GREED: The Fine Art of Sticking It To Your Readers

As a writer, there is nothing more sacred to me than the connection between the teller of tales and those he tells them to. I write because I want to be read, and read by as many people as possible. There is, of course, a practical aspect to all of this, because to make a living at this craft requires a lot of readers. But there are far easier jobs to do which are generally a lot more lucrative, and the sharing of stories and ideas is the primary currency I crave.

Not everyone shares this philosophy. Samuel Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” and to a degree that’s solid advice, especially in a time when so many folks try to wrangle writers into writing for free in order to get “exposure.” But if cash itself is a writer’s raison d’être, their muse is a whore and there’s a good chance they’re a hack.

As a reader, I’ve always despised publishing tricks that create scarcity in order to squeeze more money out of some readers while keeping material out of most readers’ hands. For example, an expensive “exclusive limited edition” of an author’s book which includes a story that’s not in the generally available edition and won’t be available anywhere else. It’s true that this rewards devoted fans willing to spring for something special, but it also punishes devoted fans who may not be able to afford the book. “If you love me and want to read everything I write, o wonderful reader, you will buy this exclusive collectible. Otherwise, screw you.”

To be clear, I have no problem with cool collectibles. I love beautiful limited editions, all autographed and bound-in-cloth (like a real goddamned hardback) and illustrated and such. It’s the exclusivity of content that I take issue with. That’s disrespectful to your fans, the most important people in the world to a writer, the people who most want to read your work. Why cheat them of the chance?

This applies to pricing, too. While “what the market will bear” is a fine principle for corporate mercenaries, it can be a harsh metric when applied to the dynamic between writer and reader. A writer I know is writing a series of adventure novels about a popular character that I would love to have on my shelf, and support this author’s work, but the publisher prices the paperbacks at $25 and the hardbacks at $40 and I just can’t afford them. Such pricing is unnecessary; Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom is fully illustrated and I published it at $12. Even allowing for licensing costs, the prices for my friend’s books err dramatically toward favoring the publisher over the reader.

The worst case of this sort of thing I have ever seen is a new book featuring a crowd of classic pulp heroes in a shared adventure, a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen kind of thing. As you all know, I love pulp and I’m innately interested in this sort of thing. The book looks to be huge and extravagant and loaded with illustrations, a gorgeous artifact for any library. But the lowest price for one of these volumes is $200. And the highest price?

$15,000.

How fucking ludicrous can you get?

I don’t begrudge the writer or publishers the extravagance of their book. If they want to sell an elite edition of it for fifteen grand, and someone wants to buy it, that’s awesome. And even the version at $200 may be worth the price for collectors if the book is beautifully (and expensively) made. But publishing it without a less expensive point of entry for the vast majority of possible readers, especially the very pulp fans this was presumably written for, is unfortunate. It also limits the potential size of the author’s fanbase to a small pool of folks willing and able to fork over a lot of cash.

When he wrote this book, did the writer do it because he loved the art of telling stories, and wanted to reach readers? Or did he just see an opportunity to squeeze money from the collectibles market? Because it really looks like the latter.

Me, I want to reach all the people I can. I want to treat my readers, and potential readers, with the sort of respect I hope to receive as a reader myself. I’d rather sell two thousand books at $12 each than a thousand at $25. I’d rather be read by a thousand people than a hundred. And I’d never participate in a stunt that kept my work from being accessible to most of the folks who might want to read it.

If your favorite book is a checkbook you may disagree.

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4 comments on “GREED: The Fine Art of Sticking It To Your Readers

  1. Chris Wood says:

    Regarding the $25 softcover and $40 hardcover, shortly after they come out you can get the ebook for $7. So I don’t consider that to be cheating me of the chance.

    • Tim Byrd says:

      True, if you just want to read the story. But if you want the book itself, you’re stuck paying the high prices. In practice, for me it turns me off and I decide to read the ebook eventually, then eventually never comes. On the other hand, if the paperbacks were a reasonable price they’d be day one purchases for me.

  2. maebius says:

    Agreed, and this doesn’t just happen with books, but many other sorts of “physical media”… case in point, the ever-expanding collection of Versions of Movies. (Particularly the Star Wars ones). I can understand a Director’s Cut and the “cinema version” for some, but the ones that get multiple essentially-the-same-except-not stuff, with Bonus Commentary and Collectable Disks of Behind the scenes stuff, is getting a bit crazy. Especially, if initially “The Collector Edition” is the only one out there, as you argue Tim. At least put the bargain one too, for Loyal-but-cash-starved Fans to savor. If you don’t do that… I suppose there’s always Piracy for the die-hard Gotta-have-it-all fan, and that is NOT something to encourage.

    • Tim Byrd says:

      The nadir of this sort of crap is video game publishers who create exclusive content for different venues you might buy the game from, making it impossible for their fans to get all the content unless they buy the game several times.

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