Monday, September 28, 2015

What’s the Value of a Book?

By Vicki Delany

What’s the value of a book? I don’t mean the price, but the value.

What is it worth to you that you have good, well-written stories to read, maybe stories that reflect the history or the present of who you are or where you came from, or offer insight into the lives of people and times very different from you? Or just books that give you pleasure and a break from this hectic, troubling world. Do you have children? What is it worth to you that your kids are exposed to other ideas, cultures, and lives beyond their own. And beyond the little square of their iPhone or iPad.

For me, the value is immeasurable.

So, let’s then talk about price. Say an author spends a year working on a book (some write faster, some slower, but that’s a good estimate.) A year of what by every measurement is work. Sometimes they get an advance to help out a little bit, but sometimes they don’t. What price do we attach to a year of labour?

What then, should the price of a book be?

$0.00 seems fair these days, would you agree?

Well, I wouldn’t.

A latte at Starbucks cost $4 -$6. An hour-and-a-half movie at a theatre is around $10. Just one entrée at a mid-priced restaurant can be in the $20 range these days, never mind wine, appetizers, dessert, coffee.

All together we spend a lot of money. But somehow when it comes to the work that artists such as writers and musicians do, some people don’t think they should have to pay.

That’s not the fault of readers. If something’s offered for free, why not take advantage of it?

(Before I continue, you may say what about libraries. Books from libraries are not really ‘free’. The books are purchased at a fair price from money that comes out of the public purse. Plus, in Canada anyway, authors are compensated to some degree by PLR.)

Sure publishers and authors sometimes give away books as loss leaders, to entice new customers, as contests to reward faithful readers. Same as any industry. Enter a contest and you might win a car! Doesn’t mean you can pop down to your local used car lot any time you want and drive away with a FREE CAR!

There has been a trend lately to give books away free willy-nilly. You can find entire lists on Amazon of free books. Many of these books are being put up for free by desperate authors hoping that the right agent or publisher will happen upon it and it will become THE NEXT BIG THING. (Aside, do you really think good agents are looking for another slush pile?)

In 2014 Romantic Times worked with Smashwords to give every conference attendee a thumb drive containing – wait for it – 342 free books. This year, they are going to do the same at Boucheron. Smashwords sent emails to authors attending the conference to tell them they can send in up to three of their books. Sisters in Crime sent the same email to all of its members, whether attending the conference or not. Potentially, this thumb drive will contain hundreds of FREE BOOKS! A years worth of reading!

Smashwords, of course, is promoting their brand by offering other people’s work for free. How kind of them. But, I hear you shout, the authors get exposure.

In my opinion, all this sort of thing does is devalue the worth of a book. Why pay for something if it’s being offered for free?

Turning that argument around, why spend a year of your life writing something if it’s worth nothing? Monetarily, speaking worth nothing to you, nothing to your readers. In non-monetary terms it may be worth a lot to the author, but not many people can live on satisfaction alone.

It’s no secret that author’s incomes have decreased dramatically over the last twenty years. By some estimates 50%.

Do we really want a world where books are written by those who can afford not to have paying work, consider it a hobby, or drive themselves deep into debt?

If you are an author, ask yourself, what is the VALUE of this work I do.

If you are a reader, ask yourself, what is the VALUE of literature.

And then pay, or charge, accordingly.

Note: I've discussed this before,when I was asked to be the unpaid guest speaker at a ticketed event by a for-profit company, and GIVE everyone of the attendees one of my books. Same principal. Here's the link:


Melodie Campbell said...

Very well put. Five years ago, we worried about the lesser price of ebooks affecting our bottom line. Then we worried about piracy, which is so easy with an ebook. But no one dreamed back then that a 2.99, 4.99 book would be given away for zero, even temporarily. One has to worry that so many books given away for free will not only affect sales; it will force the price of other books down even more.

Sybil Johnson said...

Well said. When I received the email regarding the books on flashdrives for Bouchercon, I stared at it for several minutes wondering why any author would contribute to it. Okay, maybe if I had 20 books under my belt, I might consider contributing one of the older ones to it, but I don't. I only have 1 with a second coming out soon. I just don't see the upside for authors. For publishers, maybe.

Vicki Delany said...

Sybil, I have 19 published books under my belt. I won't be contributing any of them.

Donis Casey said...

Vicki, I ask myself such questions every day of my life. I sometimes wish for a return of the Renaissance and some enlightened literary patron who will be happy to pay me 100K a year to write the books that please me. Know anybody like that?

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks for writing this post, Vicki. It needed to be said.