Books, Money, and Accessibility

Lucy and I were texting about The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde by the Arion Press the other day (it’s perhaps the most beautiful book I’ve seen in years). The shocker here is the price tag though: each book is $680! Wait, nope: that’s just for the paper. The standard edition is $800. And heck, their equally beautiful and weird edition of Frankenstein—look at those gosh darn illustrations—is $1000 a pop.

Questioning the price here feels somewhat wrong and makes me sweaty though. Just look at Bourdain walk around in awe as everyone simply does their job at the Arion Press. We could only hope to do half as good a job as them at anything else.

But that price...? It still makes me gasp a bit. Or, as I less eloquently said to Lucy:

If I wince at the price of a book, you done fucked up.

After this text thread, Lucy blogged up her side of the rant where she thinks through how artists have to sacrifice the accessibility of their work when they make something so expensive:

I really believe that art is meant to be shared. I want to make things that people can afford. When I was just starting to learn about the world of fine presses and letterpress and Artists’ Books in college, I remember being deeply frustrated by the fact that these creators—many of whom were working with themes of tactility, interaction, and accessibility—were making work that got sold for hundreds of dollars to private institutions, who then kept it in small rooms known only to a small subset of people.

It all felt so prohibitive.

Agreed! This is the reason why I was attracted to the web in the first place, because of strangers in California, Tokyo, and Amsterdam. Their free work connected me to this vast network of writers and designers that eventually shifted the whole direction of my life. I wouldn’t be here without free blog posts, free essays, free thinking let loose on the world wide web. Would I have found that same work if it had been locked up in a book with a thousand dollar price tag? Absolutely not.

So questioning the price of these books is also questioning their accessibility. By making something so gosh darn beautiful means a slither of people will ever see these things. And that rubs me the wrong way. I believe in access to information and access to beautiful things for people without a tech salary and a big check book.

Yet! Yet! Isn’t publishing my work for free somewhat devalue the work itself? Take those essays I write once every 2-ish years. I can only make those for free because I have a day job and I can only make something essay-shaped because I take two weeks off in December to make them. Does this free work devalue the writing of others who are trying to make a living from it? But then again who would pay for something like those essays? (My hunch: almost no-one). And then it would severely limit their accessibility if it had a price tag. But if good writing (I am being too generous to myself here) can only be done part-time by everyone then...ugh. That’s not a good sign for writing as an art form.

Lucy took all my incoherent anxiety here and packaged it up much more neatly in her blog post, especially when she put it in the context of cartoonists:

What would it really take for cartoonists to be paid fairly for the work they do? What happens to the accessibility of my work if I’m paid what I’m worth? Would the cost be passed on to the consumer or shouldered by the publisher? Who could afford the resulting product?

Here’s another thing: most books on my shelves I’ve sadly forgotten. But the strongest memory I have of almost any book I’ve ever read is a stupidly expensive one published by the Arion Press: their edition of Moby Dick. It’s an absolute treasure; a wonder, in paper form. But now you can’t buy a copy from their website and that feels so much more special to me. Not in the “look how cool I am for having a copy” but instead because it makes the book mythical, fated to disappear.

A once-in-a-lifetime thing.