Mike the Mad Biologist

There’s been some recent discussion about what eBooks will mean for publishing (ScienceBlogling Chad Orzel has a good roundup). As it often is, my take on this is ‘follow the money.’

Maybe my reading habits are skewed*–or more accurately, my book acquisition habits are skewed–but about eighty percent of the books I read I check out from the library (it’s lower for fiction, nearly 100 percent for non-fiction). I don’t think most books, especially non-fiction, where it’s really hard to judge from reviews if a book is any good, are worth the full hardcover price (or even a twenty to thirty percent discount).

I’m pretty sure most books aren’t even worth $9.99. I’ll even claim that most books aren’t even worth two to three dollars on average. I use “on average” because, after reading some books in the library, I’m impressed enough that I’ll go buy them, even at hardcover prices–there’s a large, skewed variance surrounding that two to three dollar mean.

I read a lot of books (I’m blessed with an ability to read very quickly and retain information), but I wouldn’t read very many books if I had to pay $9.99 for every book, including the many where I clearly don’t get my money’s worth. Somehow, electronic publishing will have to figure out a library model. Obviously, selling the Boston Public Library system one freely downloadable copy is unprofitable, although if there were a way to sell a digital version to the library that when downloaded from the library ‘disappears’ after a certain length of time, that model might work.

Many discussions of the new era of publishing focus either on the industry or on the workers (writers). But we can’t neglect the readers: if we aren’t met ‘where we live’, then we’ll just read less. In the midst of The Information Revolution That Is Changing Everything, the last thing we want is for books to be treated the same way as porn. Free public libraries are a critical, if often ignored and underfunded, educational resource**, both for children and adults. We must make sure that, in the electronic era, similar institutions remain.

Added after finishing the original:
From The NY Times:

“As far as I’m concerned, Amazon has committed to the $9.99 price,” said Wilma Sanders, a 70-year-old retiree who has homes in Plymouth, Mass., and Marco Island, Fla. She said that if e-book prices rose, she would stop buying. “I’m still a library-goer. There are enough good books out there that I don’t need to pay more than I want to. I already can’t keep up with what I have.”

…One reason consumers may be sensitive to pricing is that they have so many other types of entertainment to occupy their time.

“Entertainment and media companies keep forgetting that consumers have a choice. They can decide not to buy the book at all,” said David Pakman, a venture capitalist and former chief executive of the digital music store eMusic. “They can play a video game, use an iPod Touch.” He added: “If you don’t get the price tag right and make it convenient, they just go elsewhere.”

*I don’t get cable TV (or satellite) and I have no reception (tall buildings), so more time to read. This came about largely due to inertia: when I arrived in Boston, I thought I would have a week to get settled in–I didn’t. Once I started not having wonderful cable and network TV, I realized that wasting my time and money acquiring it just wasn’t worth it. I’m happy without it.

**I mean education in the sense of “The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People As the Safeguard of Order and Liberty.” That education has largely become glorified vocational training (whether that vocation have a white or a blue collar) is one factor in the stupification of the U.S. public.

Comments

  1. #1 Moopheus
    February 12, 2010

    For commercial trade publishing, I think if they find that they can work out a system where they can make money on ebooks, and it becomes unprofitable to actually print books, they won’t print them just for libraries. The library market isn’t big enough. Academic publishing might be different–libraries are a much bigger portion of the sales market. For some books, it’s the only market already. I use libraries myself (inluding BPL), so I agree about their importance for a certain part of the audience. So either they have to develop loanable ebooks, or make ebooks so cheap it won’t matter, or develop niche publishing services that can serve the market with low overhead.

  2. #2 Joe Jance
    February 12, 2010

    The high price point will also help to drive piracy, especially with the proliferation of electronic ink. eBooks are very easy to find online by visiting any of the usual suspects (torrent hosts, foreign sites, etc). Unless you are downloading Neal Stephenson, the file sizes are not going to be too big. Looking through my Kindle contents, most books are under 10 MB, many in the 6 MB range. This is roughly equivalents to two (2) mp3 files.

    Music didn’t really come down in price until Apple started selling songs for $0.99. Albums came down from a price point of around $15 to one around $10. One distributor, MetalHit.com, has lowered all of its albums to $5.25 in an effort to make money with bulk sales. Will we eventually see Apple, B&N and Amazon do the same?

    I would also imagine that as digital consumption devices become more prolific, big-name artists or authors will start to sell directly to the end user cutting the publisher out of the mix all together. If the Steven Kings of the book world turn to this type of model, it would mean significant losses for publishers. New authors don’t even need to go to a publisher. I just finished reading Metagame, a book that was highly reviewed on the Kindle site and was selling for $5. It was a pretty good book, and from what I can tell it was self published. New authors have a path to getting their books published that doesn’t involve a publisher.

    What I am driving at here is that the price of books will come down due to a number economic forces. It might take a while, but it will happen. And if you aren’t concerned with the slippery morality of downloading a pirated eBook or song, then the price is already very low. One could make an argument that downloading such a digital copy is similar to going to the library to borrow the book.

  3. #3 ponderingfool
    February 12, 2010

    I would also imagine that as digital consumption devices become more prolific, big-name artists or authors will start to sell directly to the end user cutting the publisher out of the mix all together. If the Steven Kings of the book world turn to this type of model, it would mean significant losses for publishers.
    *****************************
    Who is going to edit the books? Writing is a process and benefits from good editing. Will the editors be free agents who work for/with the authors getting a cut? Will Apple/Amazon/etc. have editors on staff for authors to use?

  4. #4 Joe Jance
    February 12, 2010

    Who is going to edit the books? Writing is a process and benefits from good editing. Will the editors be free agents who work for/with the authors getting a cut? Will Apple/Amazon/etc. have editors on staff for authors to use?
    *******************************

    What I think might happen is that publishing houses will have to get a little leaner and will compete enough so that most big-name authors will continue to use a publishing house.

    Freelance editors will be needed for authors that want to go direct-to-market, and actually want their book edited. There are some authors now that don’t use editors, and the lack of quality shows in most cases.

    I had not thought of the idea of Apple or Amazon providing editors. Perhaps editors could sell their services in the Amazon Marketplace or other, similar constructs?

  5. #5 Christina Pikas
    February 12, 2010

    But… you act as if libraries don’t have ebooks for their users… My local public library has ebooks and the research lab where I work has thousands of ebooks. Some are *licensed* so that access goes away if we stop paying and some are sort-of-kind-of purchased. Some have unlimited concurrent users (like journals) and some have a checkout/checkin model. For the public library, they typically have a DRM that makes them vanish at the end of the loan period.
    ebooks might not cause that many problems for libraries (or authors or readers) – when they settle out. Right now libraries have to purchase several different packages for the same content – which is crazy – and there are almost as many formats as there are publishers.

  6. #6 Min
    February 13, 2010

    ponderingfool: “Who is going to edit the books? Writing is a process and benefits from good editing.”

    It does, and editing has been in decline for years. Why, I don’t know. :(

  7. #7 Moopheus
    February 13, 2010

    “It does, and editing has been in decline for years. Why, I don’t know. :(”

    I do, but it would take a while to explain. But it comes down to money, of course. And time. It began in the 1960s, when the consolidation of publishing houses really took off, and the absorption of those houses into larger corporate entities, which themselves knew little or nothing about the business. The new corporate masters demanded higher returns on their investments. One of the effects of this demand was that editorial and production schedules got tighter, and the number of books any individual editor had to oversee got larger. I’ve witnessed books going from manuscript to printed book in a few weeks. There are other changes that have affected the quality of books, but in terms of actual manuscript editing, the shortening of the amount of time allotted for any book is the biggest reason.

  8. #8 Kaleberg
    February 13, 2010

    The book publishers are doing what they can to keep paper books around. Wasn’t there just a big to do wih Amazon in which the publishers won the right to keep ebook prices higher than paper book prices? I think they argued that ebooks require more editing, marketing, selecting and promotion than the same books on paper. Until ebook prices actually save consumers money, they will remain a novelty for special applications, like audio books. Of course, we may see increased book piracy as these devices become more common, if only for non-book usage, but that’s just a matter of market failure, as it was with music.

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