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.