Content no more

There’s been a lot of hubbub in the press lately about content, about pricing, and about “the eBook phenomenon.” AOL’s acquisition of the Huffington Post has brought “content” and “content creation” to the attention of many, while Amanda Hocking’s phenomenal success selling self-published eBooks has raised the question of pricing yet again.

These discussions, interestingly, seem to intersect. The question at the heart of both matters is, “What is a story worth?”

It’s a bloody good question. What is a story worth?

To its creator, it’s worth the sum total of their hopes and dreams, fears and longings. It’s worth every hour they put into it, all the sweat and blood and tears and imagination they poured into spinning that tale for you.

To its reader, it’s worth the sum total of the entertainment it gives, whether that’s 99c or $9.99 or all the tea in China, plus their firstborn.

The intersection of this, obviously, is the optimal price for the story. The optimal price is what the market will bear – that might be 99c, it might be $2.99, it might be $9.99 – we haven’t seen that settle out yet, but I feel as though several price points in that range are going to become fairly standard in the near future.

My personal opinion is that 99c is a good price for a short story, $2.99 is a good price for a novella, and $4.99-9.99 is a good price for a novel. Assuming we’re talking digital distribution here, of course. But that’s me – one reader – speaking for my pocketbook and entertainment values.

What really matters here is not so much what price eBooks settle out at as how we think about stories and compensation for stories.

Cat Valente recently wrote about “One art please, I have 99c,” worrying about the idea of conflating all forms of artistic expression and reducing them to a single “appropriate” price point. In a similar vein, and getting back to my original point noting that HuffPo and ePublishing have come together, Bob Buch wrote a screed against calling things “content.”

I couldn’t agree more. Writers write stories – whether those stories are nonfiction, reportage, fiction, whatever, they’re still stories. They’re tales being told, words being spun out for others to enjoy and learn from. That has value. Calling it “content,” as though it’s interchangeable, generic, bland, is counterproductive. Journalists and authors deserve to be paid for the stories they present to us; as writer Levi Montgomery put it recently, “I can’t eat my stories. They make a poor roof. The fact of the matter is that I give up my hunting and gathering time in order to sit and make up stories to regale you with around the fire, and if you want me to keep it up, then you have to give me some of what you hunted and gathered. If you can’t do that, then I’m going to have to go back to doing my own hunting and gathering, and then who will tell you stories?”

Perfect point. “Content creators” need to be acknowledged as writers, authors, artists, and to be paid appropriately for their work – the problem is determining what “appropriate” is in such a subjective field. To call something “content” is to reduce it to mere filler, to privilege the platform and the distribution method over the actual words, the actual stories. It’s completely, willfully missing the point. It needs to stop.

Down with content.

Up with stories.

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4 Responses to “Content no more”

  1. Tiger Gray March 29, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    I read an article recently–by Lilith St Crow, I believe–where she talked about the Puritanical notion that a story shouldn’t count because it is an indulgence, and in some way we don’t want to acknowledge indulgences as worth something. They are to be avoided, or consumed when no one is looking, preferably at no cost to one’s self. Whatever the reason, I think it’s nigh-criminal to pay so little for something that took craft. We don’t expect modifications to our home for free, or landscaping (which…talk about an indulgence), or even coffee drinks. Why books, something that only a few people can do well? A thing that takes craft and effort? Down with .99 novels, says I.

  2. Candlemark & Gleam March 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    I agree; we need to assign value to art, and to stories. Yes, anyone can
    tell a story. NOT anyone can tell a GOOD story. There is value to what
    writers do, and to what editors and designers do. That needs to be
    acknowledged and compensated fairly.

  3. S. Eric Rhoads (WordTipping) April 16, 2011 at 3:32 am #

    To me the central problem is that art has no value beyond what people are willing to pay for it. It has no intrinsic value. Art’s value accrues with people’s ability to enjoy it which itself is a function of time and excess wealth.

    I agree with your pricing assumptions. I think it is pragmatic to use short stories, novellas and serials to buttress the perceived value of a novel.

    But, it still rubs me the wrong pay philosophically. It smacks too much of judging value based on length. It would make epigrams the pauper of the literary world when they are among my favorites styles and in my opinion one of the devilishly tricky to write. An analogy to a different art medium would be the great debate of selling paintings by the inch!

  4. Candlemark & Gleam April 16, 2011 at 5:15 pm #

    That’s an excellent point, but at the same time, philosophy and business
    have to diverge somewhere. You can’t simply expect the market to price
    itself out fairly – while I do believe that eBooks won’t be going for
    99c in the long run, right now, that’s where they’re headed…and so you
    have to make a decision about whether to participate in the rush to the
    bottom. You have to figure out your pricing somehow – and while truly
    wonderful epigrams, like the work of Catullus, say, might be worth far,
    far more than The Da Vinci Code in terms of artistic merit, economic
    precepts mean we have to set pricing schemes somehow, and length is an
    easy way to do that without making an explicit judgment on content
    value/artistic merit.

    Because heaven knows the tip jar/pay what you will method might reward
    some truly astonishing artists, but it’s still not gonna pay the bills
    regularly enough to work.

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