The true cost of books

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This (old) article from the Huffington Post popped up on my facebook feed yesterday. It asks – what’s the true cost of cheaper books?

It got me thinking.

I’ve never written a book in anger but I’ve self published two of them for fun. I ‘make’ about $6 from each one sold (at the bookshop).

Although the writing bit happens relatively quickly (for me), each of my books took at least a hundred hours of editing. The price doesn’t begin to reflect the cost.

Shameless sycophants tell me that they very much enjoy my books. This response is nice, lovely, in fact, given that I write such rude stuff. But it’s perhaps not surprising, given the amount of time that went into producing them. You can’t polish a turd, but if you spend a hundred hours trying it’ll at least take on a high shine. 

And yet pointing this out is like driving a fork into an untouched shibboleth. To talk about ‘my practice’ as ‘actually practicing a lot’ seems to denigrate the idea of artists as divining some kind of rare, unfathomable genius. Real genius doesn’t take time or practice. It’s genius! 

I blame the visual arts. The visual arts celebrates the artistic genius – the idea that an artist can whip out to the washhouse and churn out a masterpiece between goon bags. Perhaps this reflects my recent lap through the hallowed Boyd studio at Bundanon. In the artist’s studio we listened to an eager volunteer deliver a rattle-gun analysis of the huge paintings propped up around us. They all looked to have been painted in a tearing hurry to me.

The idea that a ten minute painting might look like little more than a twelve minute painting in good light is anathematic in the world of visual arts. Painters routinely expect to be paid thousands of dollars for work that took a few hours, or perhaps a couple of days. Sure, they might claim that this price reflects years spent ‘engaging the their practice’ – basically, honing their skill, but writers do this too.

Unlike painters, writers cannot rely on the ‘immediacy of the message’. You can’t stand in front of a book for two minutes and claim to know what it’s about. In fact, it needs to be extremely well written for readers to comprehend it at all. You can’t just chuck all the words onto the page and give the audience the finger – that’s called experimental poetry. Experimental poetry is the literary equivalent of modern art, except it looks better under behind the washing machine than above the fireplace.

Or perhaps the immediacy of the message is the key to understanding why visual art expects to be reimbursed for its quick-and-dirty ‘genius’. Perhaps we value it more because you can instantly judge the work. A book, on the other hand, requires commitment. You can’t know anything about it until you’ve read a few pages (and you can’t claim to understand it just by standing in front of it like a winsome ingenue either). Really, what we’re really paying for is our own lack of commitment as viewers.

Something to think about maybe…

My general thought is that writing and literature is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Writing follows the same patterns of economic history as everything else. The late 20th Century democratised the production of literature. For the first time, poor people were both educated and could sustain themselves long enough to pen their epistle. Those days are now drawing to a close. We’re heading back to the time of self-sponsored drivel that represents the cushy upper classes, where we will once again be forced to choose between the florrid insights of upper class toffs and (televised) penny dreadfuls.

Bring it on.

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