E- versus Print? Burgers and Steak

5122148955_cf4dede686_bwhere’s the beef? actually, I suppose that should be “what’s the beef?”

beef /b?f/ noun secondary, informal use: a complaint or grievance. synonyms: complaint, criticism, objection, cavil, quibble, grievance, grumble, gripe, grouse [thank you, Google.]

This is not the first time I’ve used a ‘steak’ analogy; something about media consumption generally lends itself to the inevitable comparison. (DVDs have menus, social media and rss both have feeds, we even talk about information diets)

  • Cheaper, faster, available from more outlets? Call that a ‘burger’.
  • More expensive, often considered a prestige item at many vendors, and with a so-called-best expression found at decades-old establishments dedicated to it? Call that a ‘steak’

A steak can cost $25 or more, you make the purchase of it a special event, or part of a ritual. Oh, sure: a steak can be had for $15 from some neighborhood “bar and grill” but somehow the identical cut (often prepared the same) isn’t given the same regard: If you want a decent steak you go to where the chef and the cooks and the staff are all on board with the experience. You go to a steakhouse. If you happen to be at some other restaurant and take a flyer and order the steak, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if it’s any good and honestly, not really disappointed if it’s not. (Unless you’re the asshole who sends back plates at a Tuesdays/Fridays/ApplePepper… dude, …you had that option before walking in the door, don’t torture the staff)

In contrast: Burgers are fast and cheap; not $25 but to be had in under 5 minutes and for as little as 99¢ — and if the 99¢ burger is a little small and not as satisfying, you don’t complain.

For a decent lunch — grabbed on the go — you expect to pay $2.99 or $3.99 (or maybe a little more, if you’ve ordered from this joint before and you happen to really like their burgers — value for the money)

Do the price points I’m citing (or the title of this blog post) give you an idea of where I’m going with this?

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You go to the bookstore: you get recommendations, some guidance, some free samples [open a book, fool, that’s what they’re there for], they have a comprehensive ‘menu’ and even a comfy seat.

This costs more at the steakhouse; it costs more at the bookstore.

‘Steak’, right? Oh, but steak doesn’t cost $25, you say? You can get a decent rib-eye (about a half pound or so) for $4.99.

Sure you can. If you’re lucky you went to the butcher, but more likely it’s just the cut in a styrofoam tray at your supermarket. And then you’re on your own: how to season it, how to cook it, cast iron or grill? Is either of those even an option?

A cheap steak requires a certain amount of expertise. (AND I glossed over the choice of cut: sirloin, rib-eye, new york or kansas city strip, t-bone, porterhouse, london broil, flank, skirt, flatiron, top and bottom round — and those are the US cuts; a British or Brazilian butcher will take the same cow and divide it differently.) Hell, finding a cheap steak and figuring out what to do with it is work.

Any wonder why some would rather just get it from a steakhouse, inflated price be damned?

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YES, OF COURSE if one believes in anecdotal evidence, we can all easily relate:

  • that really awesome steak we had for like $12 at some hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop restaurant
  • that $8 burger which was literally the best thing ever, transcendent really
  • the diner with an awesome $4 burger — honestly I order like 4 without sides and that’s all I eat there
  • the highfalutin’ hoity-toity place that made me put on a jacket, charged me $50, and the steak sucked.

Here I will note again: yes. That’s fine. Your experience is valid,
but this whole post is just an extended metaphor.

There are what, one hundred thousand restaurants across the US? More? A million? I don’t actually think it’s a million but hell, call it a million restaurants.

There are at least 129 Million Books and another million get added each year.

Relying on only anecdotal evidence: I could pick any one book and it would either prove or disprove any generalization. I could pick whole genres.

##

Let’s go back to customer experience and expectations:

If your budget is smaller, and you tend to “eat out” often, you’ll naturally gravitate to the Burger-end of the beef spectrum: give us this day our daily burger (and fries) and lead us not unto heart disease.

Expectations are smaller, price points are lower, we need something that satisfies but are not looking for transcendent experiences. You go through the drive-thru. Convenience matters more than quality. Sometimes you celebrate the quick-cheap-and-easy aspects, and might even be caught out saying A Good Burger Trumps a Mediocre Steak in my book, any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

(If you plan ahead and make a reservation, are bringing a date, plus fronting $30 bucks a plate just for the entrées: your expectations are higher.)

Let’s say you’re some kind of a douchenozzle and you demand home delivery from a steakhouse — your expectations haven’t changed (and the prices haven’t either) but the beef you end up eating is not what you ordered. (By taking the dining experience out of the dining room you’ve necessarily changed it — not just your time waiting but also the time entrées spend hanging out and cooling: time, distance, reality, etc.)

…so of course the first thing you do is spring to Yelp and write a scathing take down and denounce the steakhouse for not being a drive-thru or delivery joint and for serving you a steak that had already been off the grill for whole minutes by the time you saw it.

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So. [putting my metaphors in a blender and hitting ‘frappe’]

By taking the ‘bookstore experience’ out of the bookstore: you’ve necessarily changed it.

Ebook consumers with a burger budget and burger diet complaining about the cost of steak kind of piss me off.

Ebook consumers with a burger budget and burger diet complaining that the Bookstore (our Steakhouse stand-in) doesn’t serve burger — or sell the burgers at a whole dollar mark up — kind of miss the point of bookstores.

Ebook consumers with a burger budget and burger diet complaining about the Cost of Steak also kind of miss the point: A good burger, prepared well and plated with exceptional skill, is a meal that often exceeds the customer expectations and also quite often is even more satisfying than a steak. This is attributable to the skill of the staff, and the chef/author, and should be considered only on a plate-by-plate (book-by-book) basis.

One-off experiences are not how we price burgers *or* steak. You had an exceptional meal; great, go you.

A single reaction to a single experience is not how pricing works.

Authors have been turning dog food into Delmonico’s for decades, and the list of genres that started out as pulp that have been rehabilitated into literature starts with mystery and is rapidly gaining on erotica. Science fiction and romance gained on the first rehabilitation, and in the current climate, are still gaining in comparison.

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So, why is the quality/price dynamic — even with the many context-specific nuances — easy to understand when we talk about Hamburgers vs Steak (with the implied associations provably false as we have all been served transcendent Burgers and Inedible steaks) but in an Ebook vs Hardcover/Paperback debate it always comes back down to price?

No consideration of the discovery process, or the venues that enable the discovery process?
No consideration of the differences between products, and between markets?
No consideration of quality as a differentiator, or something that might—in a completely free and open market—be a factor that demands a higher price?

There is no steakhouse in the hybrid-bookstore-and-ebook model, just varying degrees of fast-food joints?

Since it’s all just beef (just books), it should all be available from just one source and all at a single price point?

This is the position you’re staking out as a starting point?

reposted under a CC license from Rocket Bomber

image by TheHungryDudes

5 Comments on E- versus Print? Burgers and Steak

  1. Al the Great and Powerful // 11 November, 2013 at 7:45 pm // Reply

    Authors are the breeding cows, for the most part. They make something that can become ‘steak’ or ‘hamburger.’ Publishers (all publishers, including self-publishers) are the cooks, who take the author’s product and make what the reader/diner gets.

    Bookstores? Who are they in the process… they don’t write the book, they don’t decorate its pages or print it. They are strictly resellers who drive the price up, after the book has been produced. In food terms they go to the store, buy pre-cooked hot dogs , then sell them to you at a markup because they dressed them up with condiments.

    Bookstores are more like car dealerships. Some charge you more because they can, some charge you more because they make your shopping experience better, some go for quick sales at margin…

    TL,DR — bookstores aren’t in charge of making books, only the very end of selling them. Your analogy is flawed.

    • This point came up at the Passive Voice over another article and the dividing line is simple: publishers are part of the creative process and add value/quality to the product. Retailers add nothing to the product itself. Their value add, if any, is separate and distinct from the book itself and has no bearing on the book’s quality.
      Where you buy the book makes no difference on whether it is “steak or burger” or whether the steak is shoe leather drowned in sauce or the burger is a work of culinary art.
      Bookstores think too highly of themselves and the louder they proclaim their importance the pettier they seem. And the more dispensable.

  2. Most people who argue that ebooks will be dominant, though, do not argue that they will become 100% of the market. They instead argue that physical bookstores will be expensive, and cater to those who want the bookstore experience: kind of like those $25-entree steakhouses. So in a way, I’m not sure you disagree that much with them?

    Also, I haven’t seen many people argue that hardcover prices should be identical to ebook prices. If anything, I have more often seen the complaint that ebook prices EXCEED hardcover or paperback prices. In other words, the most common complaint I’ve seen is that a burger is more expensive than a steak or of equal price.

  3. As an FYI, steakhouses have a much better quality of beef that consumers can’t get in supermarkets or most butcher shops. That’s why that restaurant’s steak tastes better beyond the ambiance and the talent of the grill master.

    If you really want to stretch this metaphor you are creating, steakhouse steaks/books are by the cream of the cream of authors.

  4. Good post… It really made me think about it. If this post just stated that bookstores were like steakhouses, in that they provided an *experience*, I might have been able to get on board. I disagree with the rest of it.

    I realized I recently started to prefer ebooks to print (never expected that to happen) so I ended up writing my own post in response.

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