Question: Has The Internet Devalued The Written Word?

fresh-1126222-mI was hanging in a coffee shop the other day with a group of writers when one of them lamented that the internet had devalued writing. I whole-heartedly agreed at the time, but then, being the neurotic sort that I am, I began to parse through the issue.

Glass Half-Empty: “When anyone can publish a book on the Internet, anyone will.”

The advance of technology forever changed our literary landscape. Do-It-Yourselfers turned a calm, staid book buying experience–something akin to shopping for an alpaca sweater at Barney’s–into a hot, sweaty Calcutta bazaar. Case in point: On Twitter yesterday, close to 80% of the tweets contained automated “Look at my book!” links. Enough already. I’m not going to buy your flippin’ steampunk assassins novel, especially when you can’t be bothered to spend ten seconds on a real-time tweet. M’kay?

Glass Half-Full: “The internet is the great equalizer.”

The advance of technology forever changed our literary landscape. No, that’s not a repetitive typing mistake. I, myself, am part of that sweaty Calcutta bazaar, though, I hope the classier section that contains brass statues and hand-loomed rugs. And if it hadn’t been for self-publishing, I might still be on sub. Heck, I could be on sub today and not even know it considering the fact that I recently received a rejection on a TWO YEAR OLD query in which the editor had actually expressed interest. Zzzzzzz……

No matter which side of the coin you find shiniest, you can’t deny that the internet has altered how and where we access information. We want it now, while we stand in line at the grocery store or pump gas or hover over our Big Macs. Sadly, once-revered words have become a cheap commodity, skimmed in the margins of our day with a flick of the thumb. Or have they? Discerning readers still value those organized by a skilled hand. Right?

And then I stumbled across an indie author who crystallized everything.

He’s got a (relatively) successful series that’s received (mostly) positive reviews and then a real stinker with a terrible cover and a low rating for .99 cents. On closer inspection, I discovered that the bad apple in the barrel wasn’t a novel, but a twenty page short story–a respectable length for this kind of thing, I might add. The reason for the bad reviews? People didn’t like paying “that much” for “that little.” Then, to add insult to injury, the author added a caveat in the description (probably because of the bad reviews), “warning” readers that they were about to buy a short work and apologizing for not being able to charge less due to Amazon’s pricing system. I was incensed! Even if the author didn’t labor over the story ad infinitum, it still probably took him several days to write and edit it and the average person thirty minutes to read it. Why the ire? The cup of Starbucks I bought that evening in the coffee shop cost $4.50 (don’t judge me, I like the extras), and I drank it in about fifteen minutes. The conclusion is obvious: words, indeed, have become a cheap commodity, cheaper than a cup of joe.

Then I took a closer look at his other books, the ones that were selling reasonably well. They were .99 cents, too (this wasn’t a temporary sale, but the normal price). No wonder readers were angry! The author offered both his 250 page novels and a 20 page short story for the same price! Folks, he sank his own battleship. Of course, after I thumbed through a few of his samples, I understood why he needed to sell them for that little: lots of exposition, accidental repetition, stilted and obvious dialogue, the list goes on… Still, he was selling, and this undoubtedly supported his side gig of teaching workshops to newbie authors. (“See my shiny books? I’m successful. You can trust me.”)  I then drew a new conclusion: words are cheap, but only when they need to be or have to be.

Bottom Line: The internet didn’t devalue the author’s work; the author devalued the author’s work.

I’m not advocating price gouging. I’ll leave that to the big guys. Though I am advocating charging a fair price for hard work (temporary sales notwithstanding). No matter how or where words are delivered, they have value, even on the internet. But there’s no denying that some command a higher price than others. To bring back the coffee analogy, if you’re serving up Sanka, you’re going to have to sell at Sanka prices. (that’s cheap instant coffee, for those of you who don’t know) But if you’re offering a cappuccino, do yourself a favor and charge what’s right. Where am I in all this? Probably not Starbucks. That’s the corporate end of java. I’m more like the artsy coffee house, hidden on a side street, frequented by regulars. One day, I may find myself on main street, slinging my strange brew to hordes of readers. But it won’t be because I priced it too low.

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Where do you stand on this issue? Glass half-full or empty? Do you think the author devalued their own work? Or do you think low prices are the only way to compete in the current marketplace?

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