I’m thinking out loud here, so please do indulge me.
Adrian Faulkner tells a story on his excellent blog about a work colleague with a newly acquired e-reader, and his attitude to the cost of content for the device. In short, he thinks e-books are overpriced, and has taken to torrenting. Adrian recoils at this, and I agree. But at the same time…
I’m in the same position as his workmate John. I received a Kindle as a birthday gift, and love it to bits. But I was immediately struck by the disparity of pricing on the online store. Like most people with a new Kindle, I zealously hit the free or dirt cheap options, grabbing the complete works of Dostoyevsky and Dickens for less than I’d pay the lovelies at AMT Coffee for my morning cup of joe. But there were also Penguin editions of the same works that cost exactly the same as the paperback editions. There will, granted, be differences in translation, and of course e-books are liable to VAT, but apart from that I can’t see how that justifies a 700% difference in price point.
Modern authors also exhibit this disparity. Stephen King’s Under The Dome is a whopping £16.99 in the Kindle Store. You’ll pay half that for the paperback. I love Stephen King, but I’m caught in a bad place here. I don’t want to lug a breezeblock sized brick of paper around with me. That was a prime factor in buying an e-reader in the first place. At the same time, I’m buggered if I’m paying the thick end of £20 for it. Thus the dilemma that John has easily solved by merrily downloading his books for free. I don’t agree with what he’s doing, but I can kind of see his point. (In my case, I shall get the book out of the library, assuaging my conscience and supporting an essential public resource at the same time).
Part of the problem is the perception of worth. John thinks e-books are worth less than a hardback book. He sees craft and manufacturing cost in the heft and weight of a fat wodge of paper. He seems unaware of the fact that the paper is simply a carrier for the important stuff, the words on the page. But it’s not surprising he’s confused. There’s no consistency of pricing. A best selling CD, book, or DVD will cost you different amounts depending on where you buy it. And frequently when you buy it. Wait a few months after release, and a lot of titles suddenly have a huge discount applied, or turn up in twofer deals. Or sometimes free on the covers of newspapers.
Here’s a challenge. Given the choice between a vanilla DVD title in a cardboard sleeve with no extras for nothing, and a “normally” priced copy of the same thing with all the extras, I will lay money that the majority of people will plump for the freebie. I’m not talking your film buff or cineaste here. I’m talking about the man in the street. The sort of person that doesn’t want a director talking over the top of their Saturday night movie. The sort of person who doesn’t care about deleted scenes because if they were any good, they’d be in the film, wouldn’t they?
Of course, these films aren’t free. They’re promotional items, and you pay for the newspaper to get them. But they have the word FREE all over them. In the same way, musicians are now expected to put tracks online for free, again as promotion for full works. And here’s the problem. There’s already confusion over an object’s perceived worth. The idea of not paying anything for your entertainment has become an encouraged, acceptable option, regardless of the intention behind giving it away.
Neil Gaiman has extolled the virtues of this approach, citing the uptick in sales after doing just that for an audiobook of American Gods. Thriller writer Stephen Leather has done the same thing, putting his early work on the Kindle store for under a quid a shot. Again, this has been highly successful. But these are established artists, able to control the pricing structure of their material. If you’re a struggling author or film-maker, the appearance of your work on a torrent or Rapidshare feed chews up your revenue stream in a moment. If the film or book is all there is, if there’s no back catalogue for which you can use that free item as a loss leader, then the strategy seems to have failed.
That sounds incredibly negative, I know, and there’s no easy answer. Once people get used to the idea of free, then it’s really tough to change their minds. It’s easier than ever to get your work out to an audience, and much more difficult to get them to pay for it. It’s completely doable, of course – look at the success Amanda Palmer has had. She completely gets the vital role in keeping her audience sweet. She works incredibly hard at connecting and communicating with her fans.
There are ways of turning negatives into positives, too. Steve Lieber’s “Die Hard in a cave” comic Underground was merrily pirated by fans on 4Chan. Instead of complaining or issuing lawsuits, Leiber went on the site, and began chatting with the fans of his work, pointing out that the book was available as a print edition. Net result: a massive spike in sales. Similarly, fantasy author J.S. Chancellor asked people who had downloaded her work to leave reviews of it on Facebook and Amazon. It worked, and again, an uptick in sales was the result.
Self-pub and self-distribution is a tricky business to get right. It takes imagination, guile and a lot of effort to make a buck in this new marketplace, and the strategies that work for one artist are more than likely not going to work for another. Persuading your public that your work has value is more than half the battle, but if you can win that battle then good times approacheth. The Johns of this world can be talked into paying for their books and movies, if you talk to them in the right way.
(EDIT: to correct the schoolboy error JS Chancellor pointed out in the comments.)