Hey, Author,* About My $4 Coffee …

Actually, it’s more like $4.75. I’m trying to cut back. I’m not made of money.

A lot of you probably saw the widely-circulated tweet in which an author, frustrated that a fan had e-mailed to complain about the $13 e-price of his latest book, responded “Enjoy your $4 coffee.” There are a lot of good ripostes to this, including “I don’t drink coffee” and “I’ll spend my money however I want.” More thoughtful is one from Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader, who points out the illogic of the publisher’s e-pricing for the author’s backlist.

I’m not naming the author (though Hoffelder does). He’s not alone in making this comparison, for one thing. For another, I understand his frustration: he doesn’t set the price of his books and wants fair compensation for his work. I don’t think all e-books should be 99 cents. I wish more authors I know could make a living from their writing and devote more time to it, and I’m willing to pay reasonable prices to help that happen.

I don’t think the coffee comparison is valid, though. Nor is the price of a movie ticket (hey author, you know how much a movie costs to make, don’t you? and how many people contribute to making it?). When people compare a cup of coffee disparagingly to a book, they’re usually thinking about two things: the amount of time it takes to consume the book vs. the cup of coffee, and the amount of time it took to write the book vs. to make the cup of coffee. I have problems with both of those comparisons.

Consumption:

  • I won’t pay $4 or more for a coffee from just anywhere. My expensive lattes are reliably excellent. They are way better (to my taste) than the cheap coffee from a Certain Canadian Chain that has set up shop in my workplace, so worth paying more for–though I drink the cheap stuff too, because it’s convenient. Even new books from my favorite authors can’t offer me the same guarantee of consistent pleasure, though I willingly pay hard-cover prices if I think the chance of enjoyment is high.
  • My latte is mine. I can pollute it with sugar or flavor shots if I like (usually not, though I’ve been known to succumb to the lure of vanilla on a bad day). I can share it with a friend (no way, get your own coffee!). I get the full use-value of my latte, unlike my e-book, which I may not technically own or be able to lend.

Production:

  • My coffee doesn’t really take 2 minutes to make. Someone has to grow, harvest, ship and roast the beans. I prefer to patronize places with fair trade coffee; a little (no doubt too little) of my $4 is going to people whose standard of living is much lower, and whose labor is much more unpleasant, than American Author’s.
  • My $4 might be helping someone through college (on occasion, one of my students has made my latte). Or helping support a recent graduate who can’t find a better job right now. I’m supporting small businesses, some of which are owned by great people who are helping revitalize struggling neighborhoods.

Just because my latte is a frivolous indulgence, a luxury, doesn’t mean the money I spend on it is “wasted” or going to an “undeserving” source. A book is technically a luxury too, though I can’t imagine life without reading, and I’d give up coffee before books if it came right down to it.

There are lots of good reasons for readers and authors to be frustrated by e-book pricing; it’s a topic that deserves the wide discussion and debate it’s getting. But please, Author, leave my latte out of it.

*If you haven’t seen the Hey, Author tumblr, check it out.

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16 Responses to Hey, Author,* About My $4 Coffee …

  1. Janet W says:

    Something else I can do with a latte that I can’t do with an e-book. If I go to Peets and I spend $25 getting a Peets card (or even socking some money into my Peets card to the tune of 25 bucks), I get a FREE medium drink. Any one I want. Medium not small! How good is that?

    My fave local coffee spot, Sweet Things (in the Cove Plaza, off Tiburon Blvd.) gives out coffee cards. Once that sucker is punched 10 times, you guessed it, I get a free latte. Now my problem is keeping track of those cards — a particularly heartbreaking moment was when I lost a card that had been punched 8 times. I still hold out hope that it will turn up!

    So leave me and my latte alone. I see no connection between what I drink, how much it costs and the cost of tea in China or books online. I accept the author was being flippant and I already have forgotten his name — but the overall atmosphere of scourging and flaying and criticizing hangs heavy in the air and I’m sick of it. You write the book … publish it … and they will come. Or won’t … but that’s nothing to do with lattes.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      My print bookstore has a loyalty program too. I know All Romance has one for e-books, but I’m not sure whether it can be used for Agency-priced books. I know they aren’t included in the rebate sales.

      • willaful says:

        I’m pretty sure that Agency books do count towards the Buy 10 get 1 free. If AR finally catches up with the Heyer sale (customer service said it might be tomorrow) than I’ll check for sure.

      • willaful says:

        The Heyer books did count towards the buy 10, but now I see they’re not actually Agency.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I think that since ARe is using a points system (they are absorbing the cost of the freebie) rather than discounting books, it could cover Agency. But I find logic seldom applies in this arena.

  2. willaful says:

    Thanks for this. That tweet really bothered me and it was hard to articulate why. Apples to orange comparisons are irritating.

    • The thing that bothered me about it was the author saying ‘hey, lots of work here, so you should pay for it!’. His book is not an essential item, so the price depends not on the cost of manufacture, but the reader’s need for it and the quality of the experience. If his book’s a load of crap, it doesn’t matter how long it took him to write it – it’s not worth a thing to the consumer. Same as any other creative item.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yeah, it niggled me enough to say something, because I see these comments a LOT.

  3. I don’t mind at all if someone wants to spend $4 on a cup of coffee than $2.99 on one of my books. Coffee and story books are both luxuries, and everyone has the right to choose which luxury they would rather have.

    It makes me blazingly furious if they download my $2.99 books from a filesharing site rather than pay for them because they’re ‘too expensive’, and then chatter on their blog about the $35 they just dropped on a manga or piece of fan art. Or an effing $4 cup of coffee for that matter. Because you don’t get to steal some luxuries and pay for others, depend on how easily you can get away with it.

  4. anna cowan says:

    There was another meme on facebook ages ago to the same effect, and I had exactly the same reaction as you. My husband owns specialty coffee shops in Melbourne, and they earn every one of those four dollars – and like you, I immediately thought, “Well, no. A coffee doesn’t only take 60 seconds to make.” It’s part of a long, long process.

    The other thing is: That one coffee is only going to be consumed once. So even if it’s 60 seconds of labour, that only = $4. A book, however long it took to write, is going to be consumed (hopefully) by thousands – even sometimes millions – of readers.

    I get MUCH more annoyed by seeing romance novels (paper) that an author worked on for x-amount of time priced around $13 in a bookshop where they sell blank books with pretty covers for $25. I get that a designer worked on the cover and should be paid – even paid well. But it shouldn’t be almost double what an author gets. No way was that time investment even equal.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I love the photos you’ve been tweeting of his new shop. I’d spend $4 to try a latte there! Good point that the cost of producing the book is borne by many readers, because it will be read by many people.

  5. Las says:

    What bothers me about that tweet is the implication that people have a moral obligation to buy books no matter the price (or the quality, for that matter). If authors or publishers want to charge $13 for ebooks (or publish books without editing), they have every right to do so, and good for them if they get lots of readers willing to buy them at that price. But that doesn’t mean people are wrong for saying they don’t want to pay that amount. Spare me the sob stories about how hard you worked on the book–that’s not my problem. Sure I care in the general way I care about my fellow human beings, but don’t throw that in readers’ face in an attempt to shame them into buying or just not criticizing. I don’t respond well to emotional manipulation from people I’m emotionally involved with; I sure as hell won’t put up with it over a business transaction.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Market value, price, value to reader: none are determined by amount of work author put in, or what author thinks value of work is. On the other hand, i wouldn’t e-mail an author to complain about the price of his book. It’s a systemic issue.

      • Las says:

        I wouldn’t email an author, either, and I can understand the frustration. But that’s customer service–they’re going to get a bunch of annoying feedback. They need to ignore that kind of thing, or at the very least respond in a way that doesn’t paint readers with such a broad brush.

  6. I lived in Europe for too many years to get into the expensive coffee thing. I think everyone needs to be fairly compensated for their work. The problem is, particularily in the US, we want cheap more than we want quality. It doesn’t matter what were talking about.

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