Quickie: Value of Art / Price of an eBook


I am captivated by a post a friend wrote this week about her consideration of the intrinsic value of art:

Should Writers Sell Their Books for 99 Cents?

And I commented that I thought that art has value and that original thoughts, concepts, ideas, art, etc., do have value and I compared an 99 cent eBook to the cost of a Slurpee or a pack of gum or a bag of chips because sometimes that’s how I compare the value of things. (I think that offended her.) Would I pay more for a book or a movie than I would for a quick trip to 7-Eleven?

Hell yes. And at what point does something that has no intrinsic value have intrinsic value? When does “gilding the lily” equate into greater worth and value? For example (you’re now entering my mind, buckle up): food. Tomato sauce. Basic: tomatoes, water, heat it, and eat. It’s OK, but it’s not great. So we add salt. Better. Then maybe a dash of olive oil. And some fresh basil. Now we’re on to something… what about a dash of garlic? And some oregano… Do you see where I’m going with this? (GAWD I hope so, I don’t.) I’m going here: that a basic thing:  story, painting, shirt, sauce has value even if it’s undeveloped. Add some texture or ‘love’ to it and suddenly, it’s better. That’s why we value it. That’s why we will pay more for it.

And for me, this isn’t just because of the fact that this is what the market will bear and that this is because people are used to paying for books and movies. It’s because as a writer, I know that I work hard (even on a blog post: looking / creating pictures, going after links and doing a little research from time to time takes effort and I’m cool with that because it helps round out the experience) and if I created the concept, the throughput and the end product –and it’s original and entertaining — and if people have historically paid for this kind of thing before, that people should pay for it. I argued that because art has an intangible value: it speaks to us, moves us and entertains us and that its value is in the heart of the beholder (I hate Hallmark’s “Precious Moments” line, but other people love it and I’m sure they’d look at my obsession with Matisse’s “Jazz” and cut outs period with What the What faces).

Another friend of mine and I once used to equate the value of things with the price of Gap t-shirts, which were $10 at the time. “Is it worth a Gap t-shirt?” or “You know, you could get three Gap Ts for that…” or my favorite, “That’s a non-consumable, so it’s worth it…” and we would act accordingly.

Is this wrong?

Am I alone in comparing supposedly intrinsically worthless things to their consumable / non-consumable status and / or value? Maybe it’s generational, as I suggested to my friend on her blog.

In the case of the .99 eBook, sometimes you get what you pay for. I have bought some bombs for 2.99 and I have to say that I’ve been impressed by some free books. But I always love a bargain. The perfect recipe is providing something that people will enjoy at a cost that doesn’t make them feel like they’ve been suckered.

So here are my questions and I’d really love some feedback (in fact I’d always love some feedback!):

1) Do you feel art has value?

2) As a person, regardless of your art, would you equate the value of your output with the value of something unartistic?

Please let me know. The very existence of the universe depends on it.

Thank you.

UPDATE (9/19 3pm) here’s what I said on my fan page: “if we (as a collective) don’t value art, then … what? the entire creative process, literally, is art. i think it’s nuts to even have this discussion, but when i thought about the cost of a book vs. a bag of chips — that cigarettes cost more than a book, that gum could cost more than a book (chocolate, that’s an entirely different discussion, please…) then it got my head spinning. it’s important.” I know I made a joke about the universe depending on it, but it’s sorta not a joke. If we don’t value our craft, then why bother…?

About Grass Oil by Molly Field

follow me on twitter @mollyfieldtweet. i'm working on a memoir and i've written two books thus unpublished because i'm a scaredy cat. i hail from a Eugene O'Neill play and an Augusten Burroughs novel but i'm a married, sober straight mom. i write about parenting, mindfulness, irony, personal growth and other mysteries vividly with a bit of humor. "Grass Oil" comes from my son's description of dinner i made one night. the content of the blog is random, simple, funny and clever. stop by, it would be nice to get to know you. :)

15 responses »

  1. Molly, I am with you. Things that are priceless do not often match in dollars to their worth. I can remember the last time I sold a painting for what it was worth, and it’s been a while.
    I have been reading you for free here, for a while. How many T-shirts do I owe you?

    I firmly place the dollar value on artwork, and dollars *are* non-artistic worth.
    In a different manner, some art guilds that have members shows demand that art cost at least $1/sq inch, I was told recently, of western states. I guess that would cost $22/inch in the northeast.

    But I don’t think bad art should cost as much as good art. And in the same manner, I don’t want to pay too much for an author whose thoughts are unimpressive, but at the same time I expect that a classic will cost less because it will circulate more and possibly be mandatory reading for students. The best art history or art criticism books usually cost a fortune. When they’re good.

    • Kirstin, my blog: it’s on the house, 😉 I’m glad you weighed in. There is no such thing as free art: the time it takes to create a piece (no matter the media) is time that could have been spent doing other things. The time it takes to promote, is similar. Then there’s the time to create a platform, a following: again, not free. I think people scratch their heads if they’re given something for nothing… there’s a catch, right? No. Well, yes… tell me you loved it and tell your friends too. There is always an exchange.

      Consider, the art in a park: D.C.’s Smithsonian sculpture gardens. We might think they’re free… they’re not: taxes pay for them, their maintenance, their security, their placement, their availability.

      If the work, the effort is not fun for the creator, then they’re in the wrong business is what I’m concluding. I don’t mind not getting paid for something I love to do if I’ve agreed to present myself that way. But I am cautious to throw myself to the winds: if I don’t value what I create, who will?

  2. Art definitely has value. To one who appreciates it. (like you said, value is in the eyes of the beholder) The higher a book is priced, the more will its value be in the reader’s mind. Then again, I have also read some amazing 99 cent books. Depends on who one wants to target and how confident one is about one’s book. (too many 1s ;))))& the buyer may not feel like paying more for the next work!)

    • Good point, Rucy. It’s also about perception. I hadn’t considered that; I’m too close to the discussion, I suppose: that if it’s pricier then it must be good. I follow Seth Godin (Poke The Box / The Domino Project) he talks a lot about perception and “limited availability” and creating buzz. Thanks for your comments!

  3. Thanks so much for continuing the discussion, Molly. I — think — I — may — be — won — over. I’m fascinated. So, we must charge for our art because we believe art is important? Thinking, thinking, thinking.

    • Jody – yes.

      the neat thing about some of my followers is along with having cool people in general on my “feed” i have a couple absolute bonafide artists, as in galleries and i think they are the most attuned to this query because along with what you and i would do as writers, these folks sell what they make and it’s GONE, as in never in their view again. and i really wanted to hear from them (Kirstin, who also commented is one of those people) and see what they think. Unlike you and me: we can see a book and hold it and smell it and give it away and then get another one… these genius-inspired sculptors, painters, artists… not so much. there is value in what we do; we can’t command thousands, several hundred dollars, etc., for our blood, sweat and tears, but we can ask for more than .$99. i think that’s fair.

      thanks for stopping by!

  4. I don’t think it’s generational; I think it has to do with how practical a person is. I’m very practical. I’m a bargain shopper. I compare everything. People tend to pay more for things they like, and what someone else thinks is golden may be just a piece of caca to me. If I see a book priced at .99, yes, I am more likely to buy it, but only if it appeals to me for whatever reason. I do tend to think lower-priced books are priced less because they are worth less (but not worthless), whether that means the author is unknown or the book really sucks, not because the author or publisher is being “generous.”

    Who says how much a book is worth? Well, I think comparison shoppers will agree that it depends on what other books of like quality and quantity at selling for. I’ll buy a higher priced book if it matches the quality and quantity of similar books AND if I think I will enjoy it.

    I do think art has value, or at least that it has a perceived value. With books, I think that only classics are “priceless,” and that is exactly why they cost more money–because the artist can never recreate them. I’m not talking reprints. Yes, books can be reprinted, but first editions can get very pricey. New books from new authors are works of art too, but they are also NEW, as in unknown. They do, however, deserve some kind of price, even if it is crap. No author in their right mind, even if they are completely unknown, should give away their product. What kind of business are they running? No other business I can think of gives away its product. Why should authors? And why the heck should anyone expect us to?

    Finally, everything has a price. I don’t care what people say. I may not pay money for a big ole pile of poo, but you can bet that at least one out of us billions will take one look at it, think s/he just struck gold, and dish out some serious dough. To each her (or his) own.

    • “big ole pile of poo.” i love it! i think you’re right though – it’s subjective. i just have a hard time with the idea of all that work and love and having it cost less than a gallon of gas. do i think Alice in Wonderland should be free as an eBook? no. but it is… it’s all arbitrary. thanks for your thoughts, Stacie!

  5. Art absolutely has value, and I’m not just saying this as a writer/photographer. I’ve dipped my toes into the world of professional photography, and I have to say that my work is worthy of someone else paying for it. It has taken me years to refine my skills…and as I’ve had many a conversation with other photographers, you need to be good at one of two things these days to do well. You either have to be a very good photographer or a very good editor. I choose the former because it’s easier and truer to the art form. It amazes me how many out there make a living taking terrible pictures and poorly editing them…just like it amazes me how many terrible writers are far more successful than I am. There’s an element of luck, of course, in everything.

    At the end of the day, though, my point is that yes, art has value. My brother was an art major and is trapped in the mortgage industry. I long for the day he finds his way back to his true calling. He is amazing.

    • Kelly, it’s tragic, truly, when an inspired artist has to constrain his heart to make ends meet. If books were cheese, we’d all be rich. (Don’t ask where that came from, I have no clue.) I think though, that I don’t mind being swept away to another land or to the 1800s for $10. It’s cheaper than the airfare. 😉

      And yes, you should be paid for your photography.

  6. I’m too tired at the moment to give the kind of answer I’d like to, but YES, art has value. It’s non-monetary value – that it communicates something to others – is just as important as its monetary value, I’d say. But in these days of the Internet and eBooks, yes, often it’s that first value that happens for the artist rather than the second. I feel like there should be a way to have both, for any art, but how to ensure that, I have no idea.

    Molly, your “how many GAP T-shirts” measure is cool – I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of things that way, but I probably will now. 😉

    As always, you make me think!!

    • Hey Barbara, I’m so happy to hear from you! I’m glad the Gap t-shirt algorithm speaks to you! And yes, art is extremely valuable. We can’t all be left-brainers. People forget that a main component of competition and business is creativity. Where would Apple be without creativity?

      • it would be nowhere!! Apple is built on creativity of so many different kinds. 🙂 I always sigh when people say they’re not creative – they’re defining creativity too narrowly, is the problem.

        And it’s good to be heard from! 😉 I was in the hospital again a week ago, but only overnight, thank goodness!

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