Monday, 10 September 2012

What Does a Price Actually Mean?

You may have noticed from some of my previous blog posts on the concept of worth that there's an argument I hear from writers semi-regularly which really gets up my nose. It's never explicitly stated this simply, but I have, several times, seen it stated in such a way that the context meant it came across like this:

"My work is worth something! Therefore, I should charge a high price for it." (where 'a high price' means 'something above the .99c/$2.99 Amazon standard').

Now, this argument (let's call it the 'worth argument') sounds simple but plausible, and I can see why people make it. But my experience is pretty consistent on the point that arguments which sound simple but plausible turn out to be simplistic and actually deeply problematic. So this one has been getting up my nose for a while. I've tried to tackle it before, but I've always ended up wide of the mark one way or another. What follows is my latest attempt.

Price and Worth

Ultimately, I think the problem with the worth argument is that 'worth' is a much more complicated concept than 'price'. To say that the worth of something directly translates into its price - particularly when, as the worth argument as specified above does, 'price' is understood as purely monetary - is to miss out on a great deal of subtlety within both concepts, particularly worth.

To see this, we need to start by looking at what money is, or what its purpose is. Money exists as an approximation to allow us to exchange things that have one kind of value for another. If I'm a farmer with a lot of potatoes, and you pay me some money for some of them, I can then go and buy, let's say, a fish from the fishmonger. I've exchanged one kind of value - crudely, carbohydrate - for another - protein.

(Sidebar: you will hear some people - some of Ayn Rand's characters and disciples, for example - say that money, at least as underwritten by the gold standard, has a fixed value in and of itself. They are utterly, completely wrong, and the view is actually incompatible with the rest of the capitalist system they champion, but that's a topic for another post.)

The problem comes in when you realise where the price of an item - the amount of money you get for it - comes from. When I sell my potatoes, I'm selling them because I can't use them myself; one man can only eat so many potatoes before they spoil. Likewise, the fish I buy from the fishmonger is not going to be a fish he was intending to eat.

In both cases, the price measures the worth of something that the seller (who is also the price-setter) can't use. I can't use this potato, so I sell it to you. The fishmonger can't use the fish, so he sells it to me. If I don't sell the potato, the effort I put into growing it is wasted.

And that's the key point. The price you put on your produce is a measure of how much effort you wasted on them from your point of view. It's a measure not of worth but of worthlessness. (Bear with me, I recognise this sounds weird - I'll explain, but I need to get the next point sorted first).

This brings up an important point about worth, the essence of that complexity I mentioned earlier. Worth is subjective and contextual. It depends on who you are and what you need. The potato is worthless to me, because I have many potatoes. The fish, on the other hand, is worth something to me, but not to the fisherman, who has many fish.

And this isn't just a feature of commodities. It holds for everything, and particularly for books. '50 Shades of Grey' isn't worth toilet paper to me; my shelf of Janny Wurts novels, on the other hand, is one of my most treasured collections, but is wasted on my father who has little patience for fiction and none for fantasy. My vast stack of academic philosophy books would be useless and impenetrable to someone without the academic background to enable them to contextualise it all; I lack the academic background to contextualise a medical textbook, so it would all be Greek (more likely Latin) to me.

Worth is subjective. Or to put it another way, there's no such thing as 'worth'; there's only worth to someone. And different books are worth different amounts to different people (a topic which I will expand upon in another post).

Wait, What?!

I hear ya. It seems very counterintuitive to say that price measures worthlessness, even subjective worthlessness. But it's not as far from our ordinary way of thinking as you might imagine. I have two illustrations to offer.

First, think about how much of a bookstore shelf price in the traditional model goes to people other than the author. Most of the price goes on various stages of the unit production and distribution process (well, and the New York rents of big 6 publishers, but I did promise I'd stop getting angry in these debates...). It goes to bookstore employees, whose work selling you the book may be momentarily fulfilling, but ultimately doesn't have much value to them. It goes to truck drivers and warehouse staff, who certainly aren't get much out of their work besides the wage. It goes to cover artists and layout people (who may get some fulfilment, but I would guess in almost all cases would prefer to be not working to spec). And so on.

The way I look at my price is that it's got a lot more to do with the effort I spend bringing my book to market (more on this in a moment). I get a lot out of the writing process, in terms of pleasure and satisfaction. From the end of the first draft, though, it's all downhill. Editing benefits the manuscript and that's satisfying, but it's a chore to do. Chasing up beta readers, designing covers, writing promotional copy, formatting and so on? All labour I get nothing out of. The writing itself has lots of worth to me.

Which brings me to my second point. We tend to equate 'doing it for the money' with 'not being passionate about it'. Just look at the music business - there's no worse insult than to call a musician a 'sell-out', and people complain endlessly about superficial, 'commercial' pop. Unpack this in any detail, and you find exactly the issue about worth that we're discussing.

People are subconsciously sensitive to the fact that we price primarily the labour we don't get a return on. This is also why we're generally willing to take lower-paying jobs if they have other benefits. I'm happy to do my part-time support-work job, even though it makes me less than £4000 a year, because I feel less of the effort on my part is worthless to me than if I made more money flipping burgers. I get to learn all sorts of new things from disciplines other than my own, and I get the satisfaction of knowing I've helped other people learn as well.

And if people are sensitive to what price means, then we need to consider very carefully how our prices will be interpreted. Demand a high price, and you proclaim you have less passion about your work than those of us who are happy to work for less. And I for one firmly believe art pursued with less passion ends up less good.

Two clarifications: first, yes, there is an issue with competing against the cachet which traditionally-published prices hold in readers' eyes, at the moment. Readers in general still seem to assume that content which has been vetted by a publisher is 'better' (by which I mean 'will be worth more to them') than content which hasn't. This is because the new self-publishing model is still just that: new. The distinction between the two fields has yet to become fixed in the general consciousness (again, a topic I'll come back to; whether self-publishing and trad publishing are really the same industry at all from a consumer perspective). It's a state of affairs that will pass.

Secondly, I'm not saying all (or even necessarily any) books should be free. At least, I'm not going to say that based on this argument. I make no promises not to go looking for other arguments to something like this effect. But I'm not saying that this post and argument mean all books should be free. I've already said that a lot of effort involved in bringing a book to market is stuff authors don't profit from; while I enjoy outlining and drafting, I get nothing but a headache from formatting, and I seldom feel that the results of cover design justify the effort except insofar as having a good cover makes my end product more viable.

As and when I put a price on my work, it's all that stuff I'll be charging for. I'm not going to charge for a story that I wrote for my own benefit, one that I have a passion for and care deeply about - and I'm not going to bring any other kind of story to market.

(And if I do sell out at some future point, feel free to spam me to death with links back to this post ;D).


  1. Sounds like you and Booktrope have highly compatible viewpoints. If you haven't already discovered it, I am a big fan (as is Kan Shear, my co-founder at Booktrope) of the book "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely. He goes into some fascinating experiments on why and how people respond to pricing.

    1. Thanks, Katherine. I like the sound of 'Predictably Irrational' - sounds like a very good description of the human species! ;)