A while back, Radiohead released In Rainbows on their website, in advance of the CD. A ZIP file of the album was available for download, for whatever price the buyer wished to pay in sterling pounds. The pay-what-you-want model did not appear to be detrimental to the record’s sales, or the band’s profits. The album appeared on a number of best-of 2007 lists and was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys.
Now, books, as cultural objects and profitable commodities, are in a state of flux, and publishers are beginning to test the flexible pricing plan. Last week, Faber announced it would release Ben Wilson’s What Price Liberty? as an e-book under the pay-what-you-will model, six weeks before the paperback is released for £14.99.
Faber is not alone — in the past, Flavorwire fave Kelly Link has made her collections Stranger Things Happen and Magic For Beginners available for free in a variety of digital formats via her small press website. And next month, new online/print publishing endeavor flatmanCrooked will release its second anthology, First Spring, on what its website calls “the NPR fund drive model. We’ll tell you how much it cost us to produce the book, and you pay us whatever you think it’s worth (plus shipping, of course).” That parenthetical indicates one of the aspects of fmC’s experiment that differs from Radiohead, Faber, and Link: you’ll be paying for an actual, tangible object, rather than its digital counterpart. Pricing will start with the actual cost of producing a copy of the anthology, and patrons will be able to add any amount they wish.
That these very different entities are willing to experiment with their profits confirms that the ongoing debate about content pricing is nowhere near settled. Modes of access to the written word are evolving on an almost daily basis, so it makes sense that the price of such access is changing, too. It’s not the End Times for the book — it’s just a little bit of wiggling as the book makes its way from water to land and onto the next stage of its evolution, at a much faster rate than we expected.