Monday, April 18, 2011

An Extremely Fungible Commodity

Books are, have been, and always will be a fungible commodity, no matter who writes an individual book, how long it takes to make an individual copy, how much an individual copy sells for, whether a discounted book from an unfamiliar author encourages readers to pursue other books written by that author offered at higher prices, and what the reader does with it when he or she is through. (E-books are challenging that fungibility, but I think it'll be only a matter of time before the common fungibility of books in general catches up to the electronic world.)

Nathan Bransford argues at his blog today that authors who are moving into discounting their e-books at relatively fire-sale prices of $2.99 to $0.99 are reaping rewards now that future authors will not reap in the same arena.

Here’s what he says, and for what I know, I believe he’s absolutely right:
Thought experiment. Let's say that everyone sold their books at $0.99. Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, J.A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking... everyone.

What would that publishing world look like?

Well, for one, more books would probably be sold overall. But not an exponentially greater number. There's an important constraint that limits the number of books that can be sold: readers' attention.

At the end of the day, there are only so many people in the world who read books and only so much time in the day they spend reading them and so much money they're willing to spend for them. People do buy a few more books than they end up reading, but not that many more.

So basically in this hypothetical you end up with a situation where no one makes much money per copy sold and a good bulk of the readership that would probably have paid more if they had been required to. Unknown authors would no longer derive a benefit from the discounting.
I think we’re seeing such approaches in traditional publishing that mirror what e-book authors are doing with their discounted wares.

I rarely buy new books of any variety. I may purchase a few new ones for Christmas gifts, but the bulk of the books I buy I find at thrift stores. There is one exception, however: Every time I visit the local Dollar Tree, I head back to their miniature book section and check out what titles there may be. These are new books, unsold at traditional book stores, which the publisher has heavily discounted and dumped onto the market because they’re just not selling any more. While there is some obvious trashery there – the latest political book of either stripe is usually there, forlorn, on sale for a buck – I’ve found some exceptionally good reads there as well, including William Langewiesche’s “The Atomic Bazaar” and Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.”

While it’s true that authors aren’t choosing to have their novels dumped at dollar stores or re-sold at thrift stores whereas some are choosing to heavily discount their e-books, I think the analogy between what I’ve observed in my purchasing patterns and what Bransford identifies as the “tragedy of the commons” with the e-book price wars is apt.

There is limited readership attention span for books. Given that I can now purchase e-books for the same price at which I purchase used or dollar store books, these e-books are now not only competing with each other and with best-sellers but with, frankly, every book that’s ever been widely distributed. Or even narrowly distributed. They’re competing, pricewise and cachet-wise, with any of this fungible commodity I can find on the market.

When I peruse the shelves at the thrift store, I’m not concerned that a “new” author is, in fact, deceased now, or that his or her book was published thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Most of what I see on the thrift store shelves is new to me and carries with it not only the thrill of discovering a new author but also what previous readers have left in the book, from book marks to margin notes to the fact that long ago they took the trouble to get a signed copy of a book from an author and then, later, gave the book away.

I am more apt to purchase used books from an author I’ve read before, but if the book proves disappointing, I’m just as content to send the book right back to the thrift store and avoid that author completely in the future or – as has been the case with a few books – they just end up in the fireplace or some other convenient memory hole.

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