Thursday, March 17, 2011

SO YOU WRITE FICTION. WHICH FICTION? ...or we need to explore what our product delivers to our customers before we try to price or market it.

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.
To summarize:
- 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):
  1. escape
  2. 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)
  3. 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.
CAVEAT: Nothing posted on this blog, or in its comments, should involve commercially sensitive information. Contracted authors please exercise due diligence in your comments.
All blog posts by the author should be viewed as personal opinion and postulation. Said opinions will alter to reflect changing facts.


  1. I agree with everything you say up until this paragraph:

    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...

    I don't think this is the way that things are priced.

    Once upon a time, the way to make sure you had constant access to a story was to make sure that you had a troupe of players as part of your retinue. If you wanted to see a play, it was quite simple: you had to pay to support a troupe.

    Were plays "worth" the cost of supporting a troupe? Well, of course they were--they gave the nobleman prestige, particularly if the troupe was any good, in addition to entertainment. But this is entirely the wrong question to ask. The question is not "what is X worth?" but "for how many people is X worth Y?"

    Then someone came up with the fairly revolutionary idea of theater. Instead of having ONE person pay for the entire cost, they could collect a few pennies from a huge massive audience.

    Did this mean that the "worth" of the performance went from the cost of patronage to a few pennies? No, of course not.

    This is a vast oversimplification of what actually happened, but I hope you'll forgive it, because it illustrates a point that I think is missing in this discussion so far: Price serves an exclusionary function.

    For instance, I, personally, do not see movies in the theater except on very rare occasions. That is because the $10 for a movie ticket is too expensive--for me. Does this mean that a movie's not worth $10? Sure--to me.

    We can't talk about what an item is "worth," because the worth varies from person to person. There are individual books that have been worth thousands of dollars to me, for the impact they had on my life when I read them. There are books that were worth maybe fifty cents. All were priced at $7.99. And my fifty cent book may well be someone else’s thousand-dollar book.

    This is not exactly a revolutionary concept, of course--it's a basic macroeconomic demand curve. If you price a product at $10, the people who will buy it are those who get a value of $10 and up. If you price a product at $8, the people who will buy it are those who get a value of $8 and up. If you price it at $4, the people who will buy it are those who get a value of $4 and up.

    As a general rule, more people will buy at $8 than at $10. There are exceptions, naturally, but I think that it would be hard to argue, based on the mounds and mounds of empirical data out there, that books fall into that category of exception. One need only compare hardcover sales of a title to mass market sales to see this at work.

    This is why the advent of the VCR made the movie industry a boatload of money: because the audience for movies at $10 was small, but the audience for movies at $2 was much, much larger.

    But the point is this: where you set price can't be about what a product is "worth" because that isn't a set value. For every product, someone will think it's not worth it and someone else will think that it's a steal.

    Pricing is about finding a price that maximizes income based on the profit per item times the number of people who purchase the item. I’m not sure what you even mean when you use words like “our audience” because the audience we have to date is a function of price.

    I have to admit to some trepidation that you are going into the pricing discussion with a focus on "value," while assuming that "audience" remains static.

  2. I'd also like to add that with a product comes expectations. For example, Google books is proposing that readers have a library that it is stored online. Which means readers could only read their books when hooked up to the internet. I would never go for that, it's inconvenient and it certainly wouldn't ever give me the feeling that I've actually 'bought' the book and it is mine.

    My expectation of a print book is that I can read it until it's dog-eared. That I can let my sister read it or my friend. I can later donate it to a library when I'm completely done with it.

    My expectation in going to a movie is that I will get precisely 2-3 hours of entertainment, watching it on a big screen. When I purchase a DVD, I know I will be able to watch that movie whenever and wherever I want.

    So I don't think it's 'all' about a set value of a product. Or perhaps it is, but the value is different for every reader depending on what their expectation of it is. And only we, the readers, can say how much we are willing to pay for what is being offered.

  3. It sounds like there are different components to the "product."

    First, there's the story, the entertainment itself. The time spent reading (or in the case of a movie, watching; a CD, listening).

    Second, there's the physical product: the electrons (digital format, but it's still physical to some extent), or the DVD or CD or physical book that has some intrinsic value (e.g., resale or donation to the library). Some people are collectors by nature, and that physical product has value, in addition to the story/entertainment product.

    Third, there's another nontangible product: the right to re-experience the story/entertainment product at will, which comes with the physical product.

    They can all be separated out for pricing purposes -- I'd be perfectly happy, for instance, to "rent" a book that I'm likely to only read once, getting it in either physical or electronic form and returning it (or having the electrons dissipate) at the end of the rental period, the way a service like Netflix works for visual entertainment. Then, I'd be paying for one piece of the product, the intangible entertainment value, without the physical product or the right to experience the entertainment value again.

  4. I so agree with the above - to me, the price for any entertainment product (as distinct from the worth to any individual - a completely different concept) is always set by the audience - and that's audience en masse, not an individual. No matter if producers, theaters, publishers and book distributors might like to believe they set the prices, what they do is more by way of negotiation - they suggest a price, and the audience either says "yes, please" or yawns.

    So yes, options matter to the audience, as do expectations - all these factor into what the audience is willing to pay. My tack for the coming Friday - E-Book Pricing Pt1. The List Pirce - approaches the subject from exactly that angle - by asking the question: What is the audience willing to pay? And does that make any sense that we can see?

  5. Pricing is about finding a price that maximizes income based on the profit per item times the number of people who purchase the item.

    This. What the market will bear. Which may or may not be what the producer can bear.