Posted on November 7, 2013 in Archive

Would you want to pay-per-page for your next read?

07Nov

Again, we are here to discuss more silliness from the publishing industry. Last time it was time-stamping books so that you can get a complex based on how long it takes you to read a book. This time, it’s the concept that publishers should think about charging based on the length of a book.

Philip Hensher wrote an article recently describing the virtues of shorter stories and books, calling it a “golden age of possibility”. Especially with more ebooks popping up in recent years, many people now believe that the length of a book no longer matters – at least, it doesn’t matter superficially. Why is there such a commotion about the length of a book when it comes to price, though? Anyone with common sense would surely believe in the old saying that quality, not quantity, is what matters.

If everyone is going to start tearing their hair out over the comparison between page length and price, then maybe authors should take precautions against backlash in the dreaded ‘comments and feedback’ section of Amazon.com. Declaring the page length from the get-go would in theory save a lot of heartache – but in general I don’t really like this idea. It goes against the whole ‘reading books for enjoyment’ thing. Furthermore, it only adds to the culture that encourages people to only find value through the length of a book, or how much of your time it takes up. The Gettysburg Address was only a page long (256 words), but it changed history forever. Why is longer better?  This article documents an author who received negative feedback from a customer because his non-fiction ebook used a large font (for design purposes) and only equalled about 32 pages in length. He disclosed this fact from the start. The customer didn’t find any value in his writing, so her first point of attack was to call his work “a pamphlet”, and then question his morals as a Christian. Ouch.

To explore the matter a little more fully, you could even say that shorter books provide more literary value, if it’s done right. Succinctness is a quality that few writers achieve these days, and even fewer appreciate. Some readers might even welcome the fact that a particular author can impart the same amount of information or entertainment in a shorter, more concentrated burst. Like I’ve noted before in multiple blogs, reading is a luxury these days that some people don’t have time for – shorter reads probably provide more value than the Lord of the Rings trilogy gathering dust on your bookshelf.

Liquid State - close up shot of old fashioned cash register to show pay-per-page

Would you pay more than this for a book that totals less than 100 pages?

To get a bit philosophical on you for a moment, though, I’d just like to pose the question – how does a person decide what is literary quality and value? Obviously everyone likes different things, and everyone values things in different ways. Basing a manuscript’s price based on value is a great idea in theory (and one that I personally am in favour of), but it opens up a potential minefield of debate about literary value – because of course every (non self-hating) author out there thinks that their prose is worth every penny they can get.

Standardising book prices across the board is one way to be completely egalitarian – but I don’t think publishers would go for that either. Say, $8 for less than 5,000 words, and add a few dollars for however many extra thousands of words. Poor Leo Tolstoy’s heirs would have to declare bankruptcy immediately due to a complete drop off in sales.

With all this thought-provoking stuff (thought-provoking for me, anyway) going on in this blog, we haven’t even broached the concept of pricing ebooks based on length! Production and printing costs are significantly less when comparing ebooks with paper books, so from that viewpoint I think that charging extra for longer ebooks is pure stupidity. On this topic, “Ebook Pricing: How Much is too Much?” is a great article I found on the interwebs, but the user comments at the end are where the most interesting stuff can be found. Many independent authors commented with their opinions, and most seem to believe that $9.99 is too much to pay for an ebook, especially an indie book that hasn’t had the time spent on it being polished by editors and publishers, like traditionally published books. Others would rather pay for a $12 hardback than the equally priced ebook version, because an ebook has no resale value. Further still, some disregard the length issue completely and enjoy sampling cheaper works regardless of length, because the risk is low. If you have the time, I highly recommend reading both the article and the comments.

Ultimately, I think that both readers and authors need to learn to appreciate the value of the content, not the length, and don’t think so much about the monetary price. Though these days, it seems to be judged by whatever the market will pay. Thomas Jefferson once said,  “True talent is never using two words when one will do.” And I couldn’t agree more.