or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Paying for Content Or Paying for Format

   September 24th, 2009 Brian Herzog

hollowed bookBoingBoing pointed to an article on the difference between paying for content and paying for format. Publishers want us to pay for content, so they can charge the same price for online information. But historically, we pay for format: hardbacks cost more than paperbacks.

The same is true in town halls and libraries with public records. People have a right to free access to the records - but, if they want their own copy, there is likely a reproduction cost. In which case, they aren't paying for the records (content), they're paying for the paper the records are printed on (format).

Interesting. (And it also brings up the slippery slope of double-taxation: if the paper is purchased with taxpayer money from the library budget, then why does a taxpayer have to pay for it a second time?)

Machineman nutRelated to this is what author Max Barry is up to with his latest book, Machine Man. He's publishing it in real-time, one page per day, and readers can subscribe to rss or email to get the first 43 pages for free. Beyond that, it'll cost $6.95.

I like that an author is experimenting - that's where good ideas come from, rather than just forcing forward the status quo. I also like that, when it is published in traditional book form, it will (likely) be different from the day-to-day feed. Which makes sense, since he'll have had time to think about it and rework* the real-time "draft."

And what Barry is doing is evidence again that what we pay for is format. If I pay the $6.95 for the content of the rss feed, then it stands to reason that when the printed book comes out, I should get it for free, since I've already paid for the content (unless, of course, it is significantly different from the feed).

I can see why the supply side of the publishing industry wants to charge the highest price they can for content, regardless of format. But technology, context, and past practice just doesn't support that model. But then, business = ++profit != logic.


*I'm fascinated by the evolution of the story, and how an author changes and rearranges the plot and characters in between drafts. In fact, here's what I think would be a good idea (although, it would take the right kind of author to make it work): publish a book with every draft of a short story, with annotations on the changes. Having a author not only put out there early versions of a story, and also explain what changes were made and why, would be fascinating insight into the creative writing process.

From what I know of Max Barry, he could pull it off, and it'd be worth reading. Neil Gaiman is another author that comes to mind. But maybe this is a market limited to only me.

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