“Art” is a broad category, especially for a blog which largely discusses literature – so let us be up front that novels are a form of art, but a peculiar one. As such, I intend to start by setting out some general principles, and then applying them to the valuing of novels and literature more specifically; I am sure the arguments I intend to apply there also apply to other forms of art, such as film and comics, but I don’t know as much about the nature of the contracts and ins-and-outs in those instances. It’s also worth noting that a certain amount of acceptance of the underlying realities of a capitalist world are implied by the arguments of this post, despite a personal disbelief in their actual merits.
The price of artwork is often determined by a combination of the cost of materials involved in the creation of that art – especially true of jewelry and textile art – and a degree of standard capitalist supply-and-demand balance; while each artwork is unique, that does not mean they are not also to some extent exchangeable for each other. This is true despite the huge range of pricing one can see in any artform; this is in part driven by perceived status (an Etsy seller rarely has the cachet to charge the prices standard at top-of-the-range high street jewelry stores, despite in many cases being of at least equivalent standard).
Part of the pricing of art by dealers is often neglected by direct sellers, and it is in fact the most important part: time-cost. To use the standard parlance, there is an opportunity cost in creating art; it takes time, and that time cannot then be spent on other things. For instance, two hours spent producing a pencil sketch of a cathedral are two hours that cannot be spent producing a watercolour of a picturesque bridge, and this is a calculus that commercial artists consistently have to deal with; time spent on non-creative work is seen as priceable, but often, the work of artists is not.
This is especially true of the work of novelists, as discussion about the appropriate pricing of ebooks demonstrates. Ebook pricing debate largely focuses on the difference in “value” between an electronic and a physical, paper book; and that difference is in the physical artefact and the logistics involved in getting that physical artefact from printers’ warehouses, to distributors’, to the homes of individual consumers (via, in many cases, the shelves of bookshops) – a nonzero cost involving employee time and physical resources (space, among others) at each and every step. Charles Stross’ series of posts about publishing, archived here, explains why the cost of producing ebooks is actually very close to the cost of producing physical volumes; but that still leaves out one crucial point.
That is the payment of authors. Typically, authors are paid advances by publishers; Tobias Buckell’s survey of authors, albeit conducted a decade ago, suggested that the average advance for a first novel (hence, the novel of a writer of low expected sales potential – the advance reflecting the “value” of the work produced, not huge sales) was around $5,000. That’s a nice round number, so it’s what this post will work with to keep things simple. If we assume a book, from start to finish (including edits), takes around 200 hours to write (that’s a little over an hour a day for six months), the publishing industry values the work of an author as a moderately skilled job – around $25/hour (if an author works full time on their book, that is around 5 weeks work; it’s the equivalent of a comfortable annual salary of around $50,000).
The reason we pay what we do for a book is that we’re paying that money. We’re paying the author for their novel; initially for that basic time input of 200 hours and then a performance-based bonus (royalties). The big benefit brought by publishers is spreading that time out across all buyers of the novel; one commissioning individual does not have to pay $5,000 for a piece of art, instead, each buyer of the book pays $10 for it, but the author still receives their dues for creating art, something which – as aforementioned – is valuable labour.
So let’s stop slamming publishers for overcharging for books, and start thanking them for saving us from having to pay $5,000 for that copy of Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear or Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison or Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie or Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. Because that distribution of cost is what makes it possible for writers to write full time… and for readers like me to buy books at all.