Monday, May 18, 2009

At a Price You Can Afford

On topic with last night's post is a little rant I posted the bulletin board run UBC's Creative Writing program, where I'm doing my MFA. From time to time I cross post between here and there, mostly because I have a tendency to go on when I write, and I'm often in mortal danger of running out, not of time, but of my wife's patience. A man must know his limits.

I had to laugh at an article from the New York Times a few days ago. It's about the digital piracy of books, and it starts off with Ursula K. LeGuin feeling shocked that people may actually like her work enough to go to the trouble of stealing it.

While I really felt the writer of the article was coming at the issue like a wide-eyed neophyte (whoa, man, they pirate books now?), and that the article was pretty crummy overall, there were a few salient points that, while only obliquely referred to, were in there.

The first point, though not explicitly mentioned, was clear. As a writer, you can be a Harlan Ellison, who doesn't think twice about sending forth his lawyers to lay wrath and destruction all about the landscape, all while hiding in a dark corner, forever bitching that a bunch hacks ruined your version of The City on the Edge of Forever. Or you can be Cory Doctorow, and encourage people to read your work, while bringing out bestseller after bestseller, and getting nominated for a host of major awards.

The next point, again unmentioned other than obliquely, was the affordability of first run fiction. As Stephen King says,

“The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys. And to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer.”

Right there is the crux of the whole issue, and it is something I almost never hear discussed. Oh sure, I read a ton about how people love books, love the feel of the pages on their skin as they hug novels to their chest and breathe in the earthy scent of bleached and processed paper. Or how the tactile pleasure of holding a book in one's hand is an ethereal state that approximates nirvana, or finding one's self in the presence of the almighty, basking in that eternal glory.

But I never read about how books are so bloody expensive.

Think about it. You pay $40 for a hardcover. Doesn't seem like much to the average reader, working a decent job, but with so little time to read they may only buy two or three books at most in a year. But for the avid reader, who often has far more time on their hands for any number of reasons, that's pretty steep. You know what $40 is to a lot of people? It's groceries for the week. It's a sizable chunk of the month's rent. It's almost half the cost of a monthly bus pass. Multiply that $40 by eight or ten, which is on the lower end of what an avid reader reads in a month, and instead of being a sizable chunk of the month's rent, the cost of books IS the month's rent.

So what to do? Go to the library? But wait...if you go to the library, it's a situation where one person (or institution) bought a book, and then countless people are reading it...for free!

What does that situation remind us of?

Perhaps that of an avid reader who passes on a book that is then passed on to another, and another, finds it's way into a second hand shop (no royalties there!) and into the hands of another reader, and on, &c. One copy purchased, which many read for free.

Or perhaps that of some lonely kid who reads this cool book he bought, and wanting to share it, he scans it and sends it to his friends. Again, one copy was purchased, while many read for free.

However you slice it, it all amounts to the same thing. People want to read, but they don't want to pay.

Or maybe they just don't want to pay that much?

Being the genre fan that I am, I got to reading Eric Flint's "1632" which is available for free on the publisher's site. The sequel "1633" is also available for free.

Well, I tell you, those crafty little crack dealers at Baen sure know what they are doing. When I finished the first two, I just had to read the next book, and I sure as heck wasn't going to pay $40 for it, or even $15 if I could track down a paperback. I didn't want to search through endless bookstores, or order one on Amazon and wait for weeks. I wanted it right there, right then.

I could have turned to the torrents and found it there, but there was no need. Baen wanted to sell it to me for $6. That's right. For only $6, I not only got an e-copy of the book in the format of my choice, but the perpetual right to re-download that book if I so chose, and the file itself was DRM free.

It was so easy, so painless, and entirely enjoyable. Just like the Kindle (Which, reasonably enough, is a key reason why Kindle lovers love the Kindle.

Imagine that, at a time when all these publishers are staring straight at a dirt nap, plucky, little, independent Baen, purveyors of pulp sci-fi and fantasy and awful book covers, is sitting pretty. Why?

Because of access. Not only can you buy books from them cheaply and quickly, but their entire back list is available online, including all the out of print books. And, you can get the first book or two of most series for free. Talking about getting you hooked!

Ever see a book that looked cool, but then you learn it is book 4, or something of a series? Ever tried to find book 1 on the shelf without success? Happens to me all the time, and not just with genre fiction. I have Richard Ford's "The Lay of the Land" and when I started reading it, I learned that it was actually the third of a series of three novels. For two years I looked for The Sportswriter" and "Independence Day," but to no avail. Only yesterday did my local Borders call me and tell me that the copies I had requested at the dawn of time were now in and ready for me to purchase - within 7 days, or they'd ship them off into the netherworld.

Good thing I'm not on vacation this week.

But really, when you think about it, when it comes to getting and reading books you want read, why is luck even in the picture?

Doesn't make good business sense to me, nor did it to Baen.

Maybe the major publishing houses will figure that out some day.

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