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Feb. 3, 2009, 11:50 p.m.

Jeff Jarvis, talking for 23 minutes: $10. Jeff writing 70,000 words: $13.

Jeff Jarvis’ new book, What Would Google Do? is available in three formats: hardcover ($13.39 via third-party on Amazon), a Kindle edition ($14.84), and — and here’s the new bit — a 23-minute video. It’s Jeff talking at the camera, apparently unscripted, summing up the messages of his book.

In other words, it’s like a long book trailer — except it costs $9.99! And instead of being an ad for the main attraction, the book itself, it’s a vendable good on its own.

On one hand, this seems silly. It seems wrong, somehow, that HarperCollins will easily clear more per sale for this short, minimally produced digital video than it will for the printed book, which required the labor of many and the fixed costs of printing, distributing, and retailing.

On the other hand, though, for this kind of book — one aimed at the stereotypical Busy Business Executive — I can imagine that a sitcom-length video of Jeff talking to a camera is actually a better value proposition for some readers than hours spent reading the physical book. It’s the CliffsNotes version. And people were willing to pay for CliffsNotes, back in the day.

One of the big lessons of the new economy is that different people are willing to pay different amounts for fundamentally the same good — and that, to thrive, you have to have an array of product offerings available for them to pay what they feel comfortable paying.

That’s always been true for some parts of the economy. Take air travel. Some people pay high last-minute prices for a flight; others buy a month ahead of time and get a deal. Some pay $300 for coach and others pay $1,300 for first class. Is that extra pack of peanuts and a wider seat really worth $1,000? Or are there some people who are fine with a higher price and are willing to pay it in exchange for a few limited perks?

Take public broadcasting. Most people pay nothing at all for it. Others are willing to pay $15 once a year. Others pay $500. And all the $500 guy has to show for his investment is a tote bag with some call letters on the side — and a good feeling about himself, maybe.

But also take Radiohead. Most people paid nothing for their last album, which you could legally download for any price. But some people — the superfans — were happy to pay $80 for the deluxe boxed set which had some pretty pictures. Or Nine Inch Nails, which released an album you could legitimately pay $300, $75, $39, $10, $5, or nothing for.

So what are those albums “worth”? They’re worth different amounts to different people. Maybe one guy gets the $300 NIN record because he’s their biggest fan. Maybe another guy gets it because he’s rich and likes to show off. Maybe another one doesn’t know what an MP3 and is willing to pay big bucks for physical packaging. But no matter their motivations, NIN gets paid — even if 95 percent of everyone listening to his album got it for free.

Pricing physical products at multiple levels was always difficult because the distribution system — things like retail stores or newspaper boxes — typically functioned only with a fixed price. But for goods that can be sold digitally — like MP3s, journalism, or the right to sleep in a hotel room for a night — pricing flexibility becomes easy.

It’s this logic that leads me to two beliefs that lots of other whither-journalism types would probably disagree with me on:

— I have more faith than most that there will be successful business models built around people willing to pay for journalism. The mere presence of a free product doesn’t mean there is no room for a non-free product. Tons of web sites follow this model, and I think there’s room for it for news organizations. The key is figuring out what the distinguishing divide is between the two — and, in some cases, it might not be much more than a tote bag.

— I have less faith than most that micropayments will ever be successful. For the vast majority of people, the gap between free and a teensy-tiny payment is huge. There are a gazillion other free web sites out there, so why should they have to pay $0.01 for clicking on yours? That’s why I think the future is more likely to lie in getting big payments out of the few who are willing to pay — the $300 NIN buyers — than getting small payments from everybody.

So I say bully on HarperCollins for trying something new — trying to repurpose its product to please a different segment of the market than the one that, you know, reads books. I don’t know if it’ll work or not — I doubt many of the customers for whom this would make sense are hanging around Amazon’s Digital Downloads section. But don’t automatically assume that if $13 can buy you an actual book, then $10 is too much for at least some people to pay for a few minutes of Jeff talking.

POSTED     Feb. 3, 2009, 11:50 p.m.
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