A Penny for your Thoughts? –Pt. One

30 Oct

When individuals use money, they know very well that there is nothing magical about it–that money, in its materiality, is simply an expression of social relations. . . . The problem is that in their social activity itself, in what they are doing, they are acting as if money, in its material reality, is the immediate embodiment of wealth as such.
     –Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology

One of the things I enjoy about running is the time spent outdoors, away from websites and televisions and cell phones and nearly every distraction, save the occasional armadillo or coyote or neighborhood dog. It affords time for reflection and, when I’m not running alone and when we’re not running especially hard, for conversation.

A few days ago, I was out for an easy run with the cross country team that I coach, and one of my runners asked me about my writing. “Why do you do it?” Scott wanted to know. “Is there any money in it?”

Of course, if you’re reading this on Vouched, then you probably have good answers to both of these questions already. But it did provoke a long conversation about the ways in which writing can become a commodity.

At the beginning, I told him, I wrote a lot of things that weren’t very good. Some of these, I sent to editors who sent back pre-made postcards in the mail or who stuffed photocopied rejection slips into my self-addressed, stamped envelopes. But eventually, I wrote things that were, I hope, better, and a few editors said yes. And then a few more. And then an especially kind editor offered to publish a chapbook.

And then, I told Scott, if you do this long enough and diligently enough, maybe one day you start to get the occasional editor who seeks you out, who asks you to send your work to her journal.

“What about then?” he wanted to know. “Then, do you get paid?”

Not hardly.

But then I told him how enough of these sorts of publications could lead to a book deal, which probably wouldn’t amount to much money, either. But that a book deal (or two, or three) could help a writer secure a teaching or editing position that was paid–so that, if you were lucky, eventually, you’d have a job that paid you to do something else but that supported your writing.

Which brought me back to the question: Why do writers write? I know Stephen King’s answer, of course, but in the world of small presses and independent journals, is it ever about the money?

And of course, my answer is no. The writing is not about the money. And, for that matter, I told him, neither is the running. Now, I’ve met a few elite runners who have sponsorship deals, who are paid to run, but for most people, running isn’t about the money any more than writing is–running a great time in your local 5k race isn’t about the money any more than having a poem published by PANK.

A couple of months ago, Jeff Edmonds–a philosopher and a much better runner than I am–had this to say:

I’ve said this before, and I will say it again: one of the best reasons to run is its utter uselessness as an activity. . . . The fact that a run has no exchange value on the open market is a mark that it, as an experience, cannot be exchanged. Its value, like that of life itself, is inherent and singular.
     –Jeff Edmonds, The Logic of Long Distance

Like a good run, a good poem really has no exchange value on the market. Now, we might pay for it–we might pay the runner who wins a race, or we might pay the poet who excels at the craft–but even in the act of paying, we disassociate the payment from the act. It is not payment for the act, as it might be when we take a car in for repair. When I ordered Matt Bell’s How They Were Found, for instance, or Molly Gaudry’s We Take Me Apart, I didn’t really consider–in a monetary sense–the value of the book, or of the time, or of Matt’s or Molly’s craft; but when I had a new battery installed in my truck last weekend, I certainly considered the value of the battery, of the time, and–to some degree, at least–of the mechanic’s craft.

I know for a fact that I have never written a poem and then said, “This poem is worth ten dollars.” Or a hundred. Or a thousand. Or one.

So why do we buy and sell these things? Why do we, here, right here on this website, ask you to buy books? How do I tell you that a particular book is “worth it”?

When I (finally) made the decision a few months ago to offer a print edition of Willows Wept Review, I agonized. How could I ask people to pay for something to which I could not assign a value?

If Žižek is right in his reading of Marx, if money “is simply an expression of social relations,” then we might begin by asking what the social relations are in independent literature, by asking not only what values we assign those relations but also how we assign them.

What are, we might ask, the economics of expression?

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9 Responses to “A Penny for your Thoughts? –Pt. One”

  1. kmwinkler October 31, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    Wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this, Troy. Žižek is a great touchstone for me.

    “If Žižek is right in his reading of Marx, if money ‘is simply an expression of social relations,’ then we might begin by asking what the social relations are in independent literature, by asking not only what values we assign those relations but also how we assign them.”

    Well, who assigns value? The reader or the writer? The writer has a specific idea, maybe, of what they would like from their art–but more often than not, I don’t think many writers are sure of what they’re own art is worth. None that I know anyway, including myself. Where do artists get there awareness of value, etc.? Is it safe to say that many use the example set by those who came before…? And what did those people base it on?

    Further, how does the reader know what the value is? Why will someone pay $25 for a hardback book in Barnes and Noble, but not $5 for a chapbook? Should not independent artists get just as much back as “professional” artists, whatever that means?

    I think so. I think the prices we see are fair, say, on Chris’s table, if not a tad low, to tell the truth. But that’s how it is. The time and energy that artists put into their work is hard to qualify and assign a value to, but I don’t think we should give up trying to find out how and why.

    I’m guessing that somewhere, someone much smarter than me said that artists starting out must charge a lower fee than those artists who’ve been working for longer. Or, maybe not. Again, if someone really loves the art, they’ll pay what they think it’s worth. Perhaps this is all coming down to compromise. I wonder if Chris would let someone haggle with him for a product on his table?

    • ce. October 31, 2011 at 10:36 am #

      With the rise of eReaders, I don’t think there’s ever been a more pertinent time to ask these exact questions.

      Like Kyle asks, “Why will someone pay $25 for a hardback book in Barnes and Noble, but not $5 for a chapbook?”

      In this case, there’s a very real matter of heft involved–book as commodity, as object, as “size/amount of content.” I think that to the degree that a book as literal heft, there’s an equal degree of how much someone is willing to pay for it. Especially in the American society where people want more and bigger for their dollar.

      But eReaders equalize that to a degree. All a person sees when buying an ebook is whether something is 15pgs or 50pgs. But, it’s not nearly as tangible a gauge as holding 2 books of these sizes in your hand.

      Now more than ever, people are buying expression more than object, which is fascinating to me. And I wonder how this is going to eventually affect pricing models as more and more people recognize that pricing models for print-and-bound books are completely outmoded for ebooks, as people start ascribing more value to the words than in whether a book is hard or paper back, 75 or 150 pages.

      * * *

      Re: the prices on the Vouched table, they are set a bit lower than you’ll find elsewhere, but that’s due in large part to how my mission differs from the mission of other bookstores. Generally, whether a bookstore sells a book for $10 or $12 doesn’t matter in regards to how much the publisher or the author gets paid. The publisher and author’s shares are already accounted for in the wholesale cost of the book.

      For example, I buy “Example: a Novel” from “For Instance Press” for $8/copy. The publisher and author have already set the value they intend to receive for that book. In a certain way, markup beyond that wholesale price determines not what the bookstore values the book to be, so much as what the bookstore values itself to be. I sell “Example: a Novel” for $10, because the cost of my bookstore is very, very low, and I’m not looking to make a living from my sales. My mission is to get books into the world, so I price low to move books.

      B&N on the other hand, has much more overhead to cover than I, so they sell that book at full list price, $14.95. Whether a person buys from me or B&N, For Instance Press still only gets $8 with which to split between themselves and their author.

      It’s not that I value the book less than B&N. To the contrary, I imagine I personally value my books much, much more than B&N does theirs. But, B&N values itself more than I value myself in respect to the books I’m trying to sell.

      With that in mind, sure, I would likely haggle with someone over the price of a book on my table, because what is important to me isn’t making another buck or two, but getting that book into that reader’s hands.

      • kmwinkler October 31, 2011 at 11:25 am #

        Nah, I’m picking up what you’re putting down.

        I understand the mechanics and the “cost” and “value,” but I’m more interested in the aesthetic and consumer driven principles that go behind the choices made on both ends (reader/writer or seller). [Side note: I think what is most interesting is when a good-selling writer decides to break out on his own and self-publish. How does he decide what to charge then?]

        Christopher said: “Now more than ever, people are buying expression more than object, which is fascinating to me. And I wonder how this is going to eventually affect pricing models as more and more people recognize that pricing models for print-and-bound books are completely outmoded for ebooks, as people start ascribing more value to the words than in whether a book is hard or paper back, 75 or 150 pages.”

        This, I think, is the core of your statement, if only because people are leaning more toward expression over object. Not that this is new. This is the way it’s been for a long time. [If a reader dislikes the words, they chuck the book, natch.] Content over the vessel, but now that the vessel is disappearing, what happens to the content? If what you were primarily buying was the cost of the vessel, previously, now what? You’re mostly paying for the content, if not all of it. And I believe folks are skittish when it comes to paying for what they cannot see, or rather, what they immediately cannot see as a physical representation of the abstract thing. [Interestingly, could we say that when you buy a copy of Rothko’s painting or prints that you’re purchasing a part of his anguish and mindset, just as when you buy Kafka’s The Castle, you’re buying a part of his existential despair and angst? Is the fact that we exchange money for such intangibles in the first place a source of this whole problem of “cost” & “value”?]

        In any case, eBooks are fine. Not wonderful, but fine. I just got an iPhone a few days ago, and already put some free eBooks on there, e.g. all of Shakespeare. That’s insane. But what I, and most readers, want is stability, physically. Books offer stability of content. I know that the pages will be there, and I can visibly see where I exist in the text with regard to how deep I am in the reading. The book won’t vanish or crash, unless I light it on fire or shred it.

        eBooks are stable in a different way. A Kindle or a Nook or an iPhone relies on electricity to function. This is a buffer to accessing content. If physical books required passwords, etc. then I’d be of a different mind here, but so far as I can gather, an eReader than runs on sunlight or human static electricity isn’t in existence.

        I mean, how much does effort cost? By what metric do we measure? And why? What makes me think that I can have what you thought up for free or for a dollar? And whose call is it?

        What’s truly fascinating and terrifying here is whether we value another’s thoughts, if at all.

        Discuss.

        • kmwinkler October 31, 2011 at 11:33 am #

          I want to add that while we buy books for content, I have to admit that I’ve bought books I’ll never read simply for their aesthetic look, or the way the font is set-up. I’m into ephemera that way.

          And many of the books, etc. that Christopher sells are well-made books that people buy for [I hope] the content and the vessel. It’s a whole package.

          This is what I think people complain about when they say that they will miss books or don’t want books to vanish.

          I doubt that the human species will fall so in love with content that we dismiss the necessity of physical appearance. Last time I checked, we were still quite a sensuous species that liked to touch, smell, hear, and see what we’re playing with. Books are no exception. The smell of paper and binding glue, the sound of the deckle edge against the thumbpad, and the sight of a glossy cover will last because the body desires those stimuli. When you combine the physical engagement and response with a book on top of the mental stimulation that good content offers, then the marriage is complete and beautiful.

          This is why books are singular and why they’ll last.

    • ce. October 31, 2011 at 10:38 am #

      I think I just did a crappy job of differentiating “cost” and “value” in that response…

      I hope you guys can parse where I meant what.

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