|Paying for performance, vs. paying for experience
||[Jun. 21st, 2015|08:56 pm]
Well, this is an upsetting idea: Amazon "is reported to be considering" paying authors for each page read, where 'read' means "displayed on our e-readers long enough for someone to read it"; according to some unknown, and likely unilaterally-decided, algorithm:
(I'm _sure_ this will not hurt Amazon's bottom line.)
Now, you could argue that this is fair, that the value delivered by a book lies in the reading.
But you could also argue something else. The value of a book doesn't lie in its length, or in the reading; it lies in the experience of reading, and of _having read_, the book. There are completely forgettable books I spent hours reading.
There are books that changed my life that took only an hour to read.
What's valuable to me, the reader, is the experience--the transformative nature of art. What Amazon seems to be asserting here is what I call the Cafeteria Theory Of Art.
Everyone has to eat food. Like, all the time. (Bear with me here.)
Sometimes, we pay for artistry in our food. We go out for fancy restaurants; we pay more for food that we hope will be an exceptional experience. We talk about it afterward, with our friends; we show pictures, we think about the next time we'll be able to go back. The cooking crew exercise some artistry, some hurried craftsmanship, and no doubt a fair amount of grind. (Cooking in a restaurant is...not fun.)
The food comes out on large plates, tiny little piles of colorful food--two soy beans, dipped in an esoteric sauce. Next to it, precisely four croquettes of ground potato-dust carefully formed into footballs, and thin shavings of flank steak that's been marinated just *so*.
It's about ten mouthfuls, each one amazing, and somehow you're full at the end of it.
But most of the time, we don't go out for Experience Food. We eat food, because we have to eat food every day. For those of us who have one (like me), this means going to the cafeteria, and getting your food-like object that has a sufficient number of calories of hopefully tasty and nutritious sorts, for a reasonable price.
You don't have to think much about it; it isn't going to suck, it isn't going to be great, and it's going to be a reasonable price. I give you money, I move my jaw up and down, I get to stay alive.
So that's cafeteria food.
What does this mean for other art forms like, say, music? Some songs are transformative, lifting you up, or contain a lesson that changes how you look at the world. Some haunt you. But most are just cafeteria food; you insert 99c, you get the latest pop hit, you listen to it eighty times over two weeks. Then it gets relegated to the Infinite-Shuffle playlist. I gave you 99c, you fulfilled my need to "listen to music of some sort".
Movies? Same thing. The "summer blockbuster" is the well-known version of this, but so are the yearly dozen rom-coms, the endless parade of "Land Before Time MCLVII"-style kid's movies. Not too challenging; not dull, may take you on an emotional journey, but mostly fill the gaps in your life. Cafeteria food.
Where do books come into all this?
Like other media, there is an audience that is voracious--wanting new books frequently, ones that are enjoyable to read, but not too challenging or obscure. And there are authors out there who are able to produce such stuff. It's a lucrative business. These books connect with their readers in an important way.
To me, however, those books are only one style of art; only one kind of book. There's another kind of book, another kind of song, another kind of movie--the ones that hook their audience, that make their world different, that become cultural touchpoints. Ones that may not fit the mold, or may; but ones that resonate.
And it's hard to measure their impact during the performance, because they affect their audience both during consumption and long after. Fancy-restaurant food, when it's done right.
Now, you can't eat at the fancy restaurant every day. You can't. But at the same time, it'd be a shame to make every restaurant charge by the ounce--or by the ounce _eaten_, even worse. (Can you imagine? "Sir, we weighed your plate, and you left over 26% of your steak tartar. Here's your refund.")
The thing about fancy restaurants is: they're fragile. Crowds are fickle; chefs come and go. It's easier to churn out a safe, forgettable food; to get good at mass-producing the same Authentic Bourbon Chicken night after night. And predictable is profitable. There's a reason Hollywood movies follow a formula: it works. Money comes in.
Amazon would seem to be taking yet another aggressive step in the direction of this solution: for them to make money, they exert pressure on their content creators in many ways. This is another one, a really vicious one, because it removes the right of the _reader_ to dictate what is valuable to them, and puts it in the hand of their performance. Did you REALLY like this book? If so, you have to make sure to read every page! It's not enough to just buy it, no. And that's shortsighted--because often, I've bought books I already read, so as to send an economic signal to the author. I may read them later. I may flip through here and there. But I've got control over when I send my money to the author (the sliver of it that gets there, of course).
Amazon wants to take another chunk of that control away from readers, and put it in their own hands.
I've beaten this drum too many times to count: distributors have a HUGE chunk of power right now. Distribution turns out to be the Achilles Heel of the internet: because everything is available, nothing is special, and everything is hard to find. Distributors control what you look at--just as they do in a supermarket or a bookstore. But even moreso, because we're down to one book distributor that really matters.
Amazon's control of the vertical stack is outright frightening. It should scare you, if you like reading.
But this perspective might be more challenging than you want; if so, feel free to continue to get your Cafeteria Art from them. But know it may come at a high cost.