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The Vogue Archive and Other Singularities

After being burned by an utterly unusable New Yorker archive I purchased a few years ago, I’ve been wary of magazines’ efforts to market archival access. Apparently, magazines are very careful about granting access, too: the Vogue archive will cost $1575 per year for access. A post on the archive by Joshua Gans explores the complexities here:

The cost to Vogue of an additional subscriber is, in fact, zero. I know there is bandwidth and server maintenance but even if you try, we are approaching zero. That means that a price of $1,575 identifies the point on the demand curve where the price elasticity of demand is -1. That means a 0.1% price drop will cause a 0.1% increase in subscription numbers, leaving revenue the same. . . . [T]his is targeting the professional segment of Vogue’s demand and given what they get the price sounds reasonable especially since it is difficult for Vogue to work out individual’s willingnesses-to-pay.

The pricing problems here remind me of a book called Valuing the Unique: The Economics of Singularities, by Lucien Karpik. He defines “singularities” as “goods and services that cannot be studied by standard methods because they are multidimensional, incommensurable, and of uncertain quality.” The book looks at markets ranging from “fine wines, movies, and luxury goods” to “pop music and legal services.” As he observes, we have social reasons for keeping all these things out of the realm of pure commodities. (I’d quote the text relating to Polanyi directly, but it appears there’s some sort of extreme copy control measure on the PDF of the first chapter provided by Princeton University Press that keeps me from doing so! Talk about a singularity.)