A note on value (buried in a lot of geekery) • 5 January 2008 • The SnowBlog

A note on value (buried in a lot of geekery)

I threatened to enthuse about the book I'm reading, and given the surprising number of thank you notes in response to my last post I'm afraid I'm going to go ahead and wallow in my geekness for a while longer. Below the cut is a book review of sorts - but don't expect it to be the sort of book you'll want to rush out and buy. At least, you won't unless your day job includes running a publishing company. My new book is called A Designer's Guide to Adobe InDesign and XML. That might sound a bit dull to you, but those words pretty much cover off my life goals at the moment. As you might know we use ONIX data, which is a form of XML, to manage and use our bibliographic data. I'm always very keen, therefore, on finding new ways and best practice to make the most of this data - to use it to create our web pages, catalogues, to fill in forms and to generally avoid having to type out data manually. Who wants to be typing out data when you could be reading the next potential bestseller, or talking about our books? Getting computers to do the dull stuff means we can spend our time having fun. To date, I've found a couple of white papers from Adobe and a couple of cut-down chapters in the (generally excellent) RealWorld InDesign book from Peachpit Press. Apart from those tantalising snippets of info, though, Rob and I are pretty much on our own, feeling our way. There just isn't anything out there, aside from expensive expert consultants, that really gets to the core of using XML in InDesign. We've even looked at ditching InDesign and upgrading to FrameMaker which, it is rumoured, supports XML in a much more structured way. Rob spent a few months writing some scripts to create a directory we did, but we shouldn't have to resort to programming, surely. In fact, if you google 'ONIX Publishing', in the first five results is a link to my own tutorial on ONIX and Indesign, closely followed by a link to our own white paper on XML for publishers (the majority of the other results, naturally, are from Robin at Anko, tireless enthusiast for spreading the ONIX message that he is). I was resigned to a couple of years of trial and error to get up to expert level at this stuff. So I can't tell you how exciting it is to find a whole, beautifully laid out, 324 page bonanza of a book dedicated to teaching me, in gorgeous, intricate, wonderful detail just how super InDesign can be at handling XML. When I say 'super', it's still ultra-picky - make one, tiny, wrong move and it just won't work - but who cares, now I have a finely-crafted user manual to guide me through it. And so, finally, I get to the point of this post. This book - this heroic, perfect, targetted, WONDERFUL book that is going to add two years to my life and save me hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds - cost 27.19. What an absolute bargain. The value I'm going to get from it far, far outweighs the cost - and I'm going to learn a hundred times as many things from it than if I spent ten times the cost on a training course. My point? Books are absolute bargains. Same goes for fiction. A good novel can change your life, or, at least, provide you with a fortnight's entertainment. Quite a bargain for 7.99. I'm not sure what my point is after this, though. Would we want novels to cost 30, or 40, or 50, or non fiction to cost 100, or 200 - a cost more on a par with the value they can provide? I know that some Kogan Page books cost about 300 - and I suppose, if you're setting up a trading floor, 300 is a drop in the ocean. Libraries would probably enjoy a resurgence if that was the case. Interesting to think about, isn't it?
Rob's update: As all you budding classical economists out there will know, what Em is talking about is 'utility', the benefit you get from something expressed in monetary terms. Ideally, you'd charge each person a whisker less than the utility they get from buying it. I've given this a lot of thought over the years, and I think the way forward with flexible, personalised book pricing is to insist that customers read each book with their head in an MRI machine (or similar). You then charge them based on how positively they reacted to the material. Interestingly, this would make many worthy-but-hard-work prize-winning titles free, but guilty-pleasure Jilly Cooper's could end up costing a fortune. Weird I know, but It's the only way.


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