Art in the Water

First up: All past issues are now available in HTML format, as well as downloadable files. And now to business.

As digital reading evolves, the debate over pricing continues. A sampling of opinions–

Chuck Wendig wrote recently about the effects of making his ebook free for around a day. In a little more than 24 hours, the free ebook got 5200 downloads. Compare that to an average 3 purchases a day. Wendig worries that this will reduce the expectations of a story’s value.

A mind meld up on SF Signal discusses Amazon’s effect on publishing, which includes a discussion about availability and corporate hegemony with less focus on pricing. Generally all the people interviewed discuss books as a commodity–the last respondent is concerned about Amazon’s aggressive pricing maneuvers that often limit profits to small presses.

Futurismic discussed some of the more holistic changes occurring worldwide, with the theme being that “Our current economic model is not working for most people.” They don’t turn this lens on ebook pricing, but I will.

A lot of the back-and-forth on this topic boils down to authors wondering how they can make a living off their books. Writers say to themselves and their readers, I spent a huge amount of time on this book and therefore I believe it has economic value. Time is money. The market can determine how much money.

I say to these writers, When did money become part of the risk assumed in the artistic transaction? Why must the audience cough up anything more than their time for your work? You spent time creating it–they spend time reading it.

Adding money to this exchange creates the sense that the work is a product to be consumed, a pleasure that tickles the emotional centers of the mind. Some books rightfully fall into this category. But other books have higher aspirations–to engage you, to stimulate thought and demand a reaction. A reaction in letters or in discussion or in a new book. In this sense, the book is a conversation, from artist to audience, and I don’t think money should come into that equation.

I hear the howling of a thousand underpaid writers.

The problem with my philosophy is the obvious one: How can this be a sustainable model for Cosmic Vinegar, or for myself as a writer? There are two methods I know of that allow for money to come in without violating my philosophy:

1) Donations. Pure and simple, you donate if you think the magazine is worth supporting.

2) Pay what you want. Similar to donations except a little more confrontational. This is what Radiohead did with “In Rainbows”–you could download the album for as much or as little as you’d care to pay.

There are other possibilities that I haven’t weighed, such as the concept of scalability. Say all the content is available for free online, but for a small price you could receive hard copy issues. $2 goes to production, $1 to shipping, and $1 to overhead. The dollar for overhead could function as an implied donation, but there are gray areas.

Decoupling art from capitalist models is inherent in the expansion of ebooks on the Internet. Numerous commentators have discussed the race to the bottom in terms of pricing, and as Chuck Wendig’s post up top makes clear, free is the price point that wins. 5200 people downloaded his free book in a day, compared to the 3 people who buy it on an average day. Those dollars are incredibly important to Wendig the professional author, but 5200 readers in a day? Imagine how many he’d have after a month.

The difference here is between writers who want to work within the system and writers who want to circumvent the system. Not just the publishing system (writ anew through Amazon) but the capitalist system. The system that exchanges money for goods.

I say my art is not a good worth your dollars but an experience worth your time.

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