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.