You Get What You Pay For

The prior post outlined a case for decommodifying e-books. But would a free book lose its fetish value as a desirable object?

The economic value of a book to the individual purchaser is its purchase price. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Suppose the e-book utility scheme were to come into reality, with readers downloading their own copies of e-books for free. If a book costs nothing to own, is it worth anything? Maybe a free download is valued only if it’s been pirated. If it’s a book that most people pay good money for but that I’ve managed to get my hands on by hook or crook, then the book retains its commodity fetish value even if I didn’t spend a dime for it. I even get the added thrill of sticking it to the man, thereby enhancing my own self-perceived fetish value as a post-capitalist renegade. What happens when there’s no man to stick it to?  (from Postcapitalist Books — Pamphlet 2)

Freud regarded the fetish as a penis substitute, the mother’s missing phallus, a stand-in for that which is missing, excised, castrated. Obsession with a fetish is driven, says Freud, by the male’s fear of castration, the displaced fetish-penis serving as a both an obscure object of desire and a reminder of what horrors might befall him. Attraction and repulsion, allure and contempt — like the Chinese custom of mutilating the woman’s feet and then revering them. If she gets castrated then maybe I won’t have to. Freud insisted that analysts charge high fees to their patients, lest the patients regard the analyst’s services as being of little value. In jacking up the hourly rate Freud reinforced the analyst’s fetish value to the patient. I desire the Doctor; I fear the Doctor; the Doctor suffers loss and humiliation so I don’t have to. He’s worth the money. Maybe you’re cured when you realize that the Doctor isn’t worth all of that emotional investment, and so you’re no longer willing to pay the fee.

In Marx’s theory of fetish value can be found the seeds of what would later be spawned in Freud. The capitalist castrates the worker, detaching the work product from the worker and enshrining it as an object of strange allure and fascination, an object of value, an object one would like to possess, an object worth money beyond its use value, money paid as tribute to the capitalist as tribute, as profit. Is fetish value driven by the buyer’s fear of castration, of losing control of the means and ends of production in the same way that the producer of the fetish lost control, was castrated? Does the buyer hold the fetishized commodity not only in awe but also in contempt? Is that why the buyer of the fetish becomes its consumer, incorporating its phallic potency while at the same time destroying it? Maybe you’re cured when you realize that the commodity isn’t worth all of that emotional investment, and so you’re no longer willing to pay the fee.

I’m skeptical of broad theoretical explanations. Do men value objects because they fear castration, whereas women desire those same objects because they want to recover their own castrated phallus? Do buyers value objects less when those objects are produced entirely by machines, which couldn’t care less about being alienated from their work product, or do buyers value machine-made objects more because automation castrates workers not just from their work product but from the work process as well? Is the very idea of a discrete object, disconnected from the social milieu in which it’s embedded, symptomatic of psychological perversion and economic exploitation?

I suppose I really should give serious thought to these matters. But I think it’s important to resist attempting to formulate a general abstract conceptualization and then applying it deductively to the case at hand. Instead I’d rather stick with the case at hand for its own sake, namely the sorts of value ascribed to works of written fiction. On the other hand, the abstract ideas of fetishization and objectivization eventually do prove to be part of the case at hand, to the extent that those ideas constitute products of the imagination — fictions — rather than integral features of the material world. But I’ll table that work until later. The case at hand now has to do with buying and selling novels or not buying and selling them.

Stripped of its fetish value, a commodity is reduced to its utility value. But of what use is a novel? Does it help the reader cope, or escape, or empathize, or think, or feel? Or is the very notion of utility suspect when it comes to novels? Is assigning utility to a novel an economic move to justify charging money for it? If so, then the novel’s utility value is itself a kind of fetish value, an imaginary valuation ascribed to an intrinsically useless production. In its postcommodified form,the e-novel perhaps ought to be worth nothing at all economically. The effort that the novelist invests in writing a novel shouldn’t be regarded as “work” since that effort is generated in the production of something useless, so that effort needn’t be compensated financially. Novels should be free; novelists should go unpaid.

But maybe it’s the inherent uselessness of the novel that makes it a particularly useful in considering postcapitalism and postcommodification. Fetish value is regarded as a distortion, a delusion, a perversion, a ripoff — something to be castrated. But maybe fetish value is intrinsic to psychologies and economies that fetishize use value. Valuing useless stuff becomes a kind of guilty pleasure, an exercise in decadence. But reducing value to utility, this pragmatic and efficient means-ends engineering of lives and societies — maybe that’s the real decadence. The rich have always been able to afford their decadence, living off of their inheritances or the profits generated for them by their debtors and employees. The rich are the fetishes of capitalist culture. Art for art’s sake: that sort of aesthetic decadence tends to flourish during times of acute economic exploitation. It’s a form of resistance against the commodification of people as workers, as generators of use value. What happens when the workers are rendered useless by machines? Are they discarded as worthless? Or are they able to claim as their own the decadent uselessness of the fetishized elite?

Now back to the pamphlet:

If, for e-books, the commodity form of value passes into obsolescence and is replaced by the utility form, would commodity-based metrics likewise pass into disuse? Maybe not. Sales and downloads are measures of popularity. It could be argued that popularity is the best metric for estimating societal value. That’s how most government officials are elected in a representative democracy: whoever gets the most individual votes wins. The cynic will point out that elections can be bought, that voters can be swayed by sales campaigns, that popular elections measure not what’s best for us collectively but what the greatest number of individuals believe – or are led to believe – is best for them personally. In short, democratic elections are a lot like capitalist marketplaces, where the candidates are the commodities. Might as well keep selling books one at a time if that’s the best we can do.

“Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic.” That’s what Oscar Wilde had to say on the matter. In moving beyond the commodification of books should we adopt the point of view of a Victorian-era decadent aesthete who also attained pop celebrity status during his heyday? Maybe.

I don’t like to think of my fictions – neither the ones I read nor the ones I write – as works of art. It seems pretentious, precious, presumptuous. At the same time, I don’t regard my fictions as entertainments – trivial, frivolous, demeaning. Maybe I’m just a middle-class Midwestern middlebrow at heart. I’m equally ambivalent about why I read fictions, and about why others do, or should. When it comes to evaluating fictional texts I lack conviction; I’m intimidated when critics promulgate their literary judgments as established truths, but I’m enough of a snob to dismiss popularity as bad taste.

Here’s a variant on the Wildean epigram: “Science should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself scientific.” I endorse this maxim wholeheartedly: scientific findings should be held to standards higher than popularity. If most environmental scientists assert that humans are causing global warming, I expect their consensus to be based not on what they stand to gain personally in terms of money and prestige, not on groupthink, but on reliable empirical evidence evaluated according to rigorous standards. Or another variant: “Justice should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself just.” Amen to that. I would hope that a defendant is found guilty or not based on the weight of the evidence rather than on the lawyers’ rhetorical seductions or the bandwagon of majority opinion taking shape in the jury room.

Are there objective or universally accepted criteria against which the merits and flaws of a fictional text can be weighed? Are there literary critics with such impeccable taste that their judgments cannot be doubted? No and no. Beauty, some say, is in the eye of the beholder: does that maxim translate into a beauty pageant where the eyes have it, where the sum of individual purchasing decisions or “likes” determines the winner? In the preceding pamphlet I proposed that the book industry runs like a beauty pageant where individual winners and losers might be selected by popular vote but where all of the contestants are selected by the pageant organizers. Maybe this is the most persuasive fetish value bestowed on every published book: it has been entered into the contest, prejudged by the judges as meeting high enough standards to join the competition. The published book is imbued with the plenitude of having been chosen, an aura that precedes and presages its enshrinement in material form, a plenitude not intrinsic to the book itself but bestowed upon it by the judges who, sequestered from public view, perform their transformative magic. It is the exercise of this occult power, investing word with spirit and spirit with matter, that transforms a published book into a fetish object. It is for the exercise of this transformative power that the magicians – the publishers and their agents – receive in tribute the fetish value, which is the price paid over and above the book’s cost of production, over and above its use value to the reader. Which is the profit.

But now we’re imagining a transformation not only of the book but also of the world that the book occupies – not the fetish but the niche. In the olden days, when books were copied out by hand, the book was enshrined in a library. The ancient book was valued as a cultural resource, a rare object, an artifact around which the community could gather. Copies weren’t distributed among the people; instead, the people came to the copy, admiring it, studying it, paying it homage. In the modern era, mass-produced copies of books were set loose to circulate in the marketplace, being bought and sold as commodities. The book became a consumer good, a node linking seller and buyer in the capitalist exchange circuitry. Now, in imagining books as public utilities, we’re talking about freeing the copied books entirely, no longer restricting their circulation to those able and willing to pay the price. Would the book be restored to its status as a cultural resource? Or would it be swept up in a widespread late-capitalistic race to the bottom, where the value of work is discounted to the vanishing point?

Maybe – and this might just be my personal crackpot theory – the freely distributed book presages the next phase in the expansion of human society. In the premodern era texts were precious cultural icons, positioned at the center of human settlements, surrounded by ramparts and protected by citadels. The modern era decentered books, dispersing them throughout society as commodities. Still, supplies remain limited. Maybe now, with free duplication, the dispersion of books could extend the parameters of human society itself. A book no longer points to itself or to those who own it; it no longer centers or circulates. Instead the book permeates, becoming part of the culture itself, as readily available to any and all as the language in which it is written. No longer constrained by walls or exchange networks, the book as a carrier of culture is freed to extend itself without material or financial limit. In that world, books would serve as transport terminals, as portals opening into an expanded multiverse.

On what criteria should books be deemed worthy of inclusion in a society-wide Grand Central Station of portals? And who should render the decisions? The answers might not make themselves evident until we – writers, readers, books – begin to occupy that cultural multiverse. The precise curatorship by which the ancient libraries added painstakingly copied books to their holdings would seem excessive in an era of free reproduction and distribution. Marketplace democracy – widespread popularity among consumers that translates into sales – would likewise no longer be necessary. Maybe Oscar Wilde’s aphorism would prove apt. Artistry, like knowledge and justice, need not be barricaded or hoarded as a scarce resource limited to the elite. When it’s free, when it becomes a universal societal resource, good judgment can be cultivated by anyone.

Alternatively, if most of us find ourselves immiserated in the late-capitalist apocalypse, we might all be looking for the cheapest, most effective escape routes we can find, even if those escapes are purely imaginary. Then maybe the standards for judging fictional texts, for judging the portals to which they grant their readers access, would have nothing to do with art and everything to do with survival.


Decommodfying E-Books

A readers shouldn’t have to pay anything to download an e-book. Here’s the gist of the economic argument from Postcapitalist Books — Pamphlet 2:

There are no variable costs associated with printing, transporting, warehousing, and distributing copies of e-books, so I ought to be able to download them for free.

Libraries already give readers free access to books. But it’s just a loan: the reader borrows the book for a short duration, then returns it. Libraries also lend e-books. There is no physical book being lent, its possession being transferred from the library to the reader; rather, the reader is granted access to an electronic copy of the book. The reader doesn’t return the borrowed e-book either; rather, when the predetermined lending interval expires, the library blocks the reader’s online access to the book. Why doesn’t the library simply let the reader keep the downloaded copy of the e-book? It would be cheaper and less of a hassle. Every member of the library could download a copy of the book without paying for or returning it, and without exhausting the library’s “supply” of that book. No waiting lists to be maintained by the library; no waiting by the reader: just click and go.

Well, it wouldn’t be fair, would it? Just because there are no costs to be covered in making copies of an e-book, that doesn’t mean that the book cost nothing to make. Writing, selecting for publication, editing, formatting: all of the fixed costs incurred in transforming  a manuscript into a real book remain. Selling e-books one at a time, even when there are no one-at-a-time costs to be covered, is a way of recouping incrementally the fixed costs.

However, as I belabored previously, the writer, who does most of the work, gets paid only a small fraction of the per-book revenue. Most of the revenue stream gets funneled to the middlemen. That’s true even with e-books: the writer might get 20 percent instead of 12, but the other 80 cents on the dollar goes to the agent, the publisher, and the e-bookstore. The per-book price for an e-book is lower than that for a physical book, but the price gap is surprisingly small and getting smaller. Even much of the responsibility for editing and publicizing new books — fixed costs traditionally covered by the publisher — have largely been shifted to the author. Lower costs of production translate into higher profit margins for the commercial publisher and its investors.

If the writers organized their own publishing companies and could find readers for their books, they could continue to sell the books one at a time, recouping their own costs of writing and editing more directly. That’s the dream of the self-publisher. it’s also the dream of writers who envision organizing themselves into publishing Houses, then networking the Houses into a large-scale Syndicate.

But for a writers’ Syndicate to perpetuate the e-book’s economic position as a commodity, sold or lent one at a time to readers as if it were a scarce resource, ignores the virtual reality of the e-book. It’s not scarce; it can be replicated again and again and again for no cost and without ever exhausting itself. The e-book is a post-commodity.

What’s needed is a means of covering the fixed costs of turning a manuscript into a book, because the individual e-book copies can be distributed freely to one and all. In short, the e-book industry would be replaced by an e-book utility.

Who then pays the writers and editors if copies of books are being freely distributed to readers?

Nobles and bishops aren’t in the habit of patronizing writers these days. Not many novel-writing grants are bestowed by governments or charitable foundations. University-level teachers of creative writing can presumably get paid enough to subsidize their own creative writing endeavors, but those gigs are few and far between.

What about libraries? The infrastructure is already in place: counting local branch facilities there are more than 16,000 public libraries in the US. Suppose a thousand libraries bought my book for $10 per copy: that’s $10K right there; I’d be fully patronized, not by a single government grant or a sugar daddy but by a thousand $10 grants. And the cardholders would benefit. Each of those thousand libraries, by purchasing its single copy of my book, would acquire the right to duplicate and distribute e-copies of it to any or all of its members, for no charge, with no returns and no waiting.

Why don’t libraries do this already? Because the publishing companies won’t let them. Publishers don’t embrace the role of the library as a public utility; instead, they regard the library as a loss leader, a means of stimulating reader demand that translates into more sales at the bookstore. Not only that, but publishers of e-books have figured out an angle for finagling even more money from libraries:

Not only is the individual library user’s access to the e-book time-limited – so is the library’s. In effect, the library rents e-books rather than buying them. After a certain number of people borrow the e-book, or after a predetermined interval of time has elapsed, the library’s right to loan out the e-book expires. The library then has to pay another fee to the publisher in order to renew its lender’s license for that book. Instead of letting readers take advantage of the cost-free duplication and distribution potential of e-books, the publishing industry turns book usage into a metered transaction – like buying gasoline at the pump. Instead of charging libraries less for e-books, the publishing industry ends up charging them more.

The libraries might welcome a return to the traditional arrangement of actually owning their e-book holdings rather than renting them. Still, the primary incentive for decommodifying e-books lies elsewhere:

In an era of shrinking government, public libraries face tight budgetary constraints. Even if the library could give away unlimited free copies of each and every book in its holdings, it would still have to pay for its own copy, which for budgetary purposes would cost the library no less than the book it lends out one patron at a time. The incentive to stock the virtual shelves of the giveaway public book utility lies not with the local government but with the local readers. All it would take is for one person to buy a copy of a book and donate it to the local library: then all of the other library members could download their own free copies.

The replicating library replaces both the lending library and the bookstore, letting readers obtain, for free and instantaneously, their own copies of any and all e-books in the library’s holdings. Readers might well go for this scheme. What about authors, who typically are paid $6,000 or less from sales of their published books, $600 or less from self-publishing?

In our imagined book utility an e-book is bought only by libraries, and only one copy per library. If every public library branch in the US bought a copy of a book, that’s 16 thousand copies total. At ten bucks a pop the book would generate $160K in aggregate revenues – not a windfall, but not bad either. Still, most books probably wouldn’t achieve such widespread societal distribution in the book utility model. Let’s say the average book is acquired by a quarter of the libraries: that’s 4 thousand copies and $40K revenue. The publishing industry would probably abandon ship, unable to generate enough return to compete with alternative opportunities available to investors.

But what if the writers owned and ran their own publishing companies? Eliminate the variable costs and the time lag entailed in turning books into commodities, eliminate the middlemen and investors, and most of that $40K per book goes to the writers. Now maybe the writer can earn a living wage. Then there’s the multiplier effect: each book purchased by a local library could be freely copied and distributed to a dozen readers, a hundred readers, a thousand… An e-book distributed widely and freely through local book utilities could attain a cultural cachet equivalent to or surpassing that of a bestseller even if no money changes hands. I’m guessing that a lot of writers would go for this arrangement, even if it meant abandoning the dream of making a fortune by writing industry-published bestsellers.