Monday, May 12, 2008

What is a book worth?

Over the last few years as Smashwords gestated in my head, I spent a lot of time contemplating the furious changes to come as digital books make their way to the Internet.

In physical form, a book has characteristics that cause most of us to apply value to it - we may appreciate the cover art, its display is crisp and sharp, it's durable, it's portable, it has weight and substance in our hands, it looks sharp in our library, it tends to smell better with age, and simply reading it in public is form of self-expression.

Simply by transforming a book to digital form, we strip away the physical and have a product that is more ethereal. We also change the perceived value of the book in the eyes of the consumer. Now in digital form, a book is little more than words and images that must compete with all the other forms of information dissemination, knowledge sharing and entertainment, most of which can be had for essentially FREE on the Internet.

So what does this mean for authors and the future of writing? Are digital books moving toward free? Considering the Smashwords business model is predicated on taking a 15% cut of sales, I certainly hope we don't go all free. And as an author who put several hundred hours of work into my own novel, I admit I desire some form of monetary compensation.

Over the weekend, I posed this question to authors over at LinkedIn, asking if we need to broaden our definition of author compensation, and the responses are quite interesting (check them out). Most authors answered they want compensation in cold hard cash. The idea of alternate measures of compensation, such as fame or enhanced credibility, is anathema to most authors who have responded so far. Several have pledged to stop writing without compensation.

The debate is fascinating to me because for years, traditional print publishing - the ideal most authors aspire to as the sign of success - has failed to offer adequate compensation to all but a few authors.

What do you think?

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