Is your time worth more than $0.30 an hour?

Most of us believe our time is extremely valuable, certainly worth more than 30 cents. But then you read about human decision-making, and you have to wonder what goes through people’s heads.

This time it is Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at The Wall Street Journal, who wrote a review of Amazon Publishing, the printing house (if you will) of the e-commerce giant. Amazon published more than one thousand titles in 2017, and now commands roughly a majority of all book purchases made in the U.S., online or offline.

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But what really surprised me about the article was this paragraph:

Under the arrangement, these titles are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, which pays authors based on how many pages of an e-book are read. The payouts are usually around $0.004 to $0.005 a page. Authors would receive $1.20 to $1.50 on 300-page e-book priced at $10, less if readers don’t finish.

If you read an average of say 60 pages an hour, that equates to about 30 cents of royalties per hour of entertainment. Amazon’s revenues are higher given that Kindle Unlimited is a subscription, but still. We can argue that the titles on Kindle Unlimited are pulp fiction, or that the users of Kindle Unlimited lack taste, or whatever.

The reality, though, is that people (i.e. the reading public) are remarkably parsimonious when it comes to filling up their heads with words. Wired writer Antonio García Martínez tweeted out a question last week:

The obvious answer is that there is literally no market for people to pay $10-20 for 30 pages of content, outside of case studies at Harvard Business School. I chatted with some authors and publishing execs about this, and the answer was two-fold. One is that consumers really have a knack for only paying for thicker books rather than shorter ones. And two, books have enormous fixed costs that make short works infeasible given that consumer market (for instance, the cost of a cover design is the same regardless of length of a book).

And so publishers junk up their books with extras to make them seem thicker than they really are.

Take The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, which I just finished reading this morning (it’s a fine book). The paperback version is listed on Amazon as “368 pages.” That’s a substantial book! But it isn’t that long at all. The actual core text of the book, including the epilogue, is 217 pages, with 26 photos strewn about along with fairly heavy amounts of page gaps between chapters. So the core text is maybe around 190 pages. The book then adds a frequently asked questions section (22 pages), an acknowledgements section (12 pages!), notes (40 pages), bibliography (28 pages), an index (18 pages) and a reading group guide (three pages). Indeed, 190 pages of 368 is 51.6 percent.

I am not saying that notes or a bibliography are optional in a political argumentative text, but merely that the publisher, which lists the paperback at $17.95, felt compelled to add all these photos and a FAQ to make the book feel substantial for consumers to get them to pay $18.

In “Brainjunk and the killing of the internet mind,” I argued that we need to start paying more for less in the context of media subscriptions:

It is the deep irony of our times that readers, often deeply educated, will shell out $30 for a meal in New York or San Francisco while paying thousands in rent, only to avoid paying a few bucks a month for a publication, let alone ten. The monthly price for the New York Times is the price of a single cocktail these days in Manhattan.

The bulk of my friends don’t pay for subscriptions. The bulk of the internet doesn’t pay for subscriptions. People will gladly spend hours a day reading brainjunk, to avoid even the slightest expense that might improve the quality of what they are reading. And so, even storied publications are going to fall by the wayside so we can read about “7 Tips on How To Improve Media.”

I think it is well past time to extend that thinking to all forms of content that we consume.

That’s why I have started to calculate the price per page of my books as a way to adjust for quality, and also to match how I value my time. Sitting on my desk right now are three slim books:

  1. Networks of New York by Ingrid Burrington (112 pages, $15.96)
  2. The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant (128 pages, $15.00)
  3. The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (128 pages, $14.95)

There is nothing wrong with paying $18 for a 160-page book. Much like fast food is cheap but perhaps not positively filling, an underpriced book is likely to similarly nourish our brains.

Share your feedback on your startup’s attorney

My colleague Eric Eldon and I are reaching out to startup founders and execs about their experiences with their attorneys. Our goal is to identify the leading lights of the industry and help spark discussions around best practices. If you have an attorney you thought did a fantastic job for your startup, let us know using this short Google Forms survey, and also spread the word. We will share the results and more in the coming weeks.

Stray thoughts (aka, what I am reading)

Short summaries and analysis of important news stories

Media investing is still tough

Nieman Lab interviews Corey Ford, who founded, one of the few venture firms that was willing to invest in media. Ford is taking time away from Matter to consider his next steps after seven years at the helm. Ford on opportunities in investing: “However, I wish that we could have figured out a model that was a mix of companies that are on the venture capital journey — I feel like there’s an opportunity in the middle, in between nonprofits and venture capital. I think especially this space is one where I call it, to use a baseball analogy, instead of looking for only grand slams, what are the good doubles?”

U.S. and China seem to be heading toward a deal

Pressure is growing on both governments to try to calm their trade spat. Meanwhile, in Europe, trade ministers and heads of competition policy are openly debating how best to make Europe competitive with Chinese state-run conglomerates, who are gobbling up market share in strategic industries. Meanwhile, in Huawei news, Oxford University has suspended ties to the embattled company, while Germany considers banning it entirely (which is hard to believe given the number of Huawei ads I saw in Berlin two months ago).

What’s next & obsessions

  • I have a lot of short books on my desk to read.
  • Arman is reading Never Lost Again by Bill Kilday, a history of mapping at Google and beyond.
  • Arman and I are interested in societal resilience startups that are targeting areas like water security, housing, infrastructure, climate change, disaster response, etc. Reach out if you have ideas or companies here <>

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