What are words worth?

Not a lot if you believe people like Ewan Morrison, who has argued that (i) the advent of self e-publishing marks the end of the world of writing and publishing as we know it1 and (ii) self e-publishing is the latest economic bubble, following on from the dotcom and sub-prime ones.2

I think Morrison has a point, although perhaps we should be wary of such apocalyptic pronouncements: after all, wasn’t the printing press seen as the end of civilisation as they knew it in the late Middle Ages?   Morrison’s argument is primarily an economic one: at the moment the market is being flooded by cheap self published e-books, which companies like Amazon are selling for writers and would-be writers, and, if they price them right, allow them to retain 70% royalties.  The problem (if that’s what it is) is that the laws of supply and demand are driving down prices to virtually zero.  This is partly due to the fact that anyone who fancies themselves as a writer, regardless of whether they have any talent, can now write a book and upload it onto Amazon or similar platforms for virtually no production costs.  The only cost, of course, is the time the author took to write the book.

Furthermore, the cost of self e-published books are being further driven down by the ‘advice’ given to budding e-authors by those who are making a fortune out of telling other people how to make a fortune out of self e-publishing.   The ‘advice’ is to price your e-book as low as possible – and in some cases to give it away.  And you’ve only got to take a look on Amazon’s Kindle site to see that this is happening.  The logic here is that cheap books will attract mass interest and, hopefully, buyers, who will then come back for more – at which point, presumably the budding author will raise their prices and wonder why everyone has disappeared.  This is not dissimilar to the practice of some therapists who offer a free ‘taster’ session, or a free initial consultation, on the basis that enough people will want to continue to make this strategy economically viable (though economics is not always a strong point with therapists….).

However, the sting is in the tail (literally) when it comes to the way Amazon sells its e-books.  As Morrison explains, they are using a particular sales model – that of the ‘long tail’, which is based on selling a large number of cheap products, in this case self e-published books.  Even though each individual writer may only make a pittance out of selling a few books priced at 99p,the aggregate effect means that Amazon can make millions.  Furthermore, from Amazon’s point of view the e-books are really just a way of attracting people to their site so they can entice them to buy all sorts of other things, including e-readers and other technological devices, which are certainly not going for a pittance.

Of course, there is an alternative.  And this is for writers and readers to value words a bit more, and to be reminded of the old maxim: you get what you pay for.  Do writers really just want to be fodder for the multi-nationals?  And do readers really want to ‘consume’ any old rubbish, just because it’s priced at less than a hamburger?

  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/aug/22/are-books-dead-ewan-morrison/print []
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/30/self-e-publishing-bubble-ewan-morrison/print []