Five days in and the war is still going strong. People are starting digging trenches and laying in supplies for a long siege. Meanwhile the chattering classes (which of course includes me) are offering punditry, and the blogosphere is outraged as only the blogosphere can be.
Economics bloggers have started to take an interest in the issue. Lynne Kiesling has a useful round-up of links. I’m pleased to see that other people agree with my intuition that this dispute is largely a problem of perceived value. Explaining the economics of the publishing industry isn’t going to get you very far with people who just look at the finished product.
We monkeys are funny creatures. At times of celebration we buy food in hampers and presentation boxes. The food inside tastes the same, and the fancy wrapping doesn’t cost very much. It generally has little value and gets thrown away after we have eaten. But we are willing pay a lot more for that fancily wrapped food because it looks special.
Heck, we’ll sometimes pay a lot more for a book because it is signed by the author, even though the making of it so was the work of mere seconds.
Like it or not, an ebook appears to many people to be of intrinsically less value than a nice, solid hardcover. In their eyes, the former should cost much less than the latter.
Having said that, there have been some great posts out there, and real attempts to communicate on the part of authors. I guess this is coming as something of a shock to some of them. Obviously authors have fans tell them that their latest book is crap on a fairly regular basis, because no book pleases everyone. But unless they are poor George RR Martin they don’t normally get a whole pile of people telling them that they are greedy, selfish bastards who ought to be getting on with the important job of providing customers with what they want for as low a price as possible (preferably free). I really feel for Jay Lake, who has more reason than most to worry about his finances, and is brave enough to actually try to engage people. Here’s the sort of stuff he gets back from some folks.
Mind you, I have seen this sort of behavior before, and while getting called greedy when your livelihood is at stake must be painful, it is particularly galling when you have given your time and effort for free and people just assume you are making a fortune. Thankfully most fans, and most professionals, are well aware of how much volunteer labor goes into running a convention, but members of the World Fantasy Board and their hangers-on were still accusing us of ripping off members and stuffing our own pockets over the San José convention at-con when most of the attendees were going round saying what a wonderful time they were having, and even though they knew the money was all going through a non-profit that could only spend any surplus on other conventions and good causes like Clarion. (For the record, our surplus looks like being very low compared to past World Fantasy Cons, and even lower as a percentage of revenue due to the large size of the event.)
Anyway, back with Amazonfail, many people are starting to wonder where these sorts of attitudes came from. Jeff VanderMeer has some thoughts here. Some of what he says is undoubtedly right, but it is all too easy to point the finger at things like freebies. I don’t think this is the fault of people like Cory Doctorow, and I don’t think Jeff does either. The notion that consumers should only have to pay what they think a product is worth, not the economic cost of production (plus a reasonable profit margin if you are a Capitalist) has been around a long time. The current UK government regularly uses it as a stick to beat companies like utilities and grocery chains. Mandy is currently using a very similar tactic on universities. The idea that economics is some sort of dishonest voodoo, wheeled out like evolution to try to kid people into believing something other than what common sense tells them, gets used all the time. And the media always takes the side of the consumer, because it is mostly the consumers who buy their newspapers.
As an economist I am rather heartened to see so many people espousing the idea that discriminatory pricing is useful, and can be of benefit to all concerned in the long run, even though it might seem predatory in the short run. But I hope that all of the people currently so happy with the idea remember what they have said next time they are tempted to complain about similar practices employed by hotels, airlines, railways and so on.
Oh, and people, do stop calling it “discriminatory pricing”. Everyone knows that “discrimination” is a bad thing. Find some other term for it (“demand-based pricing,” perhaps), or you’ll keep losing the PR battle.
Meanwhile some people are trumpeting Apple, and possibly the rumored Google Tablet, as potential saviors. Anyone who thinks that Apple (and Google) are not in this game for a profit should read this.
And finally, if the whole thing has got too confusing, I recommend checking out the latest BSC Review column from everyone’s favorite Sodomite, Hal Duncan. Using brilliant historical research, and some linguistic skills he must have picked up at Åcon, Hal reveals that the whole sorry dispute is actually about kitten hair rugs.