Where is the external social value for marginal book reading?

Let’s assume books — at the margin of course — bring some external social value, perhaps by stimulating ideas production or by improving the quality of voting and citizenship.  If that were the case, at which margin should we look for this external benefit?  I can think of a few possibilities:

1. More books should be produced.  Yet this hardly seems plausible, as there are so many books produced right now and most of them are largely ignored.  In any case, Amazon clearly makes a larger number of books readily accessible, although its lower prices may discourage the number of books longer run.

2. Better books should be produced.  Arguably this is true by definition, but it is not a useful means of evaluating most proposed changes to the book market.  That said, Amazon creates an open forum for useful reviews.  That may improve long-run book quality, or at least lead to a more useful matching of readers with books.

3. Books should be cheaper and thus purchased and read more often.  Maybe so, but public libraries give books away for free — great books too — and their shelves are not stripped bare.  So making commercial books cheaper will get us only so far.  If all books were completely free, reading would go up by only so much, because time and attention would remain scarce.  In any case, with reference to the recent debates, Amazon does in fact make books cheaper.

4. Books should be more vivid in the minds of readers.  People would read more if the books meant more to them and that is a more effective lever than simply making books cheaper.  You will note of course that “buzz” can make books more vivid, and so Piketty’s Capital became a vivid book for a large number of people.  They bought it, though most of them did not read past page 26.  So even making books more vivid will not necessarily bring about the desired end of additional interested readership.  That said, Amazon does create various lists to try to boost the buzz around books, and Amazon tries to raise the relative status of reading and book-buying more generally.

It is in fact not so easy to specify how we might reap significant additional social benefits from the current book market.  The real externality, if there is one, lies in improving the humans not the books.

In the meantime, Amazon, in its current configuration, seems to be producing some marginal social benefits.

Comments

'Amazon does in fact make books cheaper'

Again, Baen disagrees - 'Toni Weisskopf has posted a series of messages to the Baen Bar indicating major changes in the offing for the Baen Ebooks (nee Webscriptions) store. Baen is finally on the verge of getting its titles placed directly into Amazon (and is negotiating with others such as Barnes & Noble, etc.) The problem is, that comes with pesky contractual obligations.

The changes amount to the following:

“Old” bundles containing books that have already been published will no longer be available for bundle-priced purchase. (Already-purchased ones should still be available for download, though it is possible some books may need to be removed. Some books may need to be removed from the Baen Free Library as well; Toni hopes to get advance notice when such removals are necessary, but recommends backing them up while you can.)

Future Webscription-style e-book bundles will be still be available for purchase as serialized pre-publications only until the official publication date, after which they become single-purchase-only titles (in order not to run afoul of that pesky contractual price-matching). Prices for backlist e-books will be going up, too; instead of $6, e-books of books whose print edition is currently hardcover will be $9.99, trade paperback $8.99, and mass market paperback $6.99.

E-ARCs—the $15 advance-peek advance reader copy e-books Baen offers—will be unaffected; since they will always be sold only through Baen itself and are no longer sold after the book’s official publication, there will be no need to change them.' http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/baen-inks-deal-with-amazon-makes-major-changes-to-webscriptions-and-free-library/

That's right - previously free books are no longer being offered by their publisher, apparently because Amazon has a real problem with free. Baen didn't, and neither did the authors of the works previously available.

'In the meantime, Amazon, in its current configuration, seems to be producing some marginal social benefits.'

Not to mention an extremely reliable revenue stream for its affiliates.

No one is saying Amazon makes every book cheaper or even every type of book cheaper, but you already knew that.

Your observation stands in contrast to this point, from 1. - 'In any case, Amazon clearly makes a larger number of books readily accessible, although its lower prices may discourage the number of books longer run.'

Amazon is much like Wal-mart - the deep faith that people have in its 'lower prices' is fascinating. At least when it comes to e-books, a market Amazon is just as eager to ensure has an artificially high floor price as any traditional publisher. In the case of the Baen e-books, Amazon forced the price of an already produced item, with essentially no marginal reproduction cost, to be increased.

Mainly because Amazon is extremely uninterested in lower prices as an ideal.

But let's look at an authors view Amazon's pricing policy -

'You can’t list your books as “free” at Amazon, but I’d received a few tips on how to force a book to become free there, through price matching. One of the methods was to get your book into the premium catalogue at Smashwords, and when it was offered for free at other retailers, it would automatically become free at Amazon. Despite enlisting friends to report the book as free to the price matching people at Amazon, the book remained $2.99 USD.

Hmm.

So, I consulted another self-pubber, who explained that if the book hadn’t been offered for free on Amazon before, I had as much of a chance as a sparrow fart in a wind tunnel at getting it listed for free forever. How do I get my book listed for free on Amazon? I had to either traverse the hills of Av’Enlee, slay the two-headed ogre, Frax, steal his enchanted pendant, take it to the wizard in Fa’al, and with his assistance, perform the ritual of the Seven Stars.

Or, I could enroll it in KDP Select.

The rules of the KDP Select program are pretty straightforward. You allow your book to be published exclusively on Amazon for a period of ninety days. During this time, anyone who is an Amazon Prime member can read the book for free. Also during this time, you can schedule a five day free download promotion. After the ninety days are up, you’re free to opt out of the program and offer the book on different platforms for however much you want.

At first, I was like, “Okay, I’ll take down the Smashwords copies, and leave my blog up.” And then I saw in the TOS that you can’t offer the content on your blog. So, for right now, the blog version of The Boss is set to private. It will be come public again when the KDP Select promotion is over. It will also be available again through Smashwords and other retailers, like B&N and iTunes.

I’m not happy that it has to be done this way. I’ve had a lot of people give me other solutions (“just list your book with x retailer and Amazon will match the price!”), but the overwhelming advice I’ve received has been to just buckle down and accept the KDP terms, because it’s the simplest, surest way of achieving results.

So, for eight-five days, The Boss will only be available to Amazon Prime members and people who want to pay $2.99 USD for it. At some point, it will become free on Amazon, and hopefully after the ninety days are up, it will be free again all over– including the blog, which will once again be public.' http://jennytrout.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/hey-where-did-the-boss-go/

Obviously, this author seems to feel Amazon plays a major role in the marketplace, to the extent that she removed content from her own blog, as part of an attempt to allow her readers to be able to acquire it for free from Amazon. And it isn't as if Amazon doesn't understand the idea of a loss leader.

"Mainly because Amazon is extremely uninterested in lower prices as an ideal"

Isn't that exactly why many people hate Amazon? That they are lowering value somehow by making things cheaper? If the above statement is required to be true in order to prove your point, you are going to need a lot more than a few anecdotes and hypothetical future pricing deals. Both publishers and investors are yelling from the rooftops that Amazon is evil because lower prices are their ONLY ideal.

If you are evil enough, you can be evil for contradictory reasons. Amazon can be simultaneously evil because it deprives producers of high prices and because it deprives consumers of low prices. Only the superficial Anglo-Saxon mind is bothered by this paradox. As someone once said, "We do not want higher bread prices. We do not want lower bread prices. We do not want the same bread prices. We want National Socialist bread prices!"

Perhaps most importantly - books should be shorter, much shorter.Vast majority of arguments require far less than 20 pages to explain; most stories need far less than 100 pages to unfold. Especially fiction genre is full of meaningless word padding and multi-page long depictions. I can't count the number of 200+ page books that could really be summarized on 5 pages.

Or conversely, magazine articles should be longer.

If they wanted a summary they wouldn't have gone past Wikipedia. A well-written work is well worth reading. So much more can be worked in beyond a summary of "A has problem, meets B, battles fought, twists, turns, someone dies/gets married/goes back to old life/starts new life/(however it ends).

But probably you are right that in many cases writers pad with extra words to make it to some target length when then should have left it shorter, and others fail to edit out the stuff that doesn't contribute much.

"A well-written work is well worth reading", that is difficult to determine prior to possibly wasting a lot of time and purchasing the work.

I don't think you get the point of fiction.

He doesn't get that 98% of all fiction published can be reduced to the three digit number indexing into the list of fiction plots and twists.

But reading that list is really boring.

Clearly, most non-fiction works in the popular categories are grossly padded. Most books by academics wouldn't lose a thing by cutting out the middle third. Are there no editors at publishing houses? Or do publishers simply require their authors to hit a page target, which typically means expanding a 150-page idea into 300 pages? Most of these don't deserve to be read, only skimmed.

Good book reviewers add a lot of value (although most reviews aren't very good). For example, social scientist Graham H. Seibert has written a very large number of highly informative reviews of nonfiction books on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A20O7GFP55GFZB/ref=cm_cr_rdp_pdp

@maros, I agree in principle that books can and should be shorter.

However, many buyers like volume, even when excessive. They want large portion sizes in restaurants, even when eating that much is impractical, impossible, or just unhealthy. They want long video games - people complain all the time about how this one or that one was great, but it only provided 5 hours of entertainment, where a lesser game might be praised for lasting 20 hours.

When people buy X, one of the main feelings, maybe the main feeling, they're looking for is, "Now I don't have to think about buying another X for a while."

About 20 years or so ago, I made the same point to a man at Penguin: biographies were getting far too massive. What Penguin should do is hire excellent writers to write short biographies that give fresh points of view on important figures, even if the famous writer didn't do years of archival research on his subject.

A few years later, Penguin did exactly what I had suggested: commision outstanding writers to pen short biographies.

This new line turned out to be a huge flop in the marketplace. The public, it turned out, hates short books.

"When people buy X, one of the main feelings, maybe the main feeling, they’re looking for is, “Now I don’t have to think about buying another X for a while.”"

Excellent point.

I prefer movies to television because after two hours, the movie is over over. I can't watch more than six hours of any TV drama, no matter how good (e.g., even "Breaking Bad"), because after six hours I get it, and now I am looking for something new and thus more interesting. I'll invest six hours in exploring somebody who is really interesting's worldview but diminishing marginal returns rapidly set it. I can't stay interested in what ultimately happens to his fictional characters 60 hours later because, after all, they are fictional characters. (All the unsatisfactory final episodes of famous TV series suggests that their creators' didn't think the ultimate outcome is all that important either.)

Clearly, though, this is a minority viewpoint.

'Maybe so, but public libraries give books away for free — great books too — and their shelves are not stripped bare.'

There is a cost to getting to the library. A fine if you forget to take the books back in time. Some libraries allow renting of digital books over the internet but it can be difficult to work.

Would the modern equivalent of the Victorian idea of a public library be some sort of government sponsored bittorrent? That paid book producers and reduced the costs of getting books to readers even further than bricks and mortar libraries?

For me, it is a marketing problem. Obtaining a book (buying/renting) takes more time than supermarket shopping and the link between reviews and recommendations online and what you find in the bookshop/library/secondhand shop is purely manual - it's whatever you remember or take notes about. Online book buying doesn't work for everyone - not everyone lives in a developed country, plus some people like to flick through the book before buying. But the idea of having various data sets that you can play with to help you find a book you want is great - date, author characteristics, reviews, length, genre etc. If I could get a book within 1 minute, I would read lots more, as would many other people who hate shopping.

Is Tyler sponsored by Amazon?

No - he just earns a certain amount of money from each book ordered from Amazon with a link back to this web site (note the 'tag=marginalrevol-20' in Amazon URLs) as an affiliate. Probably somewhere around a middling several thousand dollars a year, not that such figures will ever be published here.

According to Alex, the amount made is about enough to cover some of Tyler's own book habit.

Tyler makes millions, perhaps billions from Amazon.

Why does Amazon prick The Conscience Of A Liberal? It's not like the barriers to entry in that business are so dauntingly high. Paul Krugman can develop a business plan, get financing, and pay authors whatever he thinks the market will bear. Like talk radio. If you think it's too conservative, get some investors and start your own progressive gabfest. Call it ... Air America. Wait, I see I answered my own question. What's bugging Krugman is that the barriers to entry aren't high enough.

It's funny how establishmentarian the Left has become. Like some Southern planter guffawing over the idea that a mechanical harvesting machine can outperform a stout team of darkies.

Re #4. Are we all in agreement that "of course 'buzz' can make books more vivid"? I have no idea what this means. It sounds like complete bollocks.

The biggest externality comes when parents read books to kids, passing the reading virus on to their progeny.

This.

If you want your children to be readers, read to them every day starting the day they are born.

Your newborn infant will be super annoyed if you drone on at them from behind a musty book instead of cuddling with them skin-to-skin.

Because it's impossible to do both at the same time. (eyeroll emoji)

I just text a book emoji, followed by a kissy emoji, to my 3 month old right before he goes to bed. It's called the 21st century, maybe you folks should try it out?

Here's the rub; for most books that could have a wide audience today, the cost isn't the factor limiting their utility. They are limited in the time and attention, as mentioned. So, the best way to increase the marginal utility is to simply cut the unnecessary verbiage. Many popular non-fiction books could be reduced to one or two good paragraphs. Of course, that would pose a difficulty for the authors.

Is this like saying, "most lessons could be reduced to 1 or 2 minutes. Of course, this would be bad for the teachers"? Why have I been sending my kids to swim class all the time!

Yes, because learning information/bits is the same as learning not to drown. (eyeroll emoji again...Cliff you are on a roll!)

Let's be fair - learning not to drown can take longer than an individual's lifespan.

2. Since when do reviews drive anything? This seems to ignore basic economics.

5. Books the reader has reason to find and read should be easier to find and read. And it should be easier for the reader to find and read the best books that address their want or need.

The limiting factors are time and attention, followed by money and capacity for hassle.

The web in general, large book sellers in general, and amazon in particular help somewhat.

Big-name authors should write shorter books.

Did you ever notice that when an author gets to be a truly big-name author, publishers and editors no longer dare to demand the book be cut to a reasonable length?

Now, some books really do need 600 or 800 pages. But, many that are that length would have been far better had they been mercilessly cut.

I'm not sure about more books produced, but certainly more books becoming more readily available and discoverable is of benefit. Such at it is, then more ideas/thoughts are out there to be synthesized by a reader. I personally have found old, out of copyright books that have been scanned online to be of great benefit. Books, I would most likely not have found in the brick and mortar world unless I for some reason found myself locked inside one of the few libraries that still held a copy. But now, a few minutes online can produce many treasures. The same is possible with current books although they do generally require the commitment to a purchase and therefore more interest to spark the effort.

public libraries give books away for free — great books too — and their shelves are not stripped bare

There is also a "death before inconvenience" issue here: while public libraries give away great books, one has to be able to navigate them, have one proximate, (often) wait for a book, remember to return it, etc. It takes me at least half an hour in friction costs to get a library book.

A $5 Kindle book that takes five seconds to start reading may be a fundamentally different good.

Regarding #1, I think it's clear that Amazon has shown there is a market at the sub $5 price point that wouldn't be profitable if you had to invest in advertising, inventory, etc.

Regarding minimum viable length for a book, I tend to think that any nonfiction book of less than about 300 pages is at best a light diversion and usually a waste of time. That goes double for biographies.

Consider Lincoln, who died very young at 56. 300 pages is just six pages a year for a life that included a complicated early family life, several businesses, a law practice, early stabs at a political career, the breakup of the Whig party and the formation of the Republicans, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a Presidential run and oh, yes, the Civil War. If any of those topics get more than six pages a year, the rest get even less.

With minor exceptions, such as contemporaries writing about their experiences interacting with Lincoln, any biographer who has anything to say about the man is going to take 600 pages to do it.

What happens on page 26?

Why do books need an "external social value" for this to matter? Let's say the only value of books is entertainment. Does that change points 1,2,3 or 4? I thought economists generally assumed that if people are willing to pay money for something, it has value.

When economists get paid, however ....

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