What is a book worth?

So, this has come up a few times, in the circles I wander, and there are a lot of strong opinions out there. It’s my opinion that there is a methodical way of answering most questions like this one, if you analyze motivations and economics coolly.

How much is a book worth?

It’s something a friend asked me several years ago as we were wandering laps at a Target talking about writing and art. In the context of ‘art’ it feels nebulous and fearsome. What am I worth to the world? What is the value of the contribution I am making to society and culture. On a snarky day, I’d capitalize those, but those are real things with real value. The problem is that the value of society and culture doesn’t come in dollar units. It just doesn’t. It can come in more and less, but not in dollars.

Pushing the price of a book up or down doesn’t have anything to do with society and culture.

What it does do is change the type of reward that an author gets from his work.

As I see it, an author can have any mix of three motivations, when they undertake a publishing endeavor. They can seek to be read, they can seek to be compensated, and they can seek to be appreciated. Here, we can convert the cost of the book into something that will move the bar for each of these three goals. (Different authors, even different projects, will have a different mix of any of the three.)

In simple economics, (which are never true, but are never far from true, either) the more you reduce the price of an item, the more you will sell. If all an author wants is to be read, he should sell his novel for free, to gain the most readers possible. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It doesn’t under value him, his work, his time, or his culture. It says that what he cares about is having the most readers possible read his work – that’s where he gains his value.

Good for him.

The other two are a little squirrelier.

If an author has a single book, there will be a point, an exact one, where he will have the highest compensation, the number of copies an author sells times the price of the book minus the per-unit cost (Think e-books don’t have a per-unit cost? close enough, but Amazon actually does charge authors for the cost of delivering every e-book you buy, usually on the order of 6-10 cents per book. More caveats exist, but e-books aren’t free to the author in most cases when you buy off of Amazon. So now you know that.). In a simple economics model, there’s this really pretty arc where compensation comes off of zero at zero price, reaches a maximum, and then drops off without ever theoretically hitting zero again. Because, you know, if I priced my e-book at $1,500, at some point in the next million years, someone would buy it. In actual practice, there are generally agreed to be prices in between $0.25 and $3 where an author is actually going make less than they would at either $0.25 or $3. It was the $0.99 ghetto, and then it was the $1.99 ghetto, where readers who consumed the great quantity of e-books figured that the authors selling at those prices were snake-oil salesmen, trying to shift a sub-par product for a quick profit. Today, according to various models and aggregations of data, the peak compensation for an author is somewhere in the $2.99-$4.99 range.

Unless they have more than one book. At which point, peak compensation may come from a combination of free books and pay-for books. Because, if a writer is good at this game, people will read his free book and be unable to resist buying all the rest of them.

Good for him.

He’s trying to make a living and support himself and his family from the product of his mind. I think that’s pretty cool.

Then you have the writers who want to be appreciated. I’m gonna do my level best to give them a fair shake, but they’re the ones who drive me to capitalize ‘culture’. Who think that selling books cheaper in order to capture more sales devalues the importance of the work that we’re doing. Who send letters to the Department of Justice saying that novels aren’t toasters, and you can’t just outsource their production to China. No kidding, they said that. (Growl. Sorry. Fair shake. Take two.)

If the value that an author takes from his work is the knowledge that the people who are consuming it are genuinely appreciative of it, he makes a legitimate case that a higher price is better, even if fewer readers consume it, and even if it means he makes less money. In a less cut-and-dry example, an author may decide that the very small drop in income and the slightly larger in gross number of readers is justified in seeing his e-book priced at $6.99 and selling well, rather than at $4.99 and selling some better. It proves that he’s making something that really is worth it, not just something that people are willing to throw away some money on because, gee, it isn’t really that much money, is it?

And, okay, I get that. I think it’s another phantom of the myth of validation, but if that really is what you want out of your art, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. It’s your art.

Walking around Target two years ago, I told my friend that if I could sell a billion copies of my novels for $0.25 apiece, I’d probably feel a little bad that I was charging too much. I want to justify the decisions I’ve made to prioritize writing over all of the other things I could be doing with my time: this is an investment and I want it to pay. But the price tag on my book? I sincerely, genuinely, earnestly do not have any emotion tied to it.

It’s a different way of looking at the theory of the thing, but any given thing in the world is worth exactly what a buyer and a seller can agree it’s worth. No more and no less. I’m grateful every time a reader looks at my work and agrees that it is worth buying.
What I’m reading: Joseph by Stephen Elliott
What I’m watching: Veggie Tales, a boxed set called All the Shows

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