“We get on social media, we try different kinds of events, we create interesting displays, we sell the hell out of the books we love, but none of that reaches the boardrooms where the big decisions are made. If I could get one wish from the ghost of Sylvia Beach, it’s that she, or someone who cares about the inherent value of books, gets a seat in those boardrooms to advocate for readers not consumers, for books as a pillar of culture not as a unit of sales, and for bookstores as community centers not retail outlets and merchandise showrooms.” – Josh Cook of Porter Square Books, Cambridge, Mass
We hear stories from time to time about artists, jewelers, furniture makers and other stubborn souls who, after perfecting the art and the craft of their work for nearly a lifetime, refuse to sell their work to customers whom they believe won’t appreciate the work for its inherent beauty and artistry or who try to prostitute themselves, the art and the artists by acquiring the perfect bentwood rocker, diamond ring or sonnet at a rock bottom price.
Amazon, the Internet and parents who rear children to believe they (the children) are the center of the universe are conspiring like planets in trine to create a book buying atmosphere in which many (but thankfully, not all) prospective readers feel entitled to free, or almost-free books. This attitude is strengthened by the unfortunate, but popular, mindset that anyone selling or making anything is corrupt, cheating at taxes, and trying to rip off customers one way or the other. Therefore, like every other false right people are claiming to have these days, cheap books have become a component of the public’s feelings of entitlement and a way to get back at those who are purportedly stealing us blind.
If you listen to Amazon and to those who believe Amazon has done more for authors and readers than anyone since Gutenberg, then you are hearing that an e-book is just a file. That means that neither the publisher nor the author is paying printers to print it, nor warehouses to store it. Those who buy books as units or widgets or just files, see no value in the product other than the momentary gratification of reading them. They not only do not see the inherent artistry in the storytelling, nor the expenses an author incurs in creating that file which might include: (a) a year or two of full-time work, (2) hiring at editor, (3) paying for cover art, (4) travel and other research, (5) promotional efforts including mailing off free review copies, maintaining a website, traveling to book signings, purchasing bookmarks and fliers.
Some authors who have become household names by selling their books through large publishers, can take their fame—as well as their talents—off into the self-publishing world and earn a living selling books for a dollar or two on Amazon. They will lead you to believe that any author or publisher who asks you to pay, say, $5.00 for an e-book is ripping you off because (after all) the book is just a file.
According to the Census Bureau, the current poverty income level in the United States is $8,959. Looking at this simplistically, if I take a year to write an 80,000 word novel, I would have to sell at least 8,959 copies of that book on Amazon at the $1 price to break even at the poverty level. If I had any expenses in creating the book, I’d be under the poverty level.
In spite of the success stories we read about from time to time, most self-published books sell less than a hundred copies. Small-press authors are lucky if they sell 1,500 copies. In both cases, the authors are under the poverty level.
My great hope is that my readers will be happy with my books and will feel that a near-lifetime of art and craft has gone into them. I’m just an everyday, journeyman writer, so I do not feel like a “Hemingway in the making” or a “not-yet-discovered” Pat Conroy or John Grisham. Nonetheless, I do work very hard to tell exciting stories, with three-dimensional characters, pitch-perfect descriptions and themes that provide food for thought. Yet, and I tell you this without vanity or guile, if you want to purchase any of my novels at rock-bottom prices to you and to others like you, don’t bother.
If you think my e-book is just a file rather than the words and the work within the file, I don’t want you buying any of my books because, while we might have to agree to disagree about this, I don’t think you will appreciate them for their value as art/craft/culture. And, if you are earning an income above the poverty level, my strong belief is that if you want me to live below the poverty level selling my books with a rock-bottom, Amazon-style price, then you’re not the kind of person who will appreciate me as an author.
Based on the comments I’ve received on this blog, either directly, or when I post the links on Twitter or Facebook, I know that my regular visitors agree with the Josh Cook quotation I used to set the stage for this essay. I’m not talking to you because that would be rather like preaching to the choir. I’m talking to the people who will find this post via search engines with search words like “rock bottom prices” and “Amazon.” If you are one of those people and if you came here hoping I can “get it for you wholesale” or give it away for nothing, then I don’t want you.
For everyone else out there who respects books for their stories, words fail me in telling you how much I appreciate you.