Don’t Blame Readers If Books Are Being “Devalued”

If you hang out on the bookternet at all, you have no doubt seen one or more pearl-clutching declarations that books are losing their value–especially ebooks, which you can get for as little as NINETY-NINE CENTS (omg)–which is putting literature in great peril. After all, if writers can’t make a living off of writing, how, HOW will we carry forth with our grand literary traditions? Usually, these declarations are followed by impassioned pleas to support your favorite writers by paying “fair value” for their hard work and sacrifice.

I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but as one of those people that authors rely on to spend money on books, my reaction to these discussions increasingly looks like this:

hugh-laurie-facepalm-gif

I want writers to make money. I really do. I love reading. There are a few hiccups to the “customers need to realize that books are worth more” angle, though. Such as, that’s not how economics works, at all.

Reading is a buyer’s market, y’all.

According to Merriam-Webster.com, a buyer’s market is “a market in which goods are plentiful, buyers have a wide range of choice, and prices tend to be low”. Basically, what happens in a buyer’s market is that the supply exceeds demand, buyers have a bounty of options and sellers have to compete for the buyer’s attention. Sound at all familiar?

In a buyer’s market, the seller has little advantage that would allow them to dictate prices. If one seller decided to raise prices, customers would just go to their competition. In the book world, a reader can’t throw a stone without seeing a publisher or author vying for attention; books are literally being given away for free to try to gain an audience.

It's like this but with books . . . which would probably result in injuries so don't do that.

It’s like this but with books.

If books are becoming “devalued,” it’s not because readers have magically lost respect for the written word; it’s because we can choose from thousands upon thousands of books and obtain them while we lounge on the couch in our pjs. Rarity breeds value, and books ain’t that rare. If only ten titles came out a year, people would pay a whole lot more to get one.

There are exceptions. For big-name authors like King, Rowling, or Gaiman, the demand for their books transcends price differential–to an extent. Fans will pay more to get the goods, but may become resentful in the process if they feel that the publisher or author is taking advantage of them. Specialized books, rare releases, books containing sought-after information (cookbooks, hobby and trade books, textbooks, etc), these also transcend the price wars.

But we’ve got novels coming out of our ears, guys. It’s a great time to be a reader, but maybe not quite as profitable of a time to be an author. You wouldn’t start a business mowing lawns if everyone else on your street was doing it, would you?

As a reader and a customer, I’m tired of being scolded for what the market is naturally doing. So many people are publishing books that supply has blown up; self-publishing is still growing rapidly on top of the over 300,000 books traditionally-published every year. The UK publishes enough books that people in the industry are becoming concerned that they’re committing publishing suicide. The struggle is real, but it isn’t because of readers.

If you’re thinking to make a living off of writing books, this is a huge factor to consider–more than piracy, more than customers “only wanting free books” (ugh, so untrue). The market is pretty saturated and we only have so much money and attention. We can only pay so many authors a living wage. Don’t give up your writing dreams, but also maybe don’t blame customers for the logical result of an overabundant supply, either.

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