Saturday, May 21, 2011

What’s A Book Worth?

As the debate rages within the publishing industry over how much information is worth a May 3rd Sotherby’s auction yielded a 170 million-dollar windfall for 44 works of art.  There was one painting – a Picasso – that sold for $21.3 million.  It made me wonder why we don’t value the written word the same way.

Now, granted, books, other than ancient or rare manuscripts, will ever fetch millions of dollars, but why is information today being devalued in the marketplace?

The Internet poses many challenges to information peddlers.   Book publishers, newspapers, magazines and websites are still searching for the ideal pricing model.  Part of the problem is there’s so much information out there and a lot of it is free. But the art of writing should not be commoditized, where we weigh words by the pound.  It’s the quality, more than the quantity, of content that should count.

As it is, many authors fail to earn much from their work. Publishers Weekly reported on a study performed last year that showed 7 percent of all books published generate 87 percent of the sales revenue. Further, 93 percent of all published books sold less than 1,000 copies each. In fairness, many sales happen off the radar (via authors’ sites, seminars, bulk organization sales, etc.) and thus there are probably more successful authors on top of this study, but still, these are sobering statistics.

I believe book publishers have made a tactical error in making e-books so cheap.  As a result, they undercut the perceived value of all published writings.  It’s a model that, the longer it persists, will be harder to reverse.  I would prefer they give extra value to a higher purchase price, rather than lower the price.

There are many factors weighing on the pricing of information, including:
·         We’re still in a recessionary mode and for some, buying a book or subscribing to a magazine poses some challenges.
·         Publishers are playing follow the leader, letting, Amazon, Apple or Walmart dictate terms.  If a publisher tries to push its own model, it has to compete against what the vast majority has established.
·         All information is competing with each other, so people are choosing what to spend on the increased choice of books, magazines and newspapers – while also reading free blogs, posts on social networking sites, and Tweets.
·         More than ever before, people are spending time creating content and writing, and therefore, devote less time reading and buying the works of others. Our nation is moving from consumers to producers of content.
·         Aside from free and purchasable information, there is a competition for time and mindshare.  People also devote hours and hours to television, radio, video games, on-demand video, and a host of other entertainment forms.
·         As the number of e-readers increases, more people will secure information digitally, and thus, the printed version of content is likely to suffer lower sales.
·         Global competition online.  Walking into a bookstore used to confront you with hundreds of thousands of choices but online, the choices extend to the millions.  Books never go out of print online and no boundary of store or country stands in the way of you accessing materials from around the globe.

In time, the dust will settle.  I would venture a guess that in a few years a clearer model of pricing will develop and the lines will blur as to what even constitutes a book.  Information will merge and the distinction of what’s a book, a magazine, a newspaper or a blog will become less clear.

Just look at television and movies.  The boundaries of distinction are decreasing.  Not long ago the major TV networks produced content and then syndicated reruns were shown on cable stations.  Now cable stations produce original shows.  Netflix used to rent old TV shows and movies.  Now it’s getting into the game of airing shows that didn’t air elsewhere first.  More importantly, people are not going to movie theaters as often as they used to and not buying DVDs as often as they used to.  They watch it on TV or through streaming online video, for free or little charge.  Even worse, millions of homes are off the TV grid. 

Nielsen reported this past week that three and a half percent of all homes do not own a single TV.  Some of it is attributed to the recession, although TV-based entertainment is cheaper than almost all other forms.  Some of it is attributed to the switch two years ago over the elimination of antennas, thus requiring transition to cable or the purchase of a converter box.  Others may simply believe TV offers nothing of redeeming value and avoid it.  But the real culprit may be the Internet.  People are watching TV for free online.

So what does all of this add up to when it comes to pricing books?  I would suggest publishers stop lowering their prices and curtail all of the free content to a degree.  Or else look for ways to trumpet the uniqueness of a book. Authors devote their lives to their writing.  Shouldn’t they get paid more than what comes out to below-minimum-wage royalties?  This is true for self-publishers and print-on-demand authors: Don’t devalue your own work.  Once we’re all on the same page, the market shall improve.

But if writing doesn’t pay off for you, consider investing in art.  I hear there’s money to be made there.

            *** Brian Feinblum can be reached at

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