To know the price of everything and the value of nothing

Last week a paradigm shift took place in the world of publishing, and not without controversy.

HarperCollins USA made available their entire Paulo Coelho back catalogue (excluding The Alchemist and Aleph which is a different publisher) for digital download at 99 cents per e-book.

Favourable response from readers, the expedited criticism from within the industry desperate to prop up a failing industry, and ill-informed criticism from a few who thought it devalued the work of authors to sell their work at less than a dollar.

The price of digital downloads is obscene.

There are real costs to a book: printing, distribution, warehousing, retail shelf space.

The costs for an e-book are in essence zero: the author supplies it to the publisher in electronic format, robots convert to download format, the set-up costs of the distribution platform have long been written off.

It is possible to give an e-book away at no cost to the author. As indeed Paulo Coelho did when he uploaded The Way of the Bow to frostwire for free download.

Why do this?

You cannot read a book until you have a copy. You cannot like or dislike a book until you have read it. Therefore it is important to get books into the hands of people.

On World Book Night last month, a million books were given away, 25 titles, one of which was The Alchemist.

Counting all the countries that participated this year (the event was only launched last year), UK, Germany, Ireland, USA, 2.5 million books were given away.

In Guildford, Guildford Library remained open until midnight, 29 local authors participated, but they missed the entire point of World Book Night which was to give books away.

There are some authors who are unhappy at second-hand book shops. That book is a lost sale.

No, it is not a lost sale, it is an opportunity for someone else to read your book.

If I see a book by Irene Black in a second-hand bookshop I will buy it and give it away. That is a new reader who has never heard of her before.

Does a less than a dollar not place a true value on an author. Neither does ten dollars.

Does ten dollars value the work the author has put into a book?

We are confusing price with value.

The value is the pleasure I get curled up reading the book or listening to a piece of music.

Andrew Dubber has written an excellent book Music in the Digital Age on the future of music (much of what he writes applies equally to publishing and books). He makes it available for free download, though you can buy it too.

The value he gets is what follows on from you reading what he has written. The talks, the consultancy work, maybe even more students applying for his course at Birmingham University.

I wrote a book called The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online (http://newmusicstrategies.com/ebook). You can download it for free. For someone who writes words rather than plays music, that’s like an album.

I’ve never made money out of that book, because I’ve never charged for it. But I’ve certainly made money because of it. That’s a recording of my writing and thinking – not my writing and thinking itself.

It doesn’t cost me anything extra in time, energy, talent or investment whether one person downloads it or ten million people download it. I don’t have to manufacture any more copies. And the more I give it away for free, the more I get to charge for REAL stuff – like my time, my physical presence (speaking engagements, etc), other stuff that I write for print publications (magazines, books, newspapers – even other websites), and so on.

Andrew Dubber makes a very crucial point that cannot be emphasised often enough. When you buy a CD, you are not buying the music, you are buying a recording of the music. The music still belongs to the creative artist. When you buy a book, you have not bought the words, the words still belong to the writer, what you have bought is marks on a page, or of a digital download, a sequence of zeros and ones.

Remember the point Andrew Dubber has made the next time you hear the industry, the lobbyists who whore for them and the corrupt politicians in their pocket drone on about piracy, theft of intellectual property and loss of sales. All you are sharing is a copy. Through sharing, eg loaning a book to a friend, you have not deprived the creative artist of anything, but you are helping make them better known.

Steve Lawson lets you download his music for free. He likes it when you buy it too. He knows you will not buy his music, go to a gig, until you have heard his music. You may or may not like it, but you do not know until you give it a listen.

£10 was never representative of the real value in an album. It was less than the value of the time the person takes to listen to it, and certainly not anything like the value the artist places on their finished work.

And of course, given that all albums sell in different amounts, and all the cost of making the album is upfront – before anyone knows how many it’s going to sell – it couldn’t really be described in any fractional way as a share of that value.

No, it wasn’t an expression of ‘value’, largely because the most natural way of expressing our sense of value in music is to share it.

For the artist, we love to play the music we think is the best we have for people – we play it live, we want radio to play our tunes, we want people to hear the album. We’re never sad when someone sits one of their friends down to listen to the album having told them how awesome it is. Because the performing and playing of our music is an expression of our sense of value in it – the opposite, to withold it from people who want to hear it, could only seriously be motivated by shame: an expression of our conviction that the music wasn’t worth the time of the listener.

As fans, the more we love an album the more likely we are to tell people about it, and where possible to play it to them.

Amanda Palmer lets you download her albums at a dollar. You can if you wish pay more.

Hope and Social let download their albums for free. You can if you wish pay more.

The Dewarists explore music across India across genres, creates a fusion between. The music is available for free download.

I came across bandcamp through Shadowboxer or maybe it was the other way around. I came across Andrew Dubber through bandcamp. Through Andrew Dubber I came across Steve Lawson. Through Steve Lawson I came across Lobelia, Imogen Heap, Hope and Social and The Crypt project. It was through Imogen Heap I came across The Dewarists. My encounter with Paulo Coelho was a lovely Lithuanian girl sat by a river reading The Zahir. Through Paulo Coelho frostwire and frostclick.

Each and every contact and encounter I value.

Low price or free is not to devalue the work. It is a recognition that if you like, you will share with your friends.

Authors who sell only a couple of hundred books are whining how can they make a living when wealthy, successful artists are pulling the rug from under them?

The whining authors seem to forget that although well known now, the successful authors too were once struggling unknown authors. Paulo Coelho handed out flyer at cinemas.

Maybe you are not worth reading.

If you are writing to get rich, you are writing for the wrong reason. Write for pleasure, the pleasure of writing, the pleasure others get from your work.

Creative artists do not die of starvation, they do die in obscurity.

Maybe no one reads your books because no one has heard of you.

It is not a case of Paulo Coelho can afford to give books away at give away prices, it is that unknown authors cannot afford not to.

Downloads of the Paulo Coelho e-books on offer from HarperCollins shot up by 4,000% within a couple of days of Paulo Coelho announcing the offer! Thus even the perceived costs are non-existent as they have been more than recovered in extra sales of e-books.

Some have argued that such a dramatic increase in downloads would not have been seen had all books been at this price.

Maybe, but this is to argue from a false premise. I do not choose one author over another on the basis of price. Books are not a commodity, though publishers do their best to treat as a commodity.

In Aldershot charity shops on one side of the street books are priced at 99p, the other side of the street British Heart Foundation sells at an overpriced £2-50.

If I am looking for a book, I look in the 99p shops first, only with reluctance do I go in the BHF shop. But what I do not do is go into the BHF charity shop see what I want, but then buy something I do not want at 99p because that author was cheaper.

The volunteers in the British Heart Foundation charity shop know their books are overpriced (books they get for free), but if they try to sell at a realistic price, an overpaid manager descends on them from head office. The old discredited business model once again rearing its ugly head.

Steve Lawson writes of the regret at buying three bargain CDs for less than a tenner, rather than a good CD at £10. He would have gained far more pleasure at paying ten pounds for something worth listening to than bargain rubbish.

… people were conned into the idea that buying lots of cheap music was better value than paying more for one great album. I used to do this – I’d pass up albums that I was sure I’d love, in favour of 3 budget price ones that were less certain, but offered more minutes per pound. I’m sure if I’d bought the first album, I’d have had more ‘listening hours’ per pound out of my investment… And for the artists, they lost out because I’m far less likely to talk about mediocre music than I am about music I love. So I short-changed myself, and the artists I could’ve been raving about …

It is knowing the difference between price and value.

When Aleph was published last year as hardback, and for a brief period was on special offer, I bought several copies and gave them away as presents.

Stuart Olds is an unknown author. He travels around with his stall. He sells a surprising number of Hope’s Truth. If one factors in his travelling costs, he has probably made a loss, but he has enjoyed meeting people and he has the pleasure of knowing Hope’s Truth is being read.

Every day 200-300 unique individuals access and read this blog, some days it peaks at several hundred, almost a thousand. Some articles are read by in excess of a thousand. People re-blog, tweet what they have read to others, write comments, sometimes critical, sometimes not, if they meet me, they tell me of the pleasure they have had from reading what I have written.

If what you have written is not worth reading, why should anyone read it? The world does not owe you a living. If you are unknown, how does anyone know you are worth reading?

M&S a High Street fashion chain has launched the idea of shwopping, bring back your old clothes and buy new. It is a slick greenwash marketing campaign to encourage people to buy more clothes, to ease their conscience whilst buying more clothes.

But what it has also done is to highlight the amount of clothes that goes to landfill, the need for recycling, the difference between fast fashion and slow fashion.

We live in an era of cheap disposable clothes. Low price but a price that does not reflect the cost, the cost in human misery of those who work in the sweat shops, the cost to the environment.

Too many know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

No 1 Top Story in Beyond The Dawn Music News (Wedneday 9 May 2012).

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