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Can Affordable Literature Ever Compete with “Palatable Plonk?”

Choosing a book to read and picking a wine to drink have a lot in common.

By Edward Nawotka

one cent penny

The book business and the wine business have a lot in common. Good books and good wine both take time, expertise and a carefully managed environment to produce consistently.

Yet, in recent years, both the book business and the wine business have been inundated with quickly produced, inexpensive product — palatable plonk, if you will — that satisfies a desire.

As discussed in today’s feature story, you can now buy any number of e-books for 99 cents or less on Amazon. Few would mistake what’s being sold so cheaply as high literature, but one has to acknowledge that it takes skill to craft something that a large audience of people will enjoy.

In wine business, the fact that you can now buy drinkable box wine in your local gas station/supermarket has indeed expanded the audience for wine. The hope is that drinkers, as their palette becomes sophisticated, will move up the price scale to sample more challenging fare.

In some instances, this is likely to happen. It is more reasonable to think that drinkers will pick wines based on their moods and circumstances. For a hot summer weekend you might choose something that you won’t mind tossing an ice cube into (à la the ladies on Mob Wives); running through Duty Free at an airport you’re likely to grab something you recognize and have sampled before; when buying a Christmas gift for your boss, you’ll opt for something you hope will impress.

Can the same be said for the book business? Certainly just think of fiction as red wine, and non-fiction as white, each goes with a mood, setting, circumstance.

Ultimately, the question is not whether inexpensively priced literature entice new readers and serve as a gateway for readers to discover new writers, but can it ever compete, at lower prices, with the John Locke’s and Amanda Hocking’s of the world? And, at the end of the day, does it matter so long as everyone’s needs get met?

In my opinion, the answer is no,  not when — to go back to the wine analogy — the cheap stuff can get you just as drunk. Of course, you also have to remember that with the cheap stuff, once the buzz wears off the hangover is often much worse — and you’ll have an even harder time facing yourself in the harsh light of day.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted June 13, 2011 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    I love your wine/book analogy! But I would push it one step further: think of being thirsty and quenching your thirst on either (a) soft drinks or (b) sophisticated beverages like a cool white Chateau wine or Champagne.

    Your 99 cent ebook is analogous to Coca Cola, your traditional $25 printed book is like a glass of Champagne, particularly if the author is a big-name NYT bestseller.

    The first thing to notice here: these are two different products, they come in useful at different times (you’d never have a Coke at a celebratory party that calls for Champagne) and 99 cents is probably the “right” price for a plonk read.

    The second thing: what if you priced your millésimé product at the price of Coke? Would you sell more of it and entice new customers?

    Yes, no doubt you would. Playing with price is a promotional ploy that always works. But there’s a problem. Would they keep buying once you brought the price back up to its “natural” level (where you meet your expenses and make a profit in the long-run) ? Not everybody, but some would, so your promotional ploy might well have been worth it. It has expanded your market.

    In that sense the low-priced ebooks serve a useful function: they can expand your market. Without hurting your traditional printed book market. The person who wants a printed $25 book isn’t remotely thinking of getting an ebook: it just doesn’t serve the same goal. An ebook is not a gift, it’s not an object to decorate your home, it can’t be signed by the author, shared with friends etc

    So if 99 cents is just a promotional ploy, it CANNOT destroy literature, anymore than Coca Cola takes people away from Champagne drinking…

  2. Steven
    Posted June 13, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    No offence to the writer, but it does really read like elitist pompous commentary without a clue. The greater canon of English literature is available for free via Gutenberg.org. To make another analogy: why pay for a new violin when there’s a strat for free? If I had paid to read this article, do you suppose it would have had a better chance of saving me from cringing from the run-on sentence?

    In any case, if you’re looking to get drunk from the ‘literature’ that you read, I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything but tripe, elitist pomp. The price on an item does not set the intrinsic value of something. A Picasso, about 70 years ago, was inexpensive. Today it is expensive. Does that mean that 70 years ago the same painting wasn’t any good, and that today it is? Is a book of Shakespeare’s about the paper rather than the words? Is fresh air less valuable than smog because it costs more to make smog? Is the ‘love’ from a prostitute better than the love from my wife because it costs more?

    I apologize for my rancour. However, I found the article insulting my tastes for the simple reason that I choose not to spend $25 for a new book when I can pick up, say, a brilliant novel from a classical genius like Balzac or Tolstoy for free from Gutenberg.org.

  3. Posted June 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Claude – great feedback!

    I fully believe that just because the ebook is cheap, doesn’t necessarily meant poor quality. There’s plenty of poor quality ebooks selling for well over $10 as well. The price point is all about market expansion… this theory exists in various industries and will continue to play a dynamic role in the business. It’s why more people buy books at large chains vs. independent retailers. It’s why iTunes sells more music that the thousands of record stores across the country. We’re a price-driven economy and are much more likely to take a chance on something we’re unfamiliar with when it’s a low-risk investment.

  4. Posted June 13, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    “However, I found the article insulting my tastes for the simple reason that I choose not to spend $25 for a new book when I can pick up, say, a brilliant novel from a classical genius like Balzac or Tolstoy for free from Gutenberg.org.”

    You are the reason why an economy which does not support literature because of price will be depressed in due course. Read “Animal Farm” by George Orwell to find out why, when authors and publisher stop writing, your brand of ignorance will bring down that lifestyle you enjoy now.

  5. Steven
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    @Moore

    I did not realize that literature was dying. JK Rowling seems to be surviving. Not really my cup of tea, but she doesn’t seem to be suffering financially. But, if she is suffering because I didn’t buy her book, then I will have to send her an apology letter for not supporting the arts. I guess writing and hiring illustrators for four books (costing me $20,000 for the illustrations alone), teaching children how to read and write as my job, volunteering at distributed proofreaders for a few hours every week to help bring public domain literature to the world, is not enough to support the literary arts.

    The economics surrounding literature is not suffering. It is changing dynamically. People have lost jobs, but new opportunities have also presented themselves. Never in the history of publishing have we had so much. We, as a body, ought to rejoice in our current state rather than dwell in the past. Doing the latter will accomplish nothing.

  6. Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    “We, as a body, ought to rejoice in our current state rather than dwell in the past. Doing the latter will accomplish nothing.”

    And yet you would rather rely on Gutenberg for your selections. No matter what you say, you just keep digging a bigger hole for your argument. I am speaking of the present and the future, not the past. If an author can’t pay the rent he’ll do something else, and the next Twain, Stevenson, Poe, et al, will never be able to prosper in the darkness. Forget JK Rowling, she is the blip in the vast universe of knowledge and philosophy No matter how “qualified” you think you are, you don’t get it and you never will.

  7. Lisa
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm…I recently got drunk on Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe for FREE. I know that old saying, Never Mix, Never Worry, but hey, I was feeling wild…and I was po’.

    No hangover. No regrets. Just a bit of bad punnery. I can live with that.

  8. Steven
    Posted June 15, 2011 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    @Theresa

    I can see that you ignore data to keep your opinions. Since I must ignore Rowling, I’ll have to send a letter to Stephen King and ask if he rents rather than owns his home. How about Meyer? or do I have to ignore all successful and rich, or even average authors before I come to the realisation that one cannot make a living from writing because I chose and choose to go to Gutenberg instead? If an author can’t pay the rent, and that’s his or her sole reason for writing, then he or she ought to go do something else. I won’t bother pointing out the various authors who have managed to put out novels in their spare time (including myself). Clearly you’re not interested in using history or reality to give perspective on the present.

    @ Lisa – last month I finished “A Picture of Dorian Gray.” I was afraid at first that the book would harm my opinion of Oscar, but wow… what an amazing piece of literature.

  9. Posted June 15, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand what your problem is. You keep bashing authors who don’t live up to your imaginary standard. First, you’re not a publisher. You’re a subsidized re-printer of books that were already published.

    If you’re going to call writers out by name, then you’re going to get called out. Why are you putting such negativity out there? Focus on the readers you want and stop saying authors who don’t meet your standards and their readers are some sort of subspecies of readers.

    I’ve got a lot of ‘cheap’ stuff in my 50 plus publisher books. I’ve been making a living as a writer for over 20 years. I’ve been on the NY Times, PW, WSJ, USA Today bestseller lists numerous times. Of course, that’s probably not any accomplishment in your wine world. I’m a beer guy.

    But until your credentials are stronger than working for university and subsidized houses, and you’ve actually done something original, perhaps you should stop bashing those who have?

  10. Posted June 15, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    My apologies– I confused you with someone else. But I still don’t understand why you have to pretend to be on a different level.

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