In my experience as both reader and author, the lack of comprehension and attention to this question has led to more mistakes made in publishing, bookselling, and in authors’ careers than any other factor.
In what follows I’m going to make declarative statements rather than expound and explain (because I could explicate on this topic for hours), but don’t let that put you off questioning and discussing. The purpose of this post is to make everyone stop and think this point through - because we can’t have any meaningful discussion on pricing without a solid understanding of the product we offer our audience.
All writing is judged by how effective it is in achieving its purpose. e.g. scientific papers, travel brochures, how-to manuals, technical reports, and fiction.
There are at least three types of fiction, each with a different purpose.
Literary fiction - is about the arrangement of words on the page and letters in a sentence. Might have a story, might be entertaining, but that is incidental and not the purpose of the literary fiction author. (OED, and also from the lips of major literary fiction authors)
General fiction - is about a subject, illuminating, demonstrating, discussing, revealing, examining, exploring the subject. Usually has a story, sometimes entertaining, but the purpose of the story is first and foremost to elucidate the subject, not to entertain. e.g. Cold Mountain, The Lovely Bones, Annie Proulx’s works, Phillipa Gregory’s works, etc. (listen to any interview with a general fiction author - it’s the subject that matters to them, both story and language are secondary to it)
Genre fiction - is all about the story - a tale told to entertain. Always has a story, and the telling (voice = language used) is critical. The entire focus is on telling a given story in the most effective and audience-engaging way possible. Genre fiction is the province of the storytellers who tell story to entertain.
Yes, there are authors who bridge forms, but they stand outside this discussion.
In shorthand, Literary Fiction is about the writing, General Fiction is about the subject, and Genre Fiction is about telling a story to entertain. These are three very different purposes.
A Potted History of Storytellers:
90,000 years ago - the tribes walk out of Africa. The oldest profession bar none is likely already established (that’s our profession, incidentally; no caveman ever paid for sex, but good storytelling is not something you can seize or force, only barter for or buy)
40 - 45,000 years ago - music starts to evolve; some cave paintings suggest rudimentary story forms
Oral format continues - shamen, bards, minstrels, etc; also troupes - archetypes emerge and evolve
Sole performers continue (Beowolf, Song of Roland, and other heroic tales; fantasy and romance already discernible) - troupes go onto the stage, playwrights emerge.
1400s - Morality plays (? the forerunners of the crime genre)
1440 - Gutenberg invents the printing press
1473 - Caxton establishes printing in London.
Late 1500s - Shakespeare, Marlowe, et al - playwrights are the audience’s darlings; the stage as we know it is established as a storytelling platform
Early 1700s - many sole performers switch from oral format to the written word - print format born, cloth-bound.
1740 - Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (a romance) is one of the earliest bestsellers.
By this time in London, there are 2 distinct publisher types - those publishing “serious” works (the forerunners of literary and general fiction publishers) and those publishing entertaining tales for the masses. All cloth-bound.
Late 1700s to 1800s - Austen, Dickens, Scott, Wollestonecroft, Radcliffe, etc, etc, published with great sucess by the forerunners of mass market publishers
Early 1900s - Movies emerge as another storytelling platform (the death of the book is predicted by those who do not understand the difference between a platform and a format)
1931 - paperback books invented by Albatross Press (Ger)
1935 - paperbacks picked up by Penguin (UK)
1939 - Pocket Books established in US to publish paperback books for the mass audience
1941 - Avon Books established to compete with Pocket.
This led to the format switch from cloth-bound to paperback for genre fiction works.
Genre fiction paperbacks given various tags: penny dreadfuls, pulp fiction, mass market fiction, disposable fiction. Could more accurately be termed entertainment fiction.
- Ancient storytellers all used an oral platform (platforms are delivery media).
- Then came the divergence of some (playwrights) to the stage, a different platform.
- Remaining oral storytelling shifted to the printed word, a platform with much greater reach than oral. For genre fiction authors, our platform/medium is the printed word, but whether that word is printed mechanically or digitally makes no difference to our audience.
- Some playwrights and print storytellers (screenwriters) shifted to the new audio/visual motion picture/TV platform.
Genre fiction authors, most playwrights, most screenwriters, all deliver the same story experience to their audience, each group via a different platform.
Our reality: Genre fiction = entertainment fiction.
Most genre fiction authors know this. Most instinctively and frequently use the sort of language that demonstrates they do. Most, however, promptly forget this fact, our reality, when it comes to making business decisions, and flip to treating Genre Fiction works as Literary or General Fiction works. But they’re not. Different purpose, different product, different audience, hence different market. And different competition, too. Different ecosystem entirely.
Why is understanding all this important in pricing e-books?
a) because the shift from p-books to e-books needs to be seen in historical perspective - it is simply the latest in a series of format shifts the print-storyteller has undergone, from originally oral, to cloth-bound, to paperback - so now to digital.
b) because this is just a format shift, and the product we deliver to our audence hasn’t materially changed since the dawn of time - we are still delivering a largely oral/aural experience, which is why “voice” is so very important in our game.
c) because truly grasping the above illuminates this point: the physical thing that conveys our product to our audience does not itself have any significant value - not to our audience.
For millenia, our audience has valued our works (whether oral, cloth-bound print, paperback and now digital) for the storytelling experience they deliver.
For any piece of entertainment, it’s the experience the audience pays for, not the physical ticket that gets them into the show.
Going forward into next week’s conversation on e-book pricing, we need to first understand what our audience pays us for, and then compare what we deliver in digital format to what we deliver in other formats, and also what our storyteller-colleagues presenting via different platforms (movies, stage, etc) deliver to their audiences (essentially the same audience) and what $ value the audience places on their works in comparison to the $ value the audience places on ours.
In closing, a quick list of the elements audiences value in storytelling-based entertainments (via all platforms):
- reiteration and reaffirmation of the universal human values audiences believe important (justice always triumphs; evil is vanquished by good; love conquers/comes to all; etc)
- actively exercising and strengthening imagination (only genre fiction offers this - it’s a unique property embedded in the way our written words interact with the reader to create the experience the reader perceives)
And finally to repeat: The purpose of this post is to make everyone stop and absorb this point - because we can’t meaningfully address the issue of pricing without a solid understanding of the product we offer our audience.
Lisa Buchan commenting on Mike Shatzkin’s blog comparing the emergence of e-books to the emergence of mass market paperbacks on Mar 14th: “(This) harks back to the old marketing levers of the four "p"s - product, place, promotion and price.”
The last two weeks’ posts have been about “place.” This week’s post is about “product.” Next Friday’s post will be on E-book Pricing - Part 1. The List Price. And the post after that will be about promotional pricing...despite the (r)evolution, nothing much has really changed.
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All blog posts by the author should be viewed as personal opinion and postulation. Said opinions will alter to reflect changing facts.