Thursday, September 6, 2012

Devaluation Of Content

So at Harrogate this year there was apparently a panel about the Ebook. It was called Wanted for Murder: The Ebook. It had a few folks sat on it. You may have heard of it. I don't think anything controversial happened.

Oh, hang on, Weddle is passing me a note.

What? Oh, shit.

Okay, so we all know about that panel. Some stuff went down. I should say here that I'm not blogging today to grind any axes with the people on the panel. Steve Mosby in particular is a fine writer and I usually find myself in agreement with the vast majority of what he says. Any snark that arises in the post is simply because, well, I can be a bit snarky. But it's aimed at no individuals. It would also be unfair to assume that anything the panelists said represents the whole of their opinion on the subject. They got a few moderated questions and I get a whole blog, so the balance would be tipped a wee bit in my favour if I was going to try anything unfair. If anyone I quote wants to use DSD to expand on their views or to challenge how I've quoted them, jump on in.

The final thing to point out, after teasing you all with mention about THAT panel, is that I'm not writing about THAT. I found one of the other issues was the one that burrowed into my brain. And the reason I'm going out of my way to play nice at the start here is that before the phrase sockpuppet exploded the writernet, and before some hard working writers and journalists ran with that issue, the thing I'm writing about today seemed to be the thing that was stirring up emotions on the first few blogs and reports of the event.

I'm here to write about value. It's a word that got used a few times during that discussion.

To quote panelist Ursula MacKenzie (of the LittleBrown group);

"What people don't seem to get is that value is not in the means of's in the words, it's in the brainpower....and that's what people should be paying for"

Patrick Neale (a Bookseller at Jaffe and Neale) says;

"The most important point of this debate, I think, is to give a value to the work done." 

The ebook is doing nothing to devalue content.We're not fighting a losing battle here. There is no battle. The truth is, the value has never been in the content, it's always been in the delivery.

Let me back up on that briefly. Of course there is value in the content. We all treasure the content. But what we're really dealing with there is the subjective, emotional and intellectual value of art and entertainment. It's value is in and of itself, but it's not financial.

Firstly let's talk about the argument that we need to fight for a higher value being placed on art. No we don't. Art is art. It is many things; it's subjective, it's relative, it's sometimes offensive and sometimes challenging. Sometimes it's in service of a larger point, sometimes it's only in service of itself. But the minute we start to discuss what value should be placed on art we lose the fight. It then becomes that old joke about the man who asks if someone will give him a blow job for a thousand pounds, then starts to haggle on the price.

It's every conversation about a film that's ever been framed with the subject of how much money the film has made. It's every time we've tried to defend state subsidy of art by talking about the occasional financial hit that comes from those subsidies.  It creates a framework for the conversation where the purpose of art and content is to make money. This misses the point, and brings emotions into the debate that shouldn't be there. It's always been the delivery. That's what people pay us for.

We all need to be paid. Partly we need to be paid as a recognition for what we've produced. Partly we need to be paid to separate those who talk about writing from those who write. Mostly, and this is probably the least contentious point I'll make today, we need to get paid because we all have a powerful desire to eat.

When ebooks first started to grow we developed the cliched complaint that books have a smell. When Vinyl was threatened by CD's, people would talk about the smell and feel of vinyl, the scratch of the needle, the customs that surrounded slipping the record out of it's sleeve and giving it pride of place on the turntable. When digital music started to threaten the physical form altogether, we would hear about peoples need to have liner notes, to have the sleeve, to have the tactile feeling of interacting with their product. The biggest step for me as a comic reader was learning that I could let go of rolling up a comic book and having it in my back pocket, of passing around for friends to read. I learned eventually to embrace reading it on the screen. As I have with ebooks, but even that now comes with its own little tics. I love the feel of the Kindle in my hand. I've developed a sensation and a mood for reading from Kindle just as I did from a paper book.

None of this is content, it's all the fetish of delivery method.

I worked in book-selling for a number of years. It's one of the best jobs I've ever had, and I still miss it. But it's given me a chance to see this argument evolve. Right now it's all this blether about the ebook, and how it's devaluing content (boooo ebooks.) The biggest bone of contention for most of my time in book-selling was the supermarkets and how the prices they were selling them at devalued the content (boooo supermarkets.) When I first started book-selling I caught the tale end of all the fuss over the '3 for 2' and 'doorbuster' book promotions in book shops, and how they were devaluing content ( shops?)

Every generation needs it's folk devil, but you know the one thing that hasn't been affected by any of these changes? Content. To steal from James M Cain, the content is fine, it's still right there on the shelf.
Content is what we get our pride and sense of achievement from. They are a source of value to us as writers, but it's an emotional and intellectual value. It's self worth, self esteem.

The delivery is our bread and butter. And in that way, its also business. It is that old man in the joke haggling for a certain favour. Unless we are someone like Steve Jobs our role in business is to supply to an audiences demand, rather than to have expectations to set a demand. We find prices and promotional methods that work, and we use them to put food on the table (not that there shouldn't be limits to the promotional methods, the last few weeks have shown that all too clearly.)

What the panel ended up discussing was price point. And this hopefully will be the only time I ever blog on the subject. I think it's dangerous to muddle up the issues of ebooks with that of price points as if they're the same thing. It's also dangerous to muddle up ebooks with self-publishing as if they're the same thing. There is certainly a large crossover between the three, but none of them do anything to devalue content.

Steve Mosby (sorry Steve) talks about how the kind of marketing Leather was talking about was leading towards books being seen as a disposable item. This is not an ebook issue. It's also not a price-point issue. They've always been that disposable item. That's actually part of why paperback and hardback books are so perfectly designed. That's also why one of the major cornerstones of the book industry for readers -certainly any who've had low incomes- has been the second hand bookshop. Do we want to close down the second hand bookshops? Wipe out Haye-On-Wye in one move? (well, that might reduce the amount of tweed and sideburns in the UK) I've reached for the easy jokes there, and Steve is probably making points about how quickly we move on from content in our modern culture. In, out, move on. Fast food. But I don't see price point or format affecting content here, either. The fact that a reader may dispose of the book afterwards does not take the content out of their brain, nor alter the emotional investment they've had with the work that you created. Sure, it means there will be less paperbacks on shelves in future, but that's taking us back to the fetish over delivery methods, not content.

What I see here, with no disrespect to anyone who makes the argument, is that the talk of content being devalued is actually a fear over the changing market, and how to put food on the table. And that's understandable, but it's nothing to do with content. Let's focus on the real issues. The only conversations we should be having about a race to the bottom in publishing is about crap writing. And even that conversation would be a minefield, with everyone having a different standard. That's where any downward race is. The rest is just folk devils and moral panics over the very thing that has always been what the 'punter' is actually paying for- the delivery.

If we focus on that we can move on to a less emotive debate and work out how everyone puts that food on the table.


Anonymous said...

I think any discussion of ebooks is invalid without this one simple philosophical point:

It's the content, stupid.

What a lot of writers are complaining about is that they had to sweat and toil and struggle well beyond the final draft getting packed off to its first agent, and now anyone can publish a book.

OTOH, there is a certain bitter ex-midlister who shall remain nameless who thinks it is all about the distribution, but can't figure out why his sales have tanked. (It's the content, stupid, and everyone's figured out you suck without an editor. And God bless his editors. I had no idea what they were up against.)

And, of course, it's all pure luck. You could be the next Phillip Roth, but there's always going to be a John Locke who actually makes it big going the traditional route.

I made peace with this long ago.

John McFetridge said...

I used to buy cheap used paperback books. I'm old, so way back then most books came out in hardcover first and then only some of those made it to paperback and only some of those had big enough print runs that I found them in my local used bookstores.

So I like the availability of e-books a lot. But then I've never really believed in this myth of the 'free market' and I like the idea that the market isn't necessarily dominated by capital.

A place like Snubnose can start up and get more books into more readers hands in one year than a traditional publisher could have in ten years.