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The Price of Culture

Fair payment

Fair payment is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, but this post on Writers in the Storm brought it to a head: https://writersinthestormblog.com/2019/04/the-reality-of-writing-for-a-living/

How do you define “fair payment”? For me, it is something given in exchange for something of equal value received . The relative values of the items exchanged can only be judged by the parties involved. That was how the barter system evolved, to be replaced later by the idea of money as the medium of exchange.

If you go to a restaurant for dinner and see a hamburger priced at $50, chances are you wouldn’t consider that fair value. If you see filet mignon for $5, chances are you wouldn’t consider that fair value either, and would wonder what the catch is. Maybe the meat is bad, in which case it is worth exactly $0.

In arriving at these conclusions, you took into account the type of restaurant, the cost of the meat, the cost to cook and serve it, etc. Assuming both meals are priced reasonably (perhaps $10 for the hamburger and $40 for the filet) you also take into account how much you can afford to spend before deciding on one of them.

Doing the math

Some authors claim to be able to write the first draft of a novel in 4-6 weeks. Most take longer. Then there is the editing and proofreading to make it, if not perfect, at least saleable. To have it ready in 6 months from start to finish is a notable feat. But let’s take this 6-month time frame as an illustration. Let’s also assume the author didn’t lay out any funds for editing and proofreading.

He probably has to pay for the cover design, though. A decent one costs a minimum of about $300. He also has to either pay someone to format the book for print and digital, or do it himself , which adds to the time he has invested. But let’s be wildly optimistic and say he could do it all in 6 months plus the $300 investment for the cover. (If he’s publishing the traditional route, the publisher will do much of this for him, but will also take a larger portion of his sales.)

Let’s further assume he worked on the novel 40 hours per week for the 6 months. If he had been working at at a minimum-wage job instead of writing, he would have earned 26 weeks x 40 hrs x $14 = $14,560. That’s what his time investment is worth. Add the cover cost and we get just under $15,000.

Starving artist?

If our writer sells the digital book at $1, he would have to sell 15,000 copies to break even. More, actually, because the retailers keep a portion of his proceeds. If he sells the book at $3, he needs to sell over 5,000 copies to break even; at $5, over 3,000 copies; at $10, over 1500 copies. A lot of authors don’t sell even that small amount per book, and they don’t sell them at $10, either.

If our author managed to break even, he’s still just over half-way to the poverty line (a bit above $22,000 for a single person in Canada as of 2016).

Chances are high that our author didn’t put in 40 hours a week on his novel, for the simple reason that he worked at another job to support himself. We don’t expect dentists, mechanics, teachers or accountants to hold a second job to be able to live, but for some reason we think art is its own reward.


How do we value culture?

Historically, cultural artifacts, the lifeblood of civilization, have been primarily available only to the rich. They could support the artists and therefore own the art. Only a small percentage of artists, writers, musicians, and composers have been able to support themselves on their art without such backing. Why do we think their products are not worth paying for, yet we will pay to watch people play sports (often badly), pay for unnecessary upgrades on a vehicle, even pay for people to groom our pets, for heaven’s sake?

If we’re willing to spend $5 for a cup of coffee once or twice a day, surely we should be willing to pay at least as much for the book we read while we’re drinking it.

Perhaps the problem arises from the difficulty of objectively monetizing culture. What is the value of having your spirits raised? If you go to a psychologist for that, the value is a few hundred dollars per hour, though it would be covered by medical insurance. What is the value of having insight into human nature, or some other aspect of life? If you learn it through a course, again, probably several hundred dollars.

What is the value of enjoyment?

In a response to the blog post referenced above, someone suggested putting a note at the beginning of a book, indicating how many hours went into it and asking the reader to pay what he thought it was worth. I love that idea, but what would be the reader’s frame of reference? All he could do is compare the book to similar books and the price for those.

If you are willing to spend a couple hundred dollars or more for a concert ticket (and you should go to concerts, if you like and can afford to, even though the artist will only get a small portion of the ticket price), then the value to you of enjoyment is $100 or so per hour. If it takes you 4 hours to read a book, that would make it worth $400 to you. Maybe to the next guy it’s worth $10. Or $50. Or maybe on a scale of 1-10, a 10 rates $100 per hour, but the book is only a 3, so it’s worth $30, or $20 or whatever. Certainly more than the $1-5 you spent on it.

Support the arts

When a writer or a musician or any artist puts a work out for public consumption, he is baring his soul to the world. It is tantamount to giving a lecture, naked, in a crowded hall. And often he is apologetic about it. Even if he doesn’t expressly say so, he is thinking, “I hope you like it, even though it isn’t very good.”

Writers and other artists shouldn’t have to feel that the money they receive is charity. Yes, they want their readers to feel inspired/awed/angry/uplifted/educated by their words, but they deserve to be valued. And in our society, we only assign value with money. Sad but true.

So please don’t expect to pay nothing for a book. There are freebies out there, but they are loss leaders, where the writer hopes you will like the book enough to buy more from him, at the regular price. If you enjoyed the free book, you should. And you should write him a review, too, as that helps sell more books down the road.

Obviously, I’m somewhat biased about this topic, but in the immortal words of Red Green, “we’re all in this together.” Without culture, civilization perishes.

So let me ask you: what do you think is a fair price to pay for a book? Let me know in the comments.

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