Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Double Take

Some readers may be wondering why the cover of my new book, Priceless, looks something like that of Chris Anderson's recent book Free. Did my publisher rip off the Free design? Short answer: no.
"It takes as long to make a book as to make a baby." That was the wry industry maxim back when publishers took three-martini lunches and Bennett Cerf was a panelist on What's My Line?. From finished manuscript to physical books took nine months. For reasons mysterious to almost everyone, the digital age hasn't speeded things up one iota. You might think that, now that manuscripts don't have to be rekeyed by typsetters, they could have shaved it to, oh, eight months? Nope. It's still nine. Anyway, the Priceless cover was created a couple of months before Free came out — notwithstanding the fact that Priceless is being published in January, six months after the Anderson book.

We started bouncing around ideas for a cover in April 2009. Publisher Thomas LeBien had the notion of putting a fake price on the jacket and having it "marked down" to the real price. By the end of May, the artist had developed this idea into the cover you see above. Hill and Wang had had success with a trompe l'oeil cover for my Fortune's Formula (left). The fake roulette chips made people want to pick up the book, and maybe that had something to do with the book's success. The Priceless design continued this theme with a very realistic pricetag projecting from a clothbound volume (this is all a printed jacket, of course). I loved the cover, and so did seemingly everyone who saw it. It was quickly approved and went out in the Hill and Wang catalogs.
Then on June 24, I saw a piece in the Los Angeles Times about Anderson's book, with an illustration of the cover. I e-mailed my editor, Joe Wisnovsky, and after due editorial handwringing, it was decided to stick with the cover we all liked. The reasoning was:
• The books are being published six months apart, and that makes it a bit less awkward.
• The two books' subject matter is quite distinct. Priceless is about the hidden psychology of prices, and Free is about giving away free content in the Internet, to promote the sale of something else.
• As mortifying as this might be to us (we thought we were so original!), it's not such a big deal with book buyers. Many won't notice, anyway.
• Some Chris Anderson fans might falsely assume that Priceless is a follow-up or response to Free. It's not, but if they want to buy it, it's a free country.
• Mainly, we just thought the cover worked and there was no point in switching to a less appealing cover to avoid an honest coincidence. The verisimitude is amazing, particularly in the actual object. Joe Wisnovsky showed both covers, side by side, to his brother-in-law, a French architect and talented amateur artist. He pronounced ours far more intriguing and eye-catching. Okay, it's like passing around baby photos — I'm sure that Chris Anderson likes his cover better. But I think it's a cool cover.
Just in case you're wondering, the hardcover version of Free costs $29.99, and Priceless is $26.99. Yes, that's another similarity: both use charm prices (ending in "9").

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Much for a Can of Whoop Ass?

How much would you pay for a can of Whoop Ass? Regular Facebook users will recognize the Whoop Ass as a popular "virtual gift" in the networking site's Gift Shop. The price is 10 credits. That's $1 in Earth money. For the same price, you can buy a rose, a slinky, a troll doll, or your favorite team's mascot — all virtual. They're nothing more than icons you can post on a friend's page — pixels with a price tag. The surprising thing is how big the virtual goods industry has become. Merchandise-that-isn't-really-there is one the few bright spots in a dismal economy. By one estimate it brings in a billion dollars a year, just in the U.S. To put it in perspective, that's roughly what Americans spend on lipstick or Mini Coopers.
It wasn't so long ago that virtual goods were limited to "weapons" and "spells" that hardcore gamers bought, to the befuddlement of most everyone female or over 30. That started to change with Second Life, the networked simulation game. The currency of Second Life is called "Linden Dollars," with about L$266 to the U.S. Dollar. By that standard, many prices in Second Life are bargains. A Linden Dollar will buy a new hair style or tattoo for your avatar. That sounds really great, until you try to explain to a nonplayer exactly what it is you bought.

One of the attractions of Second Life is that you can play for free. You quickly discover that this is like saying you can live in Manhattan for free — by sleeping on friends' couches. Your Second Life avatar will be homeless unless you fork over $9.95 a month (real dollars) to get a premium account with 512 square meters of land. That's about enough for a small tract house. Intentionally or not, much of Second Life is a dead-on caricature of our society's obsession with real estate. The point of Second Life is to impress your virtual friends, and that generally means building a virtual McMansion. Larger properties are available for sale or auction and yes, there are Second Life home flippers.
"For outsiders, the selling of virtual goods — items with no actual value in the real world — might seem the very definition of a swindle," wrote Claire Cain Miller and Brad Stone in The New York Times. Actually, the virtual product business says a lot about the real-world price decisions we all make. The products may be imaginary but buyer psychology is pretty much the same.

The virtual merchants use a trick familiar to every world traveler. Confronted with an unfamiliar currency, we all splurge and tip more freely than we would, blinded by a smokescreen of exchange rates and prices strictly for tourists. To Americans overseas, yen or lira just don't seem like "real money." That's the reason for the virtual currencies. We normally feel a conflict between the desire to spend and the obligation to save. Spending is fun, and saving is what we do because we'll feel guilty otherwise. But once you buy Linden dollars, credits, or other virtual currencies, you're committed to spend. What else are they for? It's difficult to convert virtual currencies back to real money, and nobody feels a pang of guilt about not squirreling Linden dollars away in a 401(k). The exchange rates of virtual currencies are often intentionally confusing. To convert Linden dollars to U.S. dollars, you have to divide by 266. Much of the time, that's just too much bother. Instead, Second Lifers think in Linden Dollars, which is to say, they take cues from the prices they see posted in the virtual world. Your friend buys an island, and you want an island. It's only money — and fake money, at that.