The value of text.

The monetary value of text, that is. Yes, we can easily attach sentimental or emotional value to words on a page or screen — personal dairy and blog entries included. A loved one’s text messages are basically priceless. What I’m trying to figure out is at what point does text become worth paying for?

You can point at a printed volume of work and assign it a price because it costs money to produce. Paper costs money, ink costs money, typesetting, binding, packaging and shipping all gets bundled into this which, in the hands of the reader, offers a tangible object in return for their exchange of currency. All this and the text itself hasn’t even been taken into account.

So, the easy one, printed text. Say you have two volumes of text: same word count, same paper, size, same cost to produce basically. At what point does the text itself give the volume more or less value? Take a book on how to write Javascript vs a copy of Ulysses as an example. We know textbooks get very expensive while novels outside the hardback versions are considerably cheaper. Which one was harder to write? The Javascript documentation is freely available online, but the textbook writer has clearly taken the time to make it into a palatable course for students or new users. Ulysses on the other hand is not easy to read, with advanced prose it often has a decent percentage of 1-2 star reviews on many online bookstores but it is known as one of the great literary novels. A Javascript textbook can run anywhere from $24 to $50, while Ulysses goes from $5 used to $15 new. Why is this? Well, learning Javascript can net you a decent job these days and making it all the way through Ulysses is a much more personal accomplishment at 265,222 words.

Does society then dictate how much text is worth? The value you can get from a printed book seems to be related to the content inside (as in how its information can make you money or teach you something in return). But what happens when an author signs a novel? What if you can get a copy of Ulysses signed by Joyce? Now the text has way more value! What happens when there is a major change to the Javascript codebase? Now your textbook is out of date and worth less than it was before. (We have so many defunct software manuals on the shelf here you don’t even know.)

Alright, so big kid novels and textbooks are one thing but what about smaller format writing? What about chapbooks, magazines, or even newspapers? Newspapers are cheap and basically worthless after a day or so. Magazines are a great place to read short fiction and essays, and the chapbook allows poets and writers a taste of what they can do. A quarterly magazine subscription isn’t always cheap, and a 50 page chapbook can easily be sold for $10-$15. So is this an example where the content of the text boosts the value?

I think this is a good point to switch to digital text in this conversation, given that so many news outlets and magazines are online these days. We’ve all gone to a news website to read an article only to be bombarded with dozens of shady ads or the more disruptive paywall. We would easily pay a dollar for a printed newspaper but once it’s online? How dare you make me pay to read 500 words I can read for free on social media live as it happens. Without the paywall a website has to sell ads which require someone to click on them. That might have been a money making thing a decade ago but thanks to adblockers and such nobody really clicks on them anymore.

Get paid to write online! Is a common thing to see when setting up a blog or newsletter. There is little to no barrier to entry for writing online these days. Go to the library or grab a GoPhone, open a browser, set up an email and a WordPress account. If you’re more tech savvy you can roll something with GitHub Pages then type whatever comes to mind and hit publish. Tumblr, Twitter, Blogger, Medium, Substack, Tinyletter, Wattpad, AO3, etc all can be used to create a platform for your own text. But these aren’t exactly paying venues, and if you want to monetize the work you’ll probably need to set up a paid account. At that point you might as well pay to host things yourself. This is the part where you can slip into the rut of bombarding your readers with affiliate links and ads. That’s also where the newer phenomenon of paid newsletters has sprung up. Your content may have not changed but now you’re charging for it, and it better be worth it to the reader or that precious email list will start shrinking.

So what about free to read text? Where you know the site owner is footing the bill via their own budget, donations, submission fees, or whatever. The thing with websites is that someone somewhere has to pay for the hosting and the more folks visit the site the more it’s going to cost to host it. Free to read lit mags are typically run by means of volunteer editors who read your submissions after work or on the weekends. Some will charge a submission fee in order to pay the authors of the work the select for the site but they don’t require an online subscription to read the online work.

Why even buy printed media anymore anyway? Why bother offering a printed magazine when you could just post the work for free online? My short fiction site is free to read, but costs me $5 a month to host, this website also costs me $5 a month to host, but nothing here or there is of a caliber worth charging for. My book on the other hand cost way more to have edited and setup for distribution, which is why it’s not a freely downloadable epub file. The printed version costs money, the ebook costs money. Unless I compile all the MOSFET Mag pieces into a chapbook and toss them on Ingram they won’t cost money.

Alright, back to the print vs online comparison: So it’s clear that printing literature is still a viable thing given physical books are still widely sold. But when it comes to technical text, like how to fix some Javascript bug, by the time you write/typeset/print/ship a textbook that one bug might already be fixed somewhere. I can go to StackOverflow and most likely find the specific issue I’m having in a few minutes (implementing it is another story). When it comes to news you run into the same problem, by the time it’s printed and purchased the information is old and no longer of value. If I write and mail someone a letter the information can’t be super urgent because the mail doesn’t run three times a day like it did back forever ago.

At what point is the text I type out worth charging for? A story isn’t always worth printing, not just because I couldn’t sell X copies of it but because the content hasn’t been professionally edited, typeset, and printed. Some sort of external effort has to go into it beyond however many hours spent clacking keys. Now, clearly writing little things are worth the effort for me in the first place and share on occasion or I wouldn’t be paying to host the text online, regardless of readership. That’s obviously different than having a company hire you to write for their website, in which you should be paid for the work like any other job since it’s a commercial operation.

I think the problem here is that I’m compounding creative writing with informative technical writing. A blog post about how to install firmware on a raspberry pi has a different value than one where you talk about going out to eat and forgetting your wallet. The firmware post offers step by step instructions for a user, while the wallet post is just a personal story for entertainment. Is technical information more valuable than entertainment? How to write a romance novel vs the actual romance novel? The articles in my printed out copy of 2600 give instructions on how to do write a script that does xyz, but it also has stories about things that have happened to people or things they have done etc. Is that a key to creating value? A combination of education and entertainment? Either way, I pay the $8 for the printed copy that I can open up at any time as long as I own the issue and read it. Digital files are only as good as long as the file format is useable. PDF’s and TXT aren’t going anywhere but opening an epub or mobi file might be an issue later on down the line. And forget about opening those Amazon ebook files without them being on the device wile connected to the internet while your account is active. I have a whole other post in the works about them and this one is already at 8k words so It’s time to wrap it up.

I think text is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. That amount is subject to the xp or popularity of the author, the production costs of printing or hosting the content, or the scarcity of the information/quality of the story. This of course doesn’t always correlate with the emotional or sentimental value of the words themselves.

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