The Nameless Horror

Low prices, zombie memes, and consumer research

Joe Konrath is tackling ‘zombie memes’ with Barry Eisler, which to his way of thinking are arguments in the ongoing rumble of indie-vs-trad publishing that should’ve been laid to rest long ago.

So far, so no problem - whatever floats your boat, or not - but the second, most recent of these, “Low Prices ‘Devalue’ Books”, misses the point of the claim it’s aiming to debunk quite dreadfully.

The basic premise of the argument, as it’s usually applied (and by “usually applied” I mean “at least as referenced by the entire first page of Google results for ‘price devalues books’ aside from Joe’s own if you want to double-check”), is that if readers become accustomed to $0.99 (or lower) prices for ebooks, higher prices will be seen as rip-offs, and that sales will slowly collapse for anything more than a couple of bucks (which is where the majority of trad-published fiction lies, though that’s not entirely relevant to the basic concept; the same risk applies to all). That as more and more ebooks are sold at discount rates or bottom dollar, consumer expectation will come to settle on that as the ‘normal’ value of an ebook, rather than, say, the nine or ten bucks of the modern paperback, and the expected ‘fair price’ of a book will drop, eventually, if taken to the extreme, below the point where writing is a sustainable profession. The proverbial “race to the bottom”.

Joe largely ignores this, falling back instead on his old warhorse of maximizing revenue via ‘sweet spot’ price points (drink!), publisher desires to hike prices and harm consumers (drink!), or whether a book’s “value” shouldn’t be how widely it’s read instead and nothing to do with cost (which is a reasonably sound argument on its own, but is tangential to the actual meme as it’s used).

The thing is - and regardless of whether writers should have an expectation of being able to earn a living from the craft (I’d argue it’s fair exchange for any human endeavor enjoyed by others, but it’s a debatable point) - there’s a wide and long-established body of research on the core notions of consumer behavior regarding pricing, discounting and perceived fair cost. (See Kalwani & Yim, Kwon, or something like this as an overview, and so on and so on.) The bulk of available research is pretty categorical that, in general, perceived fair value drifts downwards in response to frequent discounting or a period of price reduction - and price reduction over a category of products as a whole - and that it becomes hard to then either raise or else to maintain higher prices than the current perceived fair price while maintaining sales/income.

In short, as ebook prices slide, routine discounting by author, seller or publisher continues, and the market is packed with free or cents-only books, overall price expectations of what constitutes value for money and fair pricing will fall too. (Those sweet-spot prices? They’ll drop over time as well.)

There is support for the notion that certain brands (authors, as they’d be here) can ignore expectations through having a matching expectation of quality (or luxury); that’s equally long-established. However, that’s easier to set up in physical goods, particularly those with a broad existing price spectrum. If I want to launch my new luxury watch brand - or, hell, my line of artisan soda breads - it’s relatively easy to persuade potential customers of the extra worth of my products: I can outline the materials used, the skills and experience involved in the design and manufacture/baking, the incredible, one-of-a-kind end result they’re buying. With words, that’s tougher. Sure, a quality cover and blurb are your first step, but if someone looks at the writing inside, what sets it far enough apart from the thousands of other really good writers - indie and trad - out there? We’re wandering very much into Subjective Taste Alley here.

And, crucially, if we’re making an evidence-based argument, which is very, very hard in publishing anyway, there’s no evidence that I’m aware of showing that any given author (or their “brand”) carries enough gloss, and inspires enough rabid devotion in their fanbase, to hold a consistently high price point with no marked sales drop-off. That there are, as it were, “luxury” authors and “everyday” authors. Even in the wild world of - and this deserves air quotes - “literary” and “highbrow” writing (“Read that? It won the Booker; of course I haven’t read it, oh ho ho”), I’m not aware of any firm data around pricing (generally high, as far as I know) and sales (generally low), and whether there’s any such thing in the grim reaches where we plebs ply our trades.

The issue with a downward drift in pricing as standard is not that it’s impossible to earn lots of cash with it - or to find lots of readers with it - though data from Digital Book World’s annual surveys consistently suggests that it’s very difficult to do so for many authors - as does at least some of the Author Earnings Report data when looked at by DBW’s Dana Weinberg (the regular AERs don’t touch on that in their standard analyses), but that by trying to drive sales/readership, and thus income for work done, solely by discounting, you’re ever so slowly poisoning the well. That those discount promotional prices will eventually have to be your regular prices. That your per-unit margins will be cents, not dollars, and that new writers entering the business with no pre-existing platform will find it even harder than it already is to get themselves read and supported in a way that materially encourages them to keep going, and to get better and to produce more great stuff.

Now, this is in large part due to the nature of the market: there are a huge number of books being written (not a bad thing in and of itself), greater choice for readers than ever before (equally so, problems of discovery aside), and consequently an oversupply of books in general and apparent downward price pressure because everyone knows bargains are what sells, and that means out-bargaining a hundred thousand other people. (There’s a separate argument to suggest that writers - and readers - perhaps shouldn’t, and perhaps wouldn’t, look at the broad spread of the market as a whole but look only at the supply/demand for their own work as a separate entity.) And some of what I’ve just said is, of course, speculation. It involves, as every tedious business press release says, forward-looking statements.

But that’s neither here nor there; the argument is whether or not routine low pricing causes a slow drop in perceived value. And the fundamentals of that argument - those parts based on consumer behavior - have an evidence-based background. You can argue freely whether low price expectations - and lower prices - will cause authors to flourish, to struggle, or to find some happy equilibrium in the middle, whether they’re ultimately good or bad for readers. That’s largely guesswork and philosophy and probably doesn’t have anything like a single answer. It’s far harder to argue against the notion that discounting and targeting readership through low price points will inevitably lead to the average (from which “low”, “fair” and “high” are judged) falling slowly but inexorably over time as a result of consumer perception.

That, on the majority of occasions I’ve seen it used, is what the claim is about, not some nebulous “what is a book worth to society?” waffle.

And while we’re here

There’s another “zombie meme” I wish would get an airing, related to this: “ebook sales aren’t a zero-sum game”. It’s true that just because Reader A buys Book X it doesn’t mean they won’t buy Book Y as well, and that the lower the standard price of such a thing goes, the more likely it is they’ll be able to dispose of their income that way. Even at 3-5 dollars a throw, ebooks are cheap, the expense relatively throwaway when compared to other entertainment sources. They take time to read, though, and time is far more limited.

You ride the train an hour a day getting to and from work, and you spend most of that reading, say. That’s your reading time budget, and it’s a lot tighter than your cash budget ever will be. You might be able to afford to buy a dozen novels a week without noticing it, especially at low/freebie sale prices. You’ll still only be able to read one, and then next week there’s a dozen more on the carousel. If you never get round to reading Author Z’s first book, however much you would’ve liked it if you had, well, you probably won’t pick up the next, not deliberately anyway.

Even if you’re measuring a book’s value by its being read and appreciated, not cost/author income, a glut of cheap reading material doesn’t increase reading time beyond the minority who wouldn’t otherwise read because of cost factors.

Joe links to this Mintel release from last year about UK ebook buying and reading. You can draw some extrapolations from the figures there, and they’re less cheery than you might think. 26% of people who bought an ebook in 2013-14 said they were reading more than they used to. 21% of Brits overall bought a fiction ebook in that time (63% of women, 48% of men; presumably “of those who bought an ebook of any type”, otherwise the numbers make no sense). Therefore only ~9% (rough guess, assuming they had a vaguely even gender split) of the population are reading more than they used to, while 32% haven’t bought a book in the past year, only 12% of whom because of the cost, 21% because they don’t have the time, and 34% because they don’t have the interest in reading.

While these are only the reasons respondents didn’t read at all, I think it’s probably a fair extrapolation to say that time (or perceived time) is probably therefore already more of a hard limit than money, and it’s one that’s very much finite in scope. Even the wealthiest reader - or any unoccupied reader in a world of zero-cost books - only has 16-18 waking hours to spend reading, and at some point one author will lose out to another.

Disclaimer 1: It’s very late as I write this and I’m sure I’ve drifted off-point by the end. My apologies for that.

Disclaimer 2: I have ebooks available and they’re free (here) or as near-as-I-can on Amazon and I’m therefore a vicious hypocrite. They’re old material, and I’d rather remove as many barriers to access as possible than figure out the economics of them, so I’m happy with that decision. I’m still adding to the problem, of course.

Reviews: BLOOD MERIDIAN and THE WATER KNIFE

Like a proton torpedo streaking towards a ray-shielded exhaust port, I’m away. Which also means I’ve been reading. Some has been rereading - Gibson’s excellent THE PERIPHERAL and the also excellent (though I’d be interested in an updated version now 3-man defences are back at least partially in vogue, rather undermining one of its later arguments) INVERTING THE PYRAMID - and some has been delicious, fresh wordmeat. Short reviews follow.

Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)

Blood Meridian

Loved THE ROAD. Loved NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Gave BLOOD MERIDIAN up about halfway through. Not because of the violence (which, even if that sort of thing bothered me, is fairly mild, certainly compared to some of that in THE ROAD, even with the odd scalping), not because of the grimness (again, THE ROAD has it beat overall despite the bleakness of the desert), but because I was bored and had nothing invested in the main character, or any of the minor ones.

Moss et al. are great in NO COUNTRY, and the man and boy in THE ROAD are what keep you pushing on, hoping they’ll make it, but the kid here is a blank. He’s a borderline psychopath, unaffected by anything around him (the closest he comes to an emotional response anywhere in that stretch is getting angry when a Mexican tavern owner refuses to give him a drink after he’s swept the floor), and his detachment from events left me equally detached. Without any reason to give a shit about what he experienced, there’s nothing about the story to keep me going - it’s functionally a road trip through Texas, Mexico etc. with no underlying narrative to it; he just does whatever turns up as it turns up, just because.

And yes, people are monsters and times are tough. But without anyone to identify with, who cares?

The Water Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi)

The Water Knife

Times are also tough in the Arizona (and other Colorado River basin states) of the drought-ridden near future, where states war over water rights and Phoenix is the next city to be facing extinction. Thankfully, in former blood-rag journalist Lucy, Texan refugee Maria, and ’water knife’ operative Angel, working for the ruthless ’queen’ of Nevada, there are three really strong, varied characters to experience the slow collapse through, and in the MacGuffin that gets one of Lucy’s friends brutally murdered - ancient senior rights that could see their holder switch off the taps for anyone anywhere along the river - there’s an overriding dramatic driver for the plot.

(Not that those rights are a perfect MacGuffin; I can’t see how anyone is able to claim them just by owning the paper they’re printed on when surely they’re a contract between the parties in question. Small quibble, though.)

The world created by Bacigalupi is harsh, violent and largely entirely believable, and there’s plenty of nuance to the characters and their situations. If I were to gripe, I’m not sure the final set of betrayals and standoffs at the end was entirely necessary - after a lot of such things already - and the climax is perhaps a little convenient on the whole. That’s splitting hairs, though. This is good stuff and well worth reading.

Next up, because I’ve somehow failed to forgotten to copy Jay’s latest onto my phone, is Don Winslow’s THE CARTEL. Apparently, terrible things on the US/Mexican border is a running theme. Won’t have as much reading time soon, though; back from break and back to work next week.

Writers' rooms

Clearing out old files and found this, written to be copy/pasted into a Facebook comment on, IIRC, a link to (mostly, but not entirely) the most staggeringly pretentious load of old toss by writers on their chosen environments. It deserves saving, I think. This, then, would be my entry, in the same style (in reality, I like the pub just fine, thanks) as the originals:

“The Crown hostelry in which I sit has probably been here in one form or another for the best part of a hundred years, and at least two of the barely-functional alcoholics snarling what’s either deep-seated political commentary or jokes about the other’s parentage in what I take to be a fantastic and near-dead language have, I suspect, been in it for most of that time. My desk is chipboard under an unconvincing walnut veneer and I’m sitting on a wobbly chair probably only moments from splintering and dropping me on my behind in a cascade of swearing and spilt drink. There’s a single tealight holder on the table - not a present from anyone, and certainly not antique, but nonetheless possessing an unmistakeable air of mystery: I’ve been in or walked past here on all nights and in all weathers, and never once have I ever seen candlelight. Occasionally my eyes stray for inspiration to the magnificent view of the fruit machine under the TV, and the dead, hollow eyes of Noel Edmonds staring back at me, challenging me, defying me once again to cross into that sacred realm where inspiration and pure words combine, the vast and singular well from which I draw, slowly, delicately, afraid lest each should fall and shatter against the scratched wood flooring, every phrase, every utterance of my award-winning dinosaur erotica.

The alcoholic laughs. Trina, the barmaid, suggests he do something unlikely with his proposition. Bubbles pop inaudibly at the pinnacle of my glass. Noel stares at me, unblinking and unswayed. I compose my fingers on the keyboard.

Challenge accepted, old friend.”

(John Rickards’ latest, ‘Boffed By The Brachiosaur’, in which a failed poet seeking solace in the Amazon gets more than she bargained for, is out now through Morning Cock Press.)

Reviewocalypse 2: Amazon is not a censor

So, this has been doing the rounds. An indie author, who also reviews books, has had reviews pulled because Amazon’s automated systems have determined through hidden and arcane means that they know the author in question. The author/reviewer is most unhappy about this.

There are several points worth noting here.

Firstly, Amazon’s TOS always barred reviews from people with personal connections to the product/seller in question. They just let it ride for years. (Paid-for reviews have also always been banned, though again enforcement has been spotty.)

Secondly, they started enforcing it for books, in ham-fisted fashion, after the sock puppet scandal three years ago, when reviews from accounts flagged as belonging to authors were deleted en masse and the TOS was clarified.

Thirdly, while “creepy!” is a common response to the way Amazon’s automated systems identify who knows whom, all this means is that those systems have gotten better since that first flood of removals. Amazon owns Goodreads. They allow you to link your Twitter and Facebook accounts to your Amazon page. Friend links and Twitter follows are publicly accessible. The fact that their systems are therefore able to identify links between people should be no surprise at all. You gave the company access to that data yourself.

Fourthly, their opaqueness as to how the determination was made should be unsurprising. Partly because they have always been annoyingly opaque as a company and asking for clarification from them has always been rather like yelling at a sheer concrete wall, and partly because even if they weren’t, they’re not going to reveal how the system works - even if a CS rep knew - because if they did, people would simply game the system in different ways, which, in theory, Amazon don’t want. They’re already changing review weighting to try to make them more useful and harder to cheat (whether doing so the right way or not).

Fifthly, if you’re now complaining that “we can’t ask our friends for reviews any more!” then good. No matter how honest you ask friends to be, they’re your friends and they’re always going to give you a good review (see answer to Q3) or nothing at all. If you’re part of an indie author review exchange network, doubly so. It’s hard to get early reviews for indie books, and I can entirely sympathize; I have skin in that game. But asking people you actually know to big up your work shouldn’t be the answer.

Sixthly, and most importantly, Amazon is not censoring you.

Really, I can’t stress this enough. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy hyperbole. I use a million tons of hyperbole every day. Particularly when I’m angry.

But Amazon is not censoring you. If reps were coming to your own website, demanding you take down reviews there, that would be different. (Even then, the strict definition of “censorship” involves the government, but I think we could give it a pass for anyone coming onto your property to shut you up.) They’re not. They don’t have to allow reviews at all. Buying something from a site gives you no right at all to say what you thought of it on that site. (Imagine, if you will, the chaos of customer review notebooks hanging beneath every book in a bricks-and-mortar store if that was a requirement.)

Things like this -

The Big Brother mentality Amazon is employing is appalling, and crosses an ethical line of unfathomable proportions.

- and this -

They are not God, and are censoring my passion for the written word.

- and this -

It is censorship at its finest.

- are just ridiculous. Laughably so. They make your argument - and there is an argument there, about the quality of reviews by people with a passion for books as writers as well as readers, the integrity of those writing reviews (and the implied slight in barring them), about whether it’s right to clamp down on reviewers who may follow an author on Twitter when one-star “never arrived so i hate this” shit-ticks are still allowed, etc. - seem ridiculous too.

While things like this -

I am shocked and appalled. At this time, I will discontinue writing peer reviews. I will complete my list of pending reviews, and will cease from posting them on Amazon.

- will, I’m sure, lead to a tiny, tiny violin playing somewhere in Amazon HQ while a single tear rolls down Jeff Bezos’ face.

As I say, there is a legitimate argument there. But moaning about censorship, or a lack of transparency, or about justification isn’t it. And saying you’ll now stop writing the reviews that they won’t let you post anyway and that were possibly always against the TOS they started trying to enforce three years ago isn’t much of a threat, to say the least. If you’re passionate about reading, review elsewhere; they’re not censors and no one will stop you. Link to them on Facebook. Those reviews will still appear on Google. Move on with your lives.