I’m reading Alan Schom’s utterly brilliant biography of Napoleon at the moment, and noticed the price tag: about thirty bucks.
Considering what I pay for other forms of entertainment, this is astonishingly low. I’ve already got dozens of hours out of it, and expect to get a few more before I’m done. It’s a big thick book, compulsively readable, detailed enough to be comprehensible to a layperson but for the most part avoids the lengthy lists of minutia that so often bog down even the better popular biographies of historical figures.
Schom’s fundamental point–that Napoleon was a sociopathic person whose incessant warmongering destablized Europe for generations to come and caused enormous human misery and death for no readily discernible purpose–is more the sufficiently documented by such things as Napoleon’s consistent refusal to take any significant action to support his army’s medical corps, despite strongly worded and detailed pleas on the part of senior medical staff that he do so. We don’t need to know every detail of the man’s sad sociopathic day to understand that.
So here I am, getting entertained and informed for something less than a dollar an hour. Apart from Netflix, and DVD rentals from Classic Video in Kingston Ontario, there are very few comparable deals. I can easily pay $50 or more for a play that lasts a couple of hours, $12 for a two or three hour movie, and well north of $100 for the privilege of watching a rock star hop around the stage more than 50 metres from where I’m sitting.
I would have happily paid three or four times the cover price and still felt myself well-served by this book. And yet if it had been priced that way, I wouldn’t have bought it, because I wouldn’t have known what a good deal I was getting.
Even if I’d read the author’s previous books, I wouldn’t know if this one was as good (or better). There’s no way to judge how a person will respond to a given entertainment until after the fact, particularly because these things are dependent on time and circumstance. A book that might rock my world this year could leave me flat next.
So there is a risk discount on the price of entertainment. If we could actually know ahead of time how good something was, we’d pay more. If we could be somehow coerced to pay a higher price after we really enjoyed something, we’d pay more. So far as anyone knows, there isn’t any way to do either of those, so we end up where we are: with creators taking a lower price on good works because of the number of less-good ones out there.
I’ve written before about the poor state of reviews and critical commentary. One exception to this is the board-game community, where a relatively small number of very dedicated players have produced an exceptional critical literature. Books need the equivalent of Board Game Geek, and we simply don’t have it. The thing that makes the reviews there impressive is the degree of self-awareness the reviewers bring to the topic. There is a lot of comprehensible detail on why the reviewer does/doesn’t like a given game. Book reviews are overwhelmingly shallow in comparison, possibly because books are so much more complex than games. Or possibly because we are just doing it wrong.
Until we’ve figured out how to do a better job of predicting how a given person at a given time will respond to a given book–which is quite different from judging “quality”–authors will continue to take a hit on price, and readers will pay for works that they ultimately find unsatisfying, along with a few real gems tossed into the mix at far lower prices than they should reasonably command.