Leave Your Egos at the Door, Please

Jun 21, 2012 | Opinions

Words on paper“The consumer [says] ‘Where’s my free music on the internet? Is this a free download?’ Fuck off! It cost me a quarter of a million pounds to make it, you’re not getting it for nothing. I want my quarter of a million back, thank you very much. That’s why we’re rock stars.”

Noel Gallagher, famous British singer of the band Oasis.

An ego is a terrible thing to waste. C’mon, Noel, tell us how you really feel about your fans. It’s okay. Only some of them will be too offended by your attitude to buy your new album.

It never ceases to amaze me that artists take this kind of tack; that the mere act of them spending money on and ascribing value to their work means that everyone, everywhere, could spend money on and ascribe the same value to it. This is absolutely, obviously, not the case at all. We all make our own judgements on the value of certain objects, especially in art. There are people who would walk through fire to own a genuine Jackson Pollack, and there are just as many who would be happy to chuck it into the fire to rid the world of a little perceived ugliness.

Two days ago, David Lowery of the Tricordist blog posted a long article in the form of a letter to one individual music pirate, but that really addressed all pirates. Their main point – that there are no excuses, and one should pay for music, for many many reasons – is outside the scope of my blog, of course, but I found it interesting in how they ascribed value, and how those they addressed did the same.

A Difference in Value

Here’s two reasons they describe that people give to avoid paying for music.

  • It’s OK not to pay for music because record companies rip off artists and do not pay artists anything.
  • Artists can make money on the road (or its variant “Artists are rich”).

I have also heard the following:

  • The music isn’t legally available in their region.
  • The consumer has already bought it once in another format.
  • The consumer can’t afford it.
  • The music is available, but not in a format that the consumer can use.

These reasons are all quite well established, and can be applied to ebooks, apart from the whole ‘on the road’ thing. Let’s not argue about the rightness or wrongness of them for a moment. Let’s look at the basic underlying current; what people really mean when they say ‘this is why I didn’t pay.’

“I didn’t value it enough to pay money for it.”

A musician labored for years to learn how to play, and spent many hours and a lot of money working on an album. They have invested heavily in it. They value it.

The consumer has not and does not. They don’t care that it cost years or huge sums of cash.

The Author’s Dilemma

An artist has to be invested in the work for it to really shine. Authors are no different. But they also need to be realistic in a way that the recording industry doesn’t seem to be right now. The Trichordist article has an undercurrent of righteous fury that comes from placing value on their work, and they expect that everyone will share in that value, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I see the same undercurrent in many articles from the publishing industry regarding ebook piracy, and even among indie authors regarding pricing. I hear the sentiment, “I think my work is worth $5.99, so I’m going to price it at $5.99.”

No. Leave your ego at the door. Your work is not worth the price you choose – it’s worth the price the reader chooses. If that price doesn’t match the number on your listing, then you won’t make the sale. The trick is to pick the price that grants you as much profit per sale as possible, while being the ‘right’ price for as many people as possible. That sweet spot is where you maximize revenue and make the most money. Never think that pricing low or pricing at nothing devalues your work – it only does in your eyes, because you already value it so highly.

The dilemma is this: you, the author, must be invested in your work. You put it out there with the knowledge of your years of practice, with the hope that you told the best story possible, with the belief that it has a tremendous amount of value. At the same time, you also have to not be invested in it; to view it dispassionately as a product to sell, with a precise value that can be judged on profits and loss and in the response of your readers. You have to be prepared to accept that some people place no value on it at all.

The Way Forward

One thing that largely struck me about the Trichordist article is that, in the midst of this probably somewhat justified righteous fury, David spent a very long time explaining why ascribing no value to music is wrong. He presents many arguments that it’s wrong, and listening to music without valuing it enough to pay for it is illegal, and that people should value music and pay for it because musicians need to eat. All well and good, but he misses one important fact: this is not going to work. As Ben Goldacre said, “You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.” Someone’s judgement of value is a gut decision, not a rational one.

Reasoned arguments in this vein, or even excessive guilt-tripping, will not convince people of the value of a work. David is essentially telling them that music has value, not showing them that it does. And, as all authors know, there’s a big difference between showing and telling.

The only thing that will really convince people is if the artist (or author) proves that the work has value. Successful artists know this, even subconsciously; Amanda Palmer being the most obvious one. At the most basic level, delivering value comes in many forms; personal connections, extra material, backstage access, the feeling of inclusion and sharing. (Yes, sharing. Through Bittorrent. Through piracy. And combating piracy, by threatening lawsuits and imposing strict DRM measures, does more to destroy value than anything else an artist may do.)

And now we come back to marketing, or at least the kind of marketing that I espouse for authors. This is the heart of it; convincing people to pay for what you’re selling by showing them the value of it.

Even in marketing, just telling people that your book has value and they should pay for it tends to fail at making sales.