Money for Nothing

4 02 2010

There’s currently a lot of debate going on among those with vested interests in the publishing industry concerning the consumer price of e-books.
Many industry professionals say that e-books are the future of reading. I’m not entirely convinced, but I do see the market for e-books increasing exponentially in the next decade or so. I don’t think electronic books will ever kill off the traditional book altogether the way music downloads have changed the recording industry. E-books won’t eliminate bibliophiles like me who love the feel and even the dusty smell of a good old-fashioned paper book. I don’t see books going the way of cassettes and 8-tracks anytime soon.

That said, I do much more reading online than I used to. I read short stories and novels frequently online. There are so many great short fiction and poetry markets online for current authors (Fantasy Magazine, Clarkesworld, Goblin Fruit, Innsmouth Free Press, Strange Horizons, and Everyday Weirdness spring immediately to mind) and Project Gutenberg is a wonderful thing for folks like me who enjoy reading classics.

But do you notice something about my online reading? All of my reading online is done for FREE. I don’t pay for it, not yet. Sure, I donate to various electronic markets when I can and try to promote my favorite publishers, but I don’t pay for that content the same way I pay for a traditional book. I see books and stories online the same way I see the radio or a television show. It is temporary content I can enjoy for a moment. It is not mine, it is not something I can physically hold, but it is a form of advertising for the artists and publishers involved.  If I like the content enough, then I’ll shell out some bucks and buy a book or hard copy of a magazine to support an author or editor or publisher whose work I enjoy. The same way I buy CD’s and electronic downloads of music or DVD’s of favorite television shows. And I feel pretty sure I’m not alone. I think there are many readers out there whose reading habits mirror mine.

Here’s the thing that publishers do not yet understand and they really need to get a grip on if they expect to make any sort of real profits from e-books. Cost needs to come way down. This is the case in general to be honest. I don’t buy new hardcovers anymore because I simply can’t afford to toss out $25-28 for a book. That’s a meal for my entire family at a decent restaurant. It is my water bill. Or it is money I could be donating to a worthy cause. At the end of the day, I just don’t have that kind of disposable income with all my monthly bills. Besides, why buy a brand new hardback when you can wait six months to a year and find that same hardback book for $6-8 in a bargain bin or purchase a mass market paperback? I love bargain bins. I also enjoy finding gems for a couple quarters to a couple bucks at our local thrift shop. 

The only times I buy books at cover price is when I want to read a small press title by an author or publisher whose work I know I will enjoy or if there is a book I can only find online by an author I enjoy. Even then, I simply can’t justify spending over twenty bucks for a book unless it is a collectible edition or signed or something like that.

One thing I know for sure. I won’t pay over $9 for an e-book. Ever. At least, not if it is just text I’m buying. Why? Because there’s no physical product. I also won’t buy a Kindle or an I-pad. Not when you can buy a brand new multi-functional laptop for just a little more money. The technology of e-readers is too expensive. Besides, why buy an e-reader when you can read the same electronic content on your laptop? Why buy two gadgets when one does the job of both? Simple economics, really.

The cost of e-books as they are now could be acceptable if you were buying a multimedia product. I can foresee home improvement books and cooking books with embedded videos showing how to do certain things, for example. I can envision business books by business gurus with video speeches and interactive graphs and tables hyperlinked into text. I see a market for programming books with interactive displays allowing the reader to practice code. These things I can envision and in that case I could understand the $9 price tag (or perhaps even higher costs). But for fiction? Simple text? For a file that you are basically renting because of all the embedded licensing? No. I don’t think there are that many consumers who can purchase that kind of content on  a regular basis with that kind of price tag. None of the people I know, anyway. Sure, I’m in the boonies in central AL, but believe it or not, many of us actually read, you know.  Many of us even buy books.

I disagree when experts say that readerships are declining and this leads to decreased sales. No, I think more people read these days. They find ways to read for free or purchase books at deep discounts from bargain bins or alternative sources and used book stores because they simply can’t afford the cover price.

The same thing happened in the recording industry. Take a look at this story( Publishers need to be aware of how the marketplace is changing and be proactive in how they respond. The answer is not increasing the cost of e-books or physical books. If they want to sell to their consumers, they need to listen to their consumers regarding price. Prices need to go down. In this economy, we consumers don’t have the disposable income we once had. Please be aware of this. I don’t want the publishing industry to suffer the way the recording industry suffered.

Besides, publishers have a leg up on those folks in the recording industry. They have the benefit of having been able to watch the way downloads effected the recording industry. The big publishers need to learn from those mistakes and instead of fighting change they must embrace it and be proactive and realistic when considering the way people utilize and purchase electronic media.

The world is changing and people do not pay money for nothing. E-books are intangible. You can’t hold one, physically, with your hands. While I understand the cost of an electronic book costs the publisher a similar amount to what it costs to put out paper books, their cost must mirror their tangible value to the consumer which is a mere fraction of the cost of a paper book.

So far, this is the best and most realistic model I’ve seen for pricing: While the cost is still too high for my pockets for new release hardbacks (I think a better percentage for cost would be in the 20-30% range), the principle seems sound. Thank you Andrew Wheeler for using some common sense. I hope people listen to you.




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