Artonomics: Why Books and Music Prices Will Go Down

I have been thinking a bit about the music business lately and today came across a great post, The Economics of a $9.99 ebook, on a new blog that I’ve been following Aaron Chua’s Wild Illusions.  In this post Aaron argues that a $9.99 price point for an ebook is just not sustainable and the publishers that embrace that reality will be the ones who benefit at the hands of those who hold on the old paradigm.  I couldn’t agree more.

When certain types of art such as music and literature/books become digital, the cost to produce such a work rests mostly on the artist.  In addition, the Internet has made it easier to discover new artists and for artists themselves to market their work.  The result is that the economics of the publishing is dead and the economics of art takes over.  To the dismay of the publisher, the economics of art is much different.

The one argument you keep hearing is, “If the artists don’t get paid, how do you expect them to produce the art?”.  Art is something that is timeless and will be produced for the sake of art itself.  The artist effectively bootstraps him/herself in order to produce it the same way a web publisher with an art for programming can cheaply and quickly make a website or application.   Thus the supply of art is much larger than the demand will ever be.  An artist just wants to be heard, not bought.  Heck, some of the greatest artists that ever existed produced art in their lifetime that they unfortunately never got to “cash out” on.   Art will always be mass produced by the masses who wish to express themselves artistically.    People find art entertaining and are willing to pay a market price for that.   When the production costs rest solely on the artist, the market should clear at a much lower price, and there is nothing to say that this price isn’t “free”.

Historically, publishers (and artists), through marketing and very narrow distribution channels, have received perceived economic rent on art, rent that no longer exists in this digital age.   When you restrict the supply of art to key artists, you give the illusion that a particular artist should extract a much larger perceived economic rent on their artistic ability.  Any real audiophile will tell you that this is not the case.  Sure when it is difficult to find new artists, there is a premium that most people will pay not to have to do it, but these days I feel that we’re inundated with new art and artists that the perceived rent no longer exists.

For the artist, the reality of artonomics will be a double edged sword.  For years, the lucky artists were paid outsized rewards for being lucky, for being “found”.  Artonomics won’t pay nearly as large of a lucky premium, simply because there will be more lucky artists and competition will be greater and the demand for art/entertainment should stay relatively constant .  On the other side of things, there will be greater opportunity for artists to be heard and for artists to get lucky, or found.  In addition, more artists being found brings about the concept of “fame” and the ancillary benefits, industries, and opportunities that come with that reality.

So in summary, artonomics should dictate that any digital medium of art should decrease in price as the economics of the artist begins to take over the industry, and the internet should be the facilitator for the reserve army of the starving artist to execute the revolution.


  1. Thanks for the mention!

    Your blog posts, although infrequent, have been great.

  2. zerobeta

    No prob. You’ve had some great posts and the one this morning was spot on this idea I’ve been playing with in my head for a week or so.

    I do need to blog more. I’ve become a slave to Twitter, however.

  3. Is every book “art” that springs fully formed from it’s author’s brain?

    What about researched works of nonfiction?

    Should they only be written by people with the private income required to spend the five years required to work solely on that book?

    What does that mean for the body of work created?

  4. zerobeta

    Thanks for the comment. You bring about a good point. As mostly a reader of non-fiction, I consider non-fiction to be “art”, just as many of the writers would consider their non-fiction books to be their “body of work”.

    I define art as something personal. If it moves you to think differently about the world its art – and thus most nonfiction would come under that category.

    I do agree that most nonfiction has research costs – some which are high, a reader of non-fiction will be willing to pay for those costs, but a true non-fiction artist is willing to take the risk to eat them to get his vision of the world as it is/was/should be out there.

  5. Well, I’m a true nonfiction author/artist, and I couldn’t afford to put in the time to produce a book that’s good enough to satisfy me AND “eat the costs” if I weren’t being paid an advance by a publishing company.

    Writers are not somehow more “special” or spiritual than programmers or doctors or engineers. They are people who do work which involves skill, training and hard graft, and I think they should be paid for that effort.

    Also, books are not produced in splendid isolation, springing fully formed from some lone author’s brain. Like the vast majority of authors, I appreciate the skill of a good editor, and think that they too should be paid for their work. Until you’ve seen and understood the process of excellent editing (which as a general consumer, you won’t, because it’s all done before the text reaches you), I’m not sure how you can appreciate that, or dismiss the people who do it.

  6. Or, here’s another scenario.

    After 911 there was, obviously, a flurry of books released with all kinds of background information in them. Say you have plenty of expertise and wanted to produce a comprehensive book on the security services in Pakistan, or the rise of the Taliban in the Pathan region, and to get that book out as quickly as possible while the information was still fresh. You want to reach the public and opinion formers, to let them know the truth.

    Even though you’ve become an expert on the region and put time into learning the local languages, researching the history and gaining the kind of contacts that will give you significant insights, you haven’t earned any money in your career because “all art is free”, so you’d need a couple of part-time jobs at Starbucks to cover your expenses (flights, other transport, hiring translators, accommodation and so on) and that might, just might, eat into your writing time a little. So pretty soon your book would be falling behind schedule, pushed back like an endless PhD.

    At which point I suppose you’re meant to give it away for free in a blog, which most people will only read partially, losing the main chunk of your argument as they go along.

    Or then you get beaten to the point by someone whose daddy is rich but who knows less about the region than you do, but who can afford to spend the time and money on producing the book.

    Either that, or the only people who can afford to do that kind of research are the government. Because newspapers can’t keep correspondents out there any more, because everyone wants their news for free and there’s hardly any ad revenue on the web.

    It’s no utopian level playing field.

  7. zerobeta

    I never said it would be free, I said in some cases the price could be free. I think you misread the point.

    My point was that the economics is shifting to that of the artist itself. Just because price drops doesn’t mean that you will make less money. When the price of the DVD player dropped, people sold more DVD’s in general. The good thing is you will get a bigger portion of the revenues, the bad part is you will also foot a bigger portion of the expenses. Since profit = revenues – expenses, this could be a good thing for many, many artists and a bad thing for others. I do believe however, it will cause the landscape to be flatter.

  8. How will it be flatter?

    At the moment an editor chooses the best person they can find to write a book, and then the company subsidises the writing of that book.

    How is a lone writer meant to take over the expense? You’re making something which is, roughly speaking, meritocratic into something for which a writer requires either a personal income or a compromise in quality of final work.

  9. Furthermore, a huge number of great books in history only got finished because there was a contract and an editor involved.

    Most writers do not burn with unfailing self-belief 24/7. They get depressed. They think it’s all pointless. They doubt their talent and their message. They might be a bit lazy. Other things might happen in their lives. Douglas Adams’ editor used to either move into his house or move him into a hotel to get him to finish writing his novels, for one example.

  10. zerobeta

    I never said it wasn’t meritocratic, just flatter. In fact its going to be an industry less driven by sales and marketing and more by talent and word of mouth. You take a shot on a .99 cent book on a Kindle, enjoy it and give it the thumbs up, twitter about it, blog about it – whatever. Enough people do this you start to see the book sell itself. A market where books essentially sell themselves is the ultimate meritocracy.

    There is reason why writing or creation of any artform should be any different than entrepreneurship. In many ways they are the same and getting closer each day in the digital world. Just like its easier for the entreprenuer to raise capital for his second company after selling a successful business, the artist should get capital easier for his/her next artistic venture.

  11. Writing and art are already businesses. Writers already do get capital more easily after a successful first book. And word of mouth already operates, against the odds – no one would have predicted that a title like Longitude would be a success.

    I’ve read slush piles. Editors who choose books sometimes overlook something good, or sometimes have commercial reasons to avoid it, but on the whole they function as a filter (would you try and read the web without arbiters/aggregators finding this stuff for you first? How many needles would you find in that hay stack?). And a lot of stuff still gets snapped up by smaller concerns. Look at the number of small-press publications on recent Booker shortlists.

    Publishing isn’t perfect, but your system would lose baby and bathwater both.

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