Saturday, October 01, 2011

Economic Illiteracy & Technological Luddites

Back in late August, I wrote a post discussing my initial thoughts about Michael Lewis' The Big Short. I began the piece with a nod to online shopping and economic efficiency by writing,

"I went ahead and bought two of his subsequent books, Moneyball and The Big Short. Incidentally, in keeping with the times, I ordered both as nearly-virgin, used copies from Amazon resellers for no more than $10 each, including shipping. The latter arrived looking every bit like a brand new, unopened book."

Imagine my surprise when a reader contacted me yesterday and wrote, among much, much more verbiage, most of it economically illiterate and whiny, in two emails,

"But this this email doesn't concern that--it's about your recommendation to buy Lewis's book used for 6 bucks. As an author, that suggestion is appalling to me and displays a profound lack of knowledge of what it means to be a writer in America or how the publishing world works, and how the writer gets screwed if you follow that advice.

Most of us, especially literary novelists, need other jobs. We need people to buy our books new. It means survival. It means getting published again. I sold about 3,500 copies of my first novel. But it is estimated I have sold more than twice that many "used."  Not only didn't I get a penny in royalties from those books, I didn't get credit when I went to sell my new novel. I happen to be in a rarefied position as a novelist with a great and sympathetic publisher. Had I chosen to try to go to a "big house" as many of the agents I spoke to urged me to do with my second book, the difference between selling 3,500 on a medium sized, if prestigious press vs. 7,000 is huge when asking for an advance. If I'd originally signed with a big house and sold three thousand copies, there's a good chance I wouldn't even have gotten a contract offer for a second book.

Of course, my primary aim is to have people read my work.

I've done scores of panels and readings over the years and I ask the audience to buy new books of living authors. Fine by me if you want to buy Gatsby used.

I work as a university professor teaching novel and short fiction to grads and undergrads-- 3/4 pay for full time schedule of teaching and I've been doing it for a decade. I edit a literary magazine for minimal pay because I love it. My choice.

When you buy a used book from a discount seller, I consider that piracy- you are getting my creation/work and I don't get a dime. Not my choice at all. I have done the work and I deserve to get paid for it. Those people making a living reselling books would have my respect and could resell all the books they want if they paid a rightful sum to the author. All I want is the 12- 15 % per cent of what they sell it for- what I'd get from a full price pb book. Unfortunately, there is no way to police this even if it were made legal.

By saving six bucks in paying a reseller you may think you're being smart and saving money (or as my mom would say "acting like a cheapskate.") That is short sighted and wrong headed. If you believe in the Social Darwinist concept of survival of the most amoral and selfish, with profit as the only consideration, then I understand your position and there is nothing to discuss."

A few passages from my replies to this teacher/editor/author were,

"What about all those people who now make a living recycling books people don't want and reselling them? And all those saved trees, heaven forbid, if you are a Greenie.

Sorry, but you sound like one of those people in Maine who used to wail about wanting the good old days of lush jobs making shoes so that Americans could pay twice as much for them, instead of realizing a higher standard of living from Asian-made footwear.

My advice is to rely less on printed material and figure out your pricing strategy for online copies.

I will continue, where appropriate, to remind people to buy excellent used copies, like new, for as little as $6, plus shipping.

Especially if they want the book, but loathe the author!

Totally understand your refusal to sign used books. Agree galleys are illegal.

Look, if you want to write, write. And accept that the market will pay you what your work is worth. Period. When someone like you begins to whine about 'art,' it usually means you want a subsidy to pursue you pet projects.

You missed you era- as a state-supported artist in the Soviet Union. I sense a kinship between you and that mindset.

I highlighted what I consider to be essential passages from the reader's and my emails in color (blue for him, red for me).
It's funny how some people want the laws of economics suspended for themselves. But not for others.
My reader assures me that his "primary aim is to have people read (his) work." But spends two emails griping that he can't get paid what he feels his work is worth.
Well, I'm a writer, too. I write this blog daily, and have done so since September 15, 2005. I've written almost 2,000 posts. Many are linked, reposted, cited, etc. on other media. I don't get a dime for most of it- just a measly $15 or so per month for a redistribution agreement which allows that distributor's customers to copy and use my (and other bloggers') content without copyright violation.

I write for several reasons. First, to anecdotally reinforce my proprietary research findings. Second, to maintain my strategy development and analytical capabilities. Third, to contribute my own insights to the general mix of business-oriented media. That I do so for free, of course, essentially aids in depressing the value of all such content.

Just over three years ago, my posts concerning GE and Jeff Immelt's mismanagement of the firm were noticed and read by the staff of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly's The Factor program. I subsequently appeared on an episode to discuss that situation. Such is the occasional influence of even a free blog like mine. I have about 50 readers who follow via RSS feeds and, depending upon the week, between 60 and 100 average daily visitors. Substantially more when I write a popular column which is found by readers searching on the topic.

The truth is, the combination of digital and online technology makes all content- video, text, audio- expensive and difficult to publish without losing control or accepting that copies may be resold with no more revenue accruing to the content creator.

I'll bet my whining reader thinks it's wrong and illegal for the buyer of a living artist's painting to resell it and keep all the money from that sale.

Here are my thoughts on the reader's arguments.

First, one's creative published work is worth what others will pay. Period. Not what you wish they would pay, or think they should pay in some other, ideal parallel universe.

Used books have been around, bought and sold, for hundreds of years. Moving it online to Amazon makes it far more efficient. And efficiency does matter. That's what economics does- finds efficient means of production of desired goods and services with fewer resources. In this case, the cost of finding and acquiring used books is much lower than in pre-Amazon times. And fewer trees are cut, energy used to acquire a used book.

Knowing this, an author has a choice regarding pricing. It is simply ludicrous for my reader to demand an ongoing royalty from each sale of a specific copy of his book. I suppose the only way to emulate that is to sell only to lending libraries, and at prices which capture the multiple-usage nature of that channel.

Or publish his works in the same manner as music services which only rent out the use of songs for a defined period of time. If rent isn't paid, the song's usage license expires. Same with downloadable video which expires after a specific time period has elapsed.

So my reader has choices. He just seems not to like them. Yet he chooses to continue to write and attempt to publish.

Second, he's a little late to the game in terms of even bothering with publishers. I recently read a Wall Street Journal piece which focused on an Amazon top ten-selling book which was self-published. There are now choices for how to electronically self-publish and distribute one's literary product. With the continuing demise of bookstore chains, it's debatable for how long conventional publishers will matter all that much to the average non-textbook author.

I had this very discussion with a friend who is a recently-retired English teacher. His wife is becoming an Amazon reseller in order to recycle my friend's extensive collection of used books. He agreed that self-publishing is the more sensible option for most individual authors of creative writing.

Third, whenever you read or hear someone complain about being treated unfairly when they freely enter the market to sell their labors, you should suspect their logic and/or motives. What we have in the case of the reader who emailed me is, I believe, the struggling/wounded artist who simply thinks that because he is an artist, he deserves the value he places on his work. That society should arrange things so he receives that.

Thus my remark about his missing his calling as a writer during the height of the Soviet era. Assuming he'd have accepted everything else about that era's Soviet system.

And, by the way, as an example of his lack of clear thinking, just because an author is dead does not mean my reader should condone buying that author's work as used. His position, to be consistent, should be that nobody should ever buy a used copy of any book not in the public domain if a single new, unpurchased copy exists somewhere. After all, the rights to royalties of such books are owned by someone, even if the author is dead.

I don't resent being told I'm a "cheapskate" for buying excellent, like-new used books. It's no different than buying something on eBay, at a consignment shop or estate sale. Or a house!

Recycling previously-owned goods is as old as humanity and trading. It's basic, sensible human economic behavior. To now rail against buying used books from Amazon, but not decry the purchase of any used item ever, is to be a technological Luddite. Which I believe my reader is.

I don't buy used clothing or cars. Everyone has their particular behavior process with respect to how they value various aspects of various goods. To me, a like-new copy of a book is well worth purchasing at a fraction of the list retail price. And I'll do it whenever possible.

It's just good economics. It effectively improves my standard of living.

If my reader doesn't like the fact that I, and, evidently, tens of thousands of other Americans put no psychic value, for which we will pay, on only buying unused, new books, well, I don't care.

It's not short-sighted. Most authors write because they want to write. They know, or can estimate, the economic value of their work beforehand. None to my knowledge expect to earn money from the resale of their used works.

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