a dictionary.

    Third, you are seeing the effect of modern technology on the authorship process, which process includes not only the author’s original writing but the editorial process that should be helping the author. If it isn’t caught by spell check or grammar checker, it must be OK.

    Fourth, you are seeing the problem of the change in ownership over the past half century that has redefined the publishing world. We talk of the the big 6 but exactly what are they? They are conglomerations of what used to be independent publishing houses that, in the past, were concerned with quality but today are concerned with quarterly shareholder return.

    Fifth, and finally, you are seeing the effect of both author and publisher reluctance to hire professional editors and a professional rate. Editors that are hired are hired with the bottom line in mind and with a set schedule in mind. I am often instructed to just correct misspellings and really egregious grammar mistakes and to let all else go because to do otherwise would bust the budget and, besides, the author isn’t interested in my comments. More than one author has told me directly that if I was so good I should have written the book and since I didn’t write it, they obviously know better.

    As for value, that is always, just like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.

  • CJ Lyons // Sep 2, 2010 at 7:22 am

    I totally feel your frustration with “overpaying” for a book–and for finding a gem of a book “underpriced” as a paperback original and wondering why the heck this author isn’t out in hardcover.

    But I’ve found a great solution to help prevent buyer’s remorse: the free excerpts you can download from kindle books (also other formats via sites like smashwords if you’re anti-kindle).

    So wonderful to try it before I buy it!!! Excerpts on author sites and the occasional publisher site have helped as well–both to encourage me to buy a book I fall in love with and to avoid one that’s over-hyped and doesn’t deliver.

    Great post!
    CJ

  • Terry Kate // Sep 2, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Wow, so much to address – great post, and things that I have raised with blogger/reviewer buddies myself.

    SO readers who are cheap raise your hands?
    Just me? How embarrassing.
    That does not mean I do not buy books. It means I am a hard sell. Get the first book in my hand and if I love it I am hooked and loyal – till betrayed by low quality. Give me an awesome excerpt and if I want it bad enough I will be in the car to the book store. Ask me to buy a $25 book from an author I do not know? Put me in a bed with bed bugs!

    @Richard
    You are very right! A little about me – Yes I run a book website – Romance in the Backseat, but I started it by doing video interviews in the backseat with authors. I went to film school and film is a more interconnected/dependent art form. I so-so film can be made great by the editor, a great film can be killed by the editor. In the industry never underestimate the editor and I think the same should be said for books. And the does NOT mean that the editor wants to be a writer/director/actor whatever. They have an important job that they seem to be encouraged to speed through.

    As for big pubs or small, indie or conglomerate, as a Reader I find the majority of them hit of miss, though I too am following certain pubs with a growing brand loyalty vs. Author loyalty. On my end I think it comes from working with the pubs on the non-reader end.

    Thanks everyone and I am so glad to have found this blog!
    Terry Kate
    Romance in the Backseat

  • Sean // Sep 3, 2010 at 8:03 am

    Editors are important if they know what they are doing. A good editor can be a gatekeeper for eliminating bad books from the marketplace. We need this to happen. This “digital revolution” has really led to people publishing books who really have no business trying to sell their bad books. They become their own editor and of course everything from their mind is golden, right? Not every book should be published. There I’ve said it! We all have the right to express ourselves for sure but do we need every single human that can type producing books? That’s why the traditional path of publisher, editor and author actually means something. If you are published in a hardcover that means that a for profit company has faith in you to bring in more profit. If everybody can put a book out how will we be able to tell Dostevsky from Patterson? If an established author is punting it, then that hurts the bottom line for the company. Give a shot to a less established writer who is pushing the boundaries. As an example, does Kareem still start for the Lakers or does Kobe?

  • Yamabuki Zhou // Sep 3, 2010 at 10:04 am

    What is the value of a Book?

    I just got through
    packing up
    Two boxes of books
    To Donate
    (ok ok – my wife wants
    The room- ‘Get rid of some books’
    She says)

    Two boxes
    It hardly shows the book shelves don’t look quite as full

    Still lately most of my reading has been ebooks
    Last week Martin Cruz Smith
    Published his latest novel
    “Three Stations”
    He is one of my favorites
    But I refused to buy his book.
    Because on Amazon it’s NOT being sold
    As an ebook.

    So I upgraded my favorite ereader
    my ‘gasp’ ipod iTouch
    And now i can use it to read his book on the nook app

    There are ebooks from:
    ereader.com (fictionwise)
    Nook (Barnes and Noble)
    Kindle (Amazon)
    and even ibooks (Apple)
    all on my little iTouch
    That fits in my pocket
    (I do have a 1st gen Kindle
    but haven’t used it in months)

    I wish all my books
    were available
    as ebooks.
    So I could clear out
    more of my book shelves
    Maybe Google books
    Will help me out there.

    So how much are books worth to me?
    Many of my ebooks are duplicates of books I already own. (You’d think they’d give me
    a discount for having the book)

    Books are worth what i have to pay versus how well i like the book. This is why I love Amazon

    Amazon has a return policy on ebooks
    And I’ve used it
    I’ve read part way, even all the way through the ebook and felt cheated.
    True Amazon only gives you a week
    But I can tell in a week if I want to keep a book
    If I don’t like it I call and bingo – money refunded

    As for the value of physical books
    Sure there is something
    about reading a book
    But try carrying them around
    When you travel
    Try finding space on your shelves
    Try reading them when you
    are with your wife
    When she’s shopping
    And you have to wait for her.
    With my pocketsized iTouch it’s never a problem.

    Reading the other comments
    I see many points of view
    All valid to some degree
    Depending on what you value
    But looking at the future
    I think books are going to become
    a niche market
    The publishers and sellers
    Who adapt will survive
    The rest will sink or swim

    (sorry for
    the weird
    formating
    I’m working
    At becoming
    A poet
    So take
    ever
    chance
    to write
    like
    this)

    yamabuki

  • Mary G // Sep 4, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    “First, publishers are spending less money on editors than on typesetting these days under the guise that few people recognize errors or care. Sadly, they are right.”

    That is not true. Of course we notice & care, but who would we tell? It’s too late once the book is published & out there.

    From what I’ve read, it seems to be worse with ebooks although they must be easier to correct.

  • Shelley // Sep 5, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    I just finished Richard Anderson’s book Free, and he makes the interesting point that perhaps the amount people pay is not the only way to judge what they value–it’s better judged by what they pay attention to.

  • Beth // Sep 7, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    That’s an interesting point, Shelley. I find that within my book group, I’m one of the few who will value highly a book with a less-than-perfect plot but beautiful writing. I’m guessing that most reader’s of this blog are the same. We love words, language, writing, etc. So for us, bad writing and errors in grammar devalue the book. But what about people who just want a rip-roaring plot and don’t care about the writing? Is their value system different? Hmm….

  • Sherman Unkefer // Sep 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Unfortunately, the dumbing down of reading choices by plot driven trash is not helping this at all. To pay a premium price for the latest off the Patterson assembly-line as you would a true piece of literature (which is harder and harder to find) is only going to make the divide larger. But I guess that’s what happens when art becomes a business. Great point – thanks for saying what we all feel!

  • Mark // Sep 23, 2010 at 8:52 am

    As a consumer, I see an oversupply of books. There are more than I could possibly read. Therefore, I expect to see low prices on these goods.

    With all the free ebooks and the used bookstores and Borders sending me a 33% off coupon every week, I may never pay even $9.99 for a book again. So I determine price in part not by a perceived value of a book but by my willingness to pay. A $9.99 book may be a fabulous value, but I’m probably not going to pay that much. I’ll buy something else for a cheaper price.

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