Words worth

In Lady Windemere’s Fan, one of Oscar Wilde’s characters defines a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” (Act III). Some of the blog posts and articles I’ve seen this year makes me wonder if there are readers who fit this description, too, by whining for lower book costs or for pay for book reviews. I’ve been sitting on these pieces for a while now, because I wasn’t sure how I wanted to discuss them. I’m still not quite sure, but I’m going for it anyway. First, book costs:

"Spend your money wisely, buy books." - Piet van der Hem

“Spend your money wisely, buy books.” – Piet van der Hem

This conversation has been going on since before there was a commercial book market, I daresay. Every time I see it, I want to grab the readers who want cheaper books or give authors grief for the price tags, I want to throttle them. I want to show them breakdowns of how the cost of a book is divvied up between the publisher and the author and how little the author gets. I want to point out authors that are hugely popular who still have day jobs, like N.K. Jemisin and Nobel winner Tomas Transtromer.

And yet, Conrad Scoville uses sales data in his article for BookBub to show that price matters even among deeply discounted ebooks. Shoppers are more likely to take a chance on a book priced at $1.99 than $2.99. Scoville only looked at discounted book sales, but I suspect the patterns are similar for books priced $9.99 and $14.99—new title prices.

The Annoyed Librarian’s blog post refers to the changes to how Amazon plans to pay authors who publish via Kindle Direct. Rather than charge a flat rate for the entire book, Kindle Direct will pay out with pennies per page. Kindle Direct is only on platform for self-publishing, but Amazon is a huge force in the market. If this model is adopted widely, it will be just that much harder for authors to reap any kind of reward for writing.

My point in discussing these articles is to try and articulate the possibility that arguing for deeply discounted prices devalues books in consumers’ minds. iTunes, I think, has trained us to pay low prices for what we perceive as a digital file. How much can 1s and os cost? But with iTunes, you’re buying a single song. The book equivalent would be to pay $.99 for a chapter or a poem—and pay full album price for a whole book. When I feel myself slide into that mindset, I remind myself that an author spent years writing it. An editor spent months proofreading it and working with the author to shape it. The publishers worked hard to make sure I heard about the book in the first place via reviewers I trust. And if I still can’t bring myself to shell out $14.99 for a book I might not like and won’t be able to give away to another reader*, I’ll borrow it from a library. At least someone paid retail for the book.

A few months ago, Ashley LaMar caused a brief scandal on the bookish internet for having the gumption to ask for money in exchange for book reviews. LaMar laid out her reasons. It takes time to read books and evaluate them and write about them. Then the publisher gets access to whoever is reading the blog (hi, guys!) when those readers make a decision about a book via the blogger’s review. It’s not a crazy idea. Shannon, from River City Reading, had one of the more civil rebuttals I saw at the time. The main point of that rebuttal is that freelance book reviewing is a hobby. If it takes too much time, there’s no one who’s going to fire us for not reviewing books. This is a hobby. Who gets paid for a hobby?

The longer I’ve considered these articles, I more I see the points of LaMar’s arguments, but I still strongly disagree with her conclusion that we should be paid in cashy money. Getting to read advanced reader copies months before I book I’ve been looking forward to is more than enough compensation for me. Besides, my blog isn’t about shilling for publishers. It’s about sharing my ideas about books with whoever might be reading (hi again!). And I’m fairly sure that I my reading and reviewing turned into a paid gig, it would kill the joy I have for reading. I had a hard enough time reading some of the books I had to read to get my BA in literature. I don’t know what I’d do if I got paid to review shit like Grey. 

All that said, I can see the argument that pay might help increase respect for book bloggers. We’re taking over from the professionals as arts coverage is getting slashed—not that professional book reviewers could get anywhere close to reviewing all the books that come out in a year. Right now, the way for book bloggers to gain respect is more organic and based more on a combination of the books they choose to review and their talent in reviewing said books—i.e. you write well about books a lot of people are curious about. I like this model. It keeps things honest, as much as is actually possible.


* This is my biggest quibble with ebooks, to be honest.


2 thoughts on “Words worth

  1. On the whole I agree with you, but a couple of points. I think it’s well worth debut authors having their books priced low to attract new readers. We’re all so backed up trying to keep up with our favourite authors that sometimes the choice between a new one from a favourite or a debut is a no-brainer, so as with any other commodity it’s worth undercutting the competition. Once established, then an author can expect exisiting fans to be willing to pay full price.

    On the ‘should bloggers be paid’ question, absolutely not! Who’s actually going to be daft enough to pay cash for a negative review? And I certainly don’t want to be paid to praise bad books. However, I wish publishers would recognise it’s a hobby and not ask for too much in return for a freebie, which after all is only worth a few £s or $s – not nearly as much as minimum wage for the time spent reading it. Some of them want reviews placed in a million places – blogs, tweets, Amazon, Goodreads, e-mails, facebook, NetGalley feedback etc etc. Who has time left to read? I ignore them and do what I want to do, and if they don’t like it, they needn’t give me any more books. There are always libraries…


    • Point the First: I’m not sure if a deep discount is enough to tempt me to take up a book by an author I’ve never heard of. But that’s me speaking for myself. I just worry about readers starting to devalue books as a whole. I want authors I like to get paid so that they can keep writing for me.

      Point the Second: I don’t know that you can really call books a commodity. Each book is unique. Each author is unique. I don’t buy Author X expecting to get the same experience as I do from Author Y. I wouldn’t buy one author over another because one is cheaper.

      Point the Third: Since I only choose to read books I like and, like you, only repost my reviews to social networks I was already using, I don’t consider the time spent reading, writing, and posting to be anything other than hobby time.

      I never post to Amazon. I consider their book reviews to be a like a charity shop. There might be something useful in there, but you have to wade through a lot of junk to get there.


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