Thoughts on Ebook Pricing (Part Two)

(A different response to the ebook-community thread about ebook pricing. Part Two covers an argument I’ve made at several occasions for “postconsumption compensation.” )

The consumer decision for buying technical/trade books is definitely different from that of buying “recreational books.” I would not think twice about buying a programming book/ebook for $50 if I thought it would increase my personal productivity or income potential by at least that much (and if no similar book were on the market). When I buy a technical book, I ask myself, how much time will this book save me? What is the advantage to paying full price to have it now? How long will this book retain its value to me? Can I find this same information elsewhere?

Recreational books present a different method of valuation. How much enjoyment will this bring me (in terms of time, degrees of pleasure, social advancement or enlightenment)? And how does its price compare to similar recreational books?

The “problem” of creative books like novels is competition from public domain and discounted books/ebooks (not to mention piracy and videogames). I still buy tons of p-books (and almost never pay more than $2 plus shipping). On the other hand, I would pay $15 for a good cookbook. My annual spending on books hasn’t changed that much. However, I simply buy more p-books at a cheaper price.

Elsewhere I wrote:

The pricing strategies of big publishers have pretty much been “anti-chump change.” In other words, set a retail price that no one seriously will pay (aside from library institutions) and then gradually lower the price until the merchandise starts moving somewhere (even if it is only to the remainder table). But for the independent content creator (say a popular litblogger who is selling ebook novels on his website) the pricing strategy is different. His strategy is not necessarily to maximize price, but to maximize audience. His strategy is to guess the price point readers would regard as “chump change” (so insubstantial that people used to getting things for free won’t be bothered by paying it).

The question to me is whether ebooks IN AND OF THEMSELVES add consumer value quite apart from the platform/multimedia extras they can be packaged with. When I say “platform,” I also mean the visibility that comes with being included in a certain catalog or estore of high quality (i.e., can you buy it on iTunes?). If consumer perception derives from a work’s association with a particular platform, then throwing out your ebook on a personal site may seem like a valiant but futile gesture.

The other question: how much does the quality of packaging or presentation influence consumer’s perception of an ebook’s value? We haven’t really seen any indication of this one way or another, pretty much because no ebook bestsellers were not originally p-books.

At what stage do consumers determine the value of a creative work? One of my essays details the shift from paying for creative works “post-consumption” rather than “pre-consumption.” Up until recently, consumers bought creative works merely on the expectation that the book would be of high quality. But now that’s difficult to determine. Whom do you trust? How can you know without first sampling the work? Before I read Arnold Bennett, I would have not assigned ANY value to his novels. (I considered him merely another Victorian writer likely to put me to sleep). Midway through one of his novels, my entire opinion changed. Obviously Bennett is a dead public domain novelist (probably not a good example), but I would argue that for readers of literature, they are more inclined to put a higher economic price on a literary work AFTER reading it than BEFORE reading it.

If that is true, that implies many things. First, initial costs for reading/accessing a work should be minimal or nonexistent. Second, barriers (such as DRM) are bad because they prevent readers from seeing a work’s value post-consumption. Third, people’s motives for spending money on creative works will be different. Previously, people paid for books to make the transfer legal. They pay out of legal obligation. People who pay for books post-consumption do so out of gratitude or endorsement or charity.

I am not prepared here to discuss the practicality of “voluntary compensation” for creative works. Up until now, nobody has made much money out of tipjars; even the famed JibJab cartoonists earned less than a thousand dollars from tips, and only novelties (like the Star Wars kid ) earn anything more than that. Online habits can change. The main reason online compensation hasn’t took off is that we’re not used to doing it. It’s hard and complicated. We’re still in the mode of regarding content as market products. One reason this attitude has persisted is that the mainstream media (MSM) publicity machine focuses public attention on things owned by mainstream outlets. DIY/underground content just doesn’t exist in these venues. Yes, at some point even MSM has to acknowledge the obvious influence of Internet trends, but not in a charitable way. As MSM tells the story, the happy ending to these underground successes occurs only after MSM has coopted and commodified them.

Consider Time movie reviewer Richard Corliss as an example. He is brilliant, a fantastic critic. But his position forces him to consider and criticize only certain kinds of video works: feature films that start out at the cineplex. Yes, he certainly has adventurous tastes, but it would not occur to him to review a Creative Commons video work, or a 15 minute avante-garde video. These things don’t fit his definition of a “reviewable movie.” And yet Corliss is missing out on many exciting projects that exist only on the web, or as a straight-to-DVD release. He is satisfying the typical consumer’s expectation of what a movie is and his employer’s conception of what a movie property is. Corliss does not willingly cheat the movie viewer, and part of Corliss’s problem is simply time-constraints. No critic can cover everything. Yet that is how even highbrow parts of MSM ultimately fail in calling attention to works outside the ken of itself.