Bought a book of mythic and legendary castles, illustrated by Alan Lee, for $5 at the Printer’s Row book fair. For some reason, I’m as excited for this book as I was for David Macaulay’s Castles or any work of Alan Lee’s when I was a boy. It has entries for everything from Asgard to Kafka to Minas Tirith!
Awesome cover by Amy Houser for Sir Wendig’s upcoming Kindle collection of short stories, Irregular Creatures! (If you think ebooks don’t need great covers, you’re wrong.)
Yesterday, on Twitter, the multi-talented Philip J. Reed asked me this question:
Have you ever bought a book ONLY because of its cover and, if so, which book?
Truth is, I am sure the answer is “Yes, but,” with the additional wrinkle that I can’t name one off the top of my head. I mean, can I say that I bought this Edgar Allan Poe volume from Borders’ Classics series based just on the cover when, really, I wanted it for the whole book design and was well aware of its contents? I know I bought the d20 Past supplement for d20 Modern based solely on its artwork, with no intention of using its text in actual play, but that’s not a cover. I’ve bought editions of books for their covers—like The Road—though I knew full well what was inside them. I might’ve bought the paperback of Yiddish Policeman’s Union based solely on its cover, but I bought it for the story, too.
Which reminds me of Michael Chabon’s essay collection, Maps & Legends, which I certainly bought for the cover, in part because the author’s name was on it and in part because the hardcover edition of that book includes three die-cut and layered dust jackets that are just brilliant to behold. So maybe that one, even though I new and trusted the author already, counts?
What’s fascinating about this question, to me, is the fact that I think of myself as the kind of person who would buy a book based on the cover, but in fact I think I pretty quickly do some research to inform my purchase, so that I don’t end up with a dud. My to-be-read list is so long that I don’t make that many impulse buys anymore, alas.
Written by Keith Baker, Jason L Blair, Greg Costikyan, Ray Fawkes, Matt Forbeck, Pat Harrigan, Jess Hartley, Fred Hicks, Will Hindmarch, Kenneth Hite, John Kovalic, James Lowder, Russ Pitts, Jesse Scoble, Mike Selinker, Jared Sorensen, Paul Tevis, Jeff Tidball, Monica Valentinelli, Chuck Wendig, and Wil Wheaton
When I buy a book, I am effectively buying water (the content) and a bucket (the actual book, with all it entails). I am taught that most of the value is in the bucket, because that’s what pricing is keyed off of. Hard vs. Softcover establishes the price, not the quality of the content, nor even things I might take as indicators of quality, like the author. So right off the bat, the bucket industry has trained me that the price of water is low, maybe even free. They don’t care though, because they make their money on buckets.
To muddle things further, I have been taught by living in a civilized society that it is entirely reasonable for me to drink the water for free as long as I don’t steal the bucket. That is, once I own a book, i can resell it or give it away and if I don’t own the book I can read it for free by borrowing it from a friend or from the library, or even just by having it read to me. Once again, I’m taught that the value is in the bucket.
Now, the bucket makers aren’t necessarily happy with this arrangement, but they’re kind of obliged to deal with it. Part of that is social pressure – this freedom is part of the culture of books, and fighting it makes you the bad guy – but another part of it is more cynical. See, every other non-consumable good in society is tied to these rules as well – you can gift and loan tools, jewelry, cars or anything else you can think of. To buck this trend, the bucket makers would have to say “Well, wait a minute, we’re different than these other goods. We have this great water which has value of a different kind” and that’s a problem, because so far the whole model is based on putting value on the buckets, not the water, so they don’t want to upset that cart.
This has worked great for a very long time, and people really love their buckets, but some crazy guy has invented plumbing. Suddenly I can get my water from the source, and that really fucks things up. The ways in which it fucks things up are a whole other conversation, but here’s the bit that interests me.
What happens when, if I want to make a gift of a book, I don’t need to buy a new bucket?
See, I will never feel bad about libraries or gifting read books, at least under the current model, but I also feel it probably hurts creators more than anyone else. The idea of “gifting” an electronic file really means “giving a duplicate” unless you want to do something particularly cumbersome with it, and I can see a universe where, in the absence of buckets, the cost of that is small enough to pay casually, and goes directly to the creator.
Sure, this upends a lot of assumption. If money goes to the creator directly, he then becomes the person who has to _hire_ all the people who make a book possible rather than them hiring him. That’s drastic, so much so that it may seem impossible. But in my gut, I’m wondering if it’s the only possible outcome.
PS – So it’s clear, this is not a “Death to Publishers!” position, merely a “The roles of everyone involved in the book chain are potentially subject to drastic change over the next decade or three”