Monday, February 15, 2010

The Cost of Everything and the Value of Nothing

I wrote yesterday at Fatal Foodies about the pleasures of spending $7.00 on one chocolate truffle each for my daughter and myself vs. spending the same $7.00 on a massive hunk of mass produced chocolate bar and how the truffles gave us so much pleasure and the chocolate bar would have made us sick.

Last Christmas I was watering a vase of flowers and spilled a couple of drops of water into the CD player. The player never worked again. Over the summer I went out and left the windows open; it rained and so much rain came into the study I was mopping it up with towels. My twenty-five year old TV sits under the window and buckets of water got into it. The TV still works perfectly. (Incidentally it has rabbit ears and I get one channel.)

Twenty-five years ago that TV cost me a lot of money. The CD player not too much. I would also bet that it’s likely the TV was made somewhere in North America. The CD player – you can guess.

The difference, of course, is value. After destroying the CD player, I went out and bought another. It lasted six months before no longer working. I threw it out and bought yet another. On Friday night I watched the opening of the Olympics on the TV.
If I was to buy a TV today, I’d pay much, much less (adjusted for inflation) than I did for the old one. But I bet it won’t last 25 years. It’ll be made to sell cheap and to be replaced quickly.

What does this have to do with writing and reading books?

Sadly, I suspect the same thing might be happening in our industry. This bit caught my eye in an article about how publishers are trying to get Amazon to sell electronic versions of their books at a fair price. Problem, as reported by the New York Times:

"when digital editions have cost more, or have been delayed until after the release of hardcover versions, these raucous readers have organized impromptu boycotts and gone to the Web sites of Amazon and Barnes & Noble to leave one-star ratings and negative comments for those books and their authors,"

We’ll put aside the fact that these know-nothings are prepared to destroy a writer’s career because of something over which they have no control.

It’s easy to attack the publishing industry, and I have been known to do so myself. But the publishing industry does attempt to give the reader value for money. What does a publisher do:

• reads hundreds of dreadful manuscripts to find a good one
• works with the author to edit and re-edit and make the book as good as it can be
• copy-edits
• prepares and distributes review copies
• hires an artist or designer to do a nice cover
• prepares a catalogue so libraries and bookstores know what’s coming

Does all this have value? I think it does. There are some very good self-published books out there, but there is also a heck of a lot of crud. I have been told several times by readers that they know they can trust a Poisoned Pen Press book for a good read.

How do they know that?

Because Poisoned Pen has gone through the slush pile so you don’t have to, and because the editors at PP have done their job to make a good manuscript into an even better book.

Right now I am working with the people at Rendezvous Crime on Gold Fever. Someone has gone to the time and trouble to read the entire MS, very, very carefully, and note what isn’t quite working or where words are perhaps not the best choice, and to fix up my grammar and spelling. Someone else has designed a lovely cover and worked carefully on the cover blurb to condense the essence of a 300 page book into one paragraph.

Think they’re doing this for free?

If you want your reading experience to have value, pay what it’s worth.


Dana King said...

Ah, but are these functions, once completed, worthy of being charged for again for the electronic book? For a book that goes straight to electronic format, of course. But the marginal costs of creating an e-book from an already completed hardcover are negligible. Charging the same for them is hardly required, and goes against custom if the e-book comes out later, as paperbacks are always significantly less expensive.

This all assumes the functions you described actually are done properly. I'm reading a hardcover book now published by a major NY house. I've already caught two errors a copy editor should have fixed in the first 18 pages, and the bibliography of the author's other books has one of the titles wrong. Not misspelled; the wrong word.

This is where a publisher's quality is measured, and these standards have slipped as book prices continue to rise. Hard to work up much sympathy for that.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Hey Dana, Good points. I find typos much more often than I once did, too. Publishers aren't able to spend as much time per book as they once did. Certain publishing practices (smaller margins from big box stores, fewer independent booksellers, returns, and other unbusinesslike traditions) need to be changed. But the e-books we want to read have still been edited and produced by these companies. The publishers are still paying the authors (hopefully!). If income to publishers is cut even further, so will our choices in books be cut. It's bad enough that houses are merely looking for the next Dan Brown or STephenie Meyer clone in order to stay afloat.

Dana King said...

Thanks, Debby. I'm not advocating publishers making less money. They should be able to charge whatever they want for a book, just as the retailer should be able to charge whatever it wants. If Publisher A sells a book to Amazon for $12.50, Amazon should be able to sell it for whatever they want; the publisher already has its money.

My ire is raised when publishers try to have it both ways. For example, crying because the cost of returns is killing them, but then not factoring in the lack of returns when speaking of how e-books aren't really any cheaper to produce than paper.

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