By Max Everhart
A general observation: the number of people reading novels is dwindling, while the number of people publishing novels is increasing. I could be wrong, but it seems to me we have a serious supply and demand problem. Between all the publishing platforms, we are creating a seemingly endless supply (books) for a demand (readers) that doesn’t really exist. Does anyone else find this to be true? Surely, I can’t be the only one. I actually saw a FB post the other day that read: “Everybody writes, nobody reads.” How true. True-ish, anyway. Is it possible that I’m making a false assumption about the ratio of books to willing readers? Perhaps. After all, a good deal of my FB friends are writers, so, naturally, my feed is clogged with stuff about their work, which makes me think that literally everyone is not only writing (#amwriting), but publishing (#HappyPubDay). And, generally speaking, that is a good thing. Writers have lots of publishing options, and the more options the better, right?
Sure, I’m glad that all writers have an opportunity to put their work out there. The Internet, an egalitarian forum if ever there was one, allows people everywhere to make their books (and blogs!) available to any and all who care to read them. But when it comes to publishing platforms, with the dog come the fleas. The more books available for purchase, the less valuable each book is. The product itself (a novel) is devalued because there is a surplus of inventory. Compare books to the US dollar. Every time the government decides to print more cash and put it into circulation the dollars already in circulation become a little less valuable. Similarly, every time a new book comes on the market, the other available books are devalued, which, in turn, creates intense competition and drives the cost way down. Too, from my perspective as an avid reader, I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices. I liken shopping on Amazon for Kindle books to entering a store that has items overflowing the shelves and spilling onto the floor and every other available surface. It’s maddening.
What I’m trying to say is this: we’re about to experience another “bubble”. . .a BOOK BUBBLE. The market is truly saturated.
I saw the above on twitter the other day, and it got me thinking about what we value these days. Of course, I understand the intent behind this tweet, and, in spirit, I agree. I’d love it if people valued books more than coffee as I love reading and writing books, and, because of a minor heart problem, I no longer drink coffee, which is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions in my view. But I’m also a cynic/realist: many people, for better or worse, value coffee more than they value books. Fine, I accept that. I’m not in the habit of trying to change the way people think or feel or shop. In addition to being a realist, I’m also cheap; $4.99 is a lot of money, so I sympathize with those casual, budget-conscious readers who don’t want to spend a whole lot on books. I don’t think there is anything wrong with bargain hunting, even when it comes to books.
Coffee and books: let’s deconstruct those two items for a moment, try to better understand their true market value. Indulge me a quick evaluation. Coffee is quick, its effects immediate. You buy a latte, take a sip, feel satisfaction. It’s a chemical and physical response that is super-quick. People–a lot of people–are willing to pay five dollars and up for a cup of coffee. So that is coffee’s market value. Books, at least the ebooks alluded to in the above tweet, don’t command as high a price. A book’s effects aren’t as immediate as coffee’s; with a book, the payoff is delayed, and, for the most part, less physical in nature (caffeine is a drug, after all). Drinking coffee requires no discipline, but reading an entire book does. Whether the book starts off with a bang or a whimper, reading to the end of the book is the primary goal (think: payoff), and that, according to Kindle, can take upwards of four hours. Imagine that! Four whole hours reading! Many people don’t have the time or the inclination to stick with anything that long. Delving a bit deeper, the intrinsic value of a book is unique to each potential reader and cannot be measured in monetary terms. Ah, but the extrinsic value of a book is most definitely quantifiable. Hence, many people feel that an ebook priced at $4.99 or higher is too expensive. That’s an ebook’s market value. Put another way, like a car or a house or a grape, a book is worth precisely what a reader is willing to pay for it, and many readers these days don’t want to pay $4.99. And while that makes me sad (or sad-ish), it’s the way the market works.
To a larger point: just because an author spends years writing a book doesn’t automatically mean that book has more value than a cup of coffee. It might. It could. But a book, despite the author’s hard work, is not innately worth more than a coffee. Or a sock. Or a walnut. Sorry, it just isn’t. Art’s monetary value was, has, and always will be completely subjective. Example: I wouldn’t pay ten bucks for those silly Campbell’s soup cans by Warhol. I love books. I read them everyday. I pay for books. I review books. I write books. But I’m not so solipsistic to think that because I love them everybody else should, too, and they should pay a certain amount for them. I don’t think my books are worth $4.99. Or $1.99. I think my books are worth whatever someone is willing to pay (or not pay). Period.
Back to something I’d written in a previous MMO post: If you want to be a successful writer, you need to manage your expectations. You need to find joy in the process, and not worry too much about sales. Easy advice to give, tough advice to follow. At this point in my career, I’m trying to seek fulfillment in the process of writing. (Or not writing; lately, I’ve been watching the UEFA 2016 Championships on ESPN in lieu of working on my novel. Being a slacker isn’t so bad.) I accept the fact that by writing more novels and publishing them I’m creating more supply where there is, essentially, no demand, and I have mixed feelings about that. As an obscure novelist, I often feel like a well-made VCR in the digital streaming age. My only hope is that some people out there have dusty VHS copies of Mermaid and need a VCR. If so, I’m around. So are my books.
- Are we on the verge of a book bubble? What do you think will happen if the bubble bursts?
- How do you feel about ebook prices? Are they too expensive? What’s the most you’d be willing to spend on one?
- Do you feel like the book market is saturated?