Monday, August 24, 2015

Zombie Publishing Memes #2 - Low Prices Devalue Books

This is the second in an ongoing series that Barry Eisler and I are writing. When we talk about zombie memes, we’re referring to arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence. Because we’ve been shooting down so many of these memes for so long, and because they just keep reanimating (often repeatedly from the same people), we thought it would be useful to create an online source for easy (and time-saving) reference.

We’ll be tackling these memes one at a time over the course of the next few weeks and then publishing a free downloadable compendium, so if you’ve encountered a zombie meme yourself and don’t see it listed here, please mention it in the comments. And if you’re aware of articles on these or related topics, please refer us to them so we can include links. The complete list of zombie memes we’ve addressed so far appears at the end of this post.

Low Prices “Devalue” Books.

The premise behind this zombie meme is not only wrong; it’s also exceptionally strange. After all, if you love books, why would you focus on their monetary worth rather than their worth in society? Isn’t what makes books valuable how widely they’re read, absorbed, and discussed, rather than how much money they make? And if books cost less and more people can afford them, doesn’t it stand to reason (assuming everyday experience is valid and what they teach in Economics 101 is correct) that more people will buy more books (in fact, they are doing just that)? If books are indeed valuable for society and we don’t want to devalue them, shouldn’t we look for ways to make books less expensive and therefore more widely accessible?

But even if you think the sole value of a book lies in how much money it makes, it’s silly to believe higher prices automatically mean more revenues. As a thought experiment: it’s unlikely anyone would maximize revenues with a five-cent price point, but then why not charge a hundred dollars for a book instead? Wouldn’t that $100 price point value the book even more?

Of course not. So intuitively, we all know there’s a sweet-spot price -- the price at which volume x unit price maximizes revenues, and logically, this would seem to be the price that derives the greatest (financial) value from the book. If we make more money from our books at a five-dollar price point than we do at ten (not a hypothetical for us, by the way, but empirical fact), which is the price that’s “devaluing” the book?

It also stands to reason that different authors with different brands will have different sweet-spot prices. What seems clear is that only exceptionally strong brands will maximize revenues at a per-unit price of $9.99 or higher. The legacy industry’s attachment to those high prices has little to do with maximizing revenues for most of their authors, and a great deal to do with trying to retard the growth of digital and preserve the position of paper. But that’s an uncomfortable truth for the legacy industry to acknowledge, so instead they prefer the counterintuitive narrative of how lower prices, which make more books accessible to more people, are in fact “devaluing” books. It seems unfortunate that some people seem to believe books should be like diamonds -- high-priced status symbols, accessible only to the few -- rather than a vital everyday item available to everyone, like food, water, and other nourishment. But self interest produces strange arguments.

For further reading, we recommend The Value of Ebooks and Race to the Bottom.

Previously addressed zombie memes: