Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Books Are Free

You know, patience is also free.
Books are free. If price is the most important factor in how and where you purchase your books and in how and what you advocate for in terms of the books industry, then you're in luck, because you never have to pay for a book if you don't want to. Legally. Ever. You could lead a full and very rich reading life without ever spending a single cent on a book. Ever. Without pirating. Without shoplifting. Without mooching off your friends who buy books. Because books are free.

They're free at your library. I read (an amount of) Thomas Piketty's smash bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century for free and all of the second book in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive for free. I was even able to order them and dozens more online, still for free. I'm lucky enough to live in Massachusetts, which has the Minuteman Library Network, which means I can order books online from any one of several dozen libraries around the state and pick the books up at the branch a five minute walk from my apartment. Even if you don't have that kind of resource available, if there's one thing I know about librarians, it's they want you to have that book and they will do just about anything to make sure you do.

Oh, this is one of the books I already paid for. With my taxes.
Books are also free, in digital formats, at Project Gutenberg, a massive (and growing) online collection of public domain books, including The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy A Gentleman, one of the greatest books ever written, Don Quixote, one of the greatest books ever written, Gargantua and Pantagruel, one of the greatest books ever written, Ulysses, one of the greatest books ever written, pretty much every book by Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mark Twain, as well as fascinating oddities from the history of the written word including my favorite, 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose. (Yes, it is as much fun as the title implies.) In short, there is more great literature on this one website than any person could ever read over the course of their life and it is all free.

Therefore, by the power vested in me by the fact that I'm already saying this, I decree all debates on the price and cost of books, in any context and with any goal in mind, null and void. Books are already free.

Isn't Amazon just trying to make the world better for readers by fighting for lower book prices? No, books are already free.

Aren't traditional publishers and indie bookstores just gouging readers with high prices? No, books are free.

Don't those multi-millionaire traditionally published authors laugh at us all the way to the bank? Maybe, but books are still free.

What about competition with things like Facebook and Candy Crush? Books are free.

But I want to read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that everyone is talking about, The Goldfinch, and I don't want to wait for a copy from the library, and I don't want to pay more than $9.99 for it? Fuck you, that's not how the economy works.

If only there were a library...for my soul.
Books are free, unless you want a specific book, within a specific time frame, for some specific reason, and that is what we call “added value,” and in a capitalist economy “added value” means “higher cost.” And this is totally accepted in pretty much every other industry. Shorts are more expensive in May than in October because more people want shorts in May than they do in October. New video games are more expensive than year old un-used video games because people like to play the new video games right away and are willing to pay a premium for them. (And, of course, because the game producers are trying to make back their investment, but that's another point.) Dried beans at the grocery store are essentially free; seriously, they're like $.89 a pound and a pound of dried beans is like 10 meals, but, people (myself included) still buy canned beans because sometimes (OK, most of the time) we don't realize we want tacos until we want tacos and, bereft of time travel, can't soak the dried beans over night. You are perfectly capable of spending $15-20 on ingredients for a nice meal that you make at home, but also, totally willing to spend $30-60 (or more) for someone else to make those exact same ingredients into a nice meal at a restaurant. Bars add value to beer just by not being your house. I mean, normally when everybody wants something, it costs more. Can you imagine someone showing up at the box office for say, The Rolling Stones, and saying to the clerk, “Yeah, I heard this guy play Sympathy for the Devil on his guitar in the street and it was pretty good and that was free, so, shouldn't tickets to the show only cover the cost of production?” I mean, if you think a book is too expensive, for whatever reason, the most efficient, most effective, most meaningful way to express your disagreement with the price is to just not buy the book.

The only reason we discuss the price of books differently from the price of pretty much everything else in the economy is that the most powerful retailer in books isn't under any obligation to make money off them. Amazon's book prices are fairy tales. We believe them, not because they are truly based in an efficient business model or because they are champions for readers or any of the other reasons you might hear, but because we want to. It's amazing what we are willing to believe if it means we can save $5.

There is more I could say (and have said and others have said) about the price books, including, for example, how relatively cheap they are when you account for inflation, a cheapness born by authors, interns, and booksellers but, really, it all boils down to the same issue. If all you want is to read great books you never have to spend a single penny. Not one ever. So every “general argument about the cost of books,” really isn't a “general argument” so much as it is a flimsy costume thrown over a very specific act of haggling over a specific book desired for a specific reason within a specific time frame. So, if you think $30 (or whatever) is too much to pay for The Goldfinch, don't buy it for $30 and if no one buys it for $30, the price will naturally decline, either through the introduction of cheaper formats like trade paperback or mass market paperback, through temporary promotions and sales as frequently happens in ebooks, or, (perish the thought) when the book gets remaindered. If, for whatever reason, The Goldfinch is worth $30 (or whatever) to you, don't act like this is some egregious assault on the American reader by some unscrupulous corporation. It's just a few people in a capitalist economy trying to make money on something everyone wants, or, pretty much the exact definition of capitalism.

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