Saturday, May 1, 2010

At what price infinite readership?

Pick up a copy of your favorite book. Feel the weight in your hands. Touch the cover, the dust jacket. Touch the paper. Ask yourself these questions.
  1. How many pages are in this book?

  2. Who designed the cover?

  3. How long did it take the author to write?

  4. How thick is the paper? Is it smoothe? Is it textured?

  5. What typeface did the designer use?

  6. Are there drop capitals starting the first paragraph of a chapter?

  7. Is there a running head along the top of each page?

  8. Where are the page numbers?

  9. How much did it cost to produce?

  10. How much is this book worth?

Of course your answers will be different if you chose a hardcover first edition over a mass market paperback. They might change based on whether you bought the book new, at a half-price used bookstore, or borrowed it from the local library or a friend. The answers might even change based on whether it is fiction, general non-fiction, or a textbook. But whatever the answer to these questions, the fact remains that there is a material object in your hands. It is really no easier to reproduce this material object (to copy it, if you will) than it is to make a copy of a Danish Modern dining room set or a Gucci blouse. When you put it on your bookshelf, you expect it to be there for years. You expect that someday you will give it away, sell it second hand, or let your heirs inherit it.

Now, let's take a look at the same title as an eBook. Ask yourself the same questions. Why is it that when you finish the list of questions, the last answer is so extraordinarily different than with a paper book? Probably more radically different than even the value difference between a hardcover and a paperback.

It comes down to the fact that even if the eBook was well-designed, had good typography, was illustrated the same, and had the same exact content, it isn't real. It doesn't have a material existence outside the reader or computer I view it on. Copying it takes a matter of seconds and the copy is indistinguishable from the original. As readers, we cannot separate the content from the medium. The same book, by the same author, is worth less if it doesn't exist in a material form. So it is not like copying it is a big deal. We didn't actually take something off a bookstore shelf and walk out without paying. It never even existed in the bookstore!

In a strange way, I agree. Don't get me wrong. I believe that the words an author writes are worth the same no matter what medium they are delivered in. But the publishing industry has tied the value of the author's words to the retail price of the book, or more recently to the actual sale price, or even to the wholesale price. So even from an author's perspective, it is hard to value the eBook as highly as the printed version. I've heard myself answer the question "Have you been published?" with the words "Yes, but only as an eBook." Ouch! My writing isn't worth the paper it is printed on!

Yet when we remove the cost of materials for a hardcover book from the equation of how much the book costs, we assign over 500% increase in value based on the physical materials! ( quotes the materials cost for a $27.95 hardcover book as ~$2.83!) But, take away the $2.83 worth of materials and produce it with electrons and we expect to pay $9.95 at Amazon (now up to as much as $14.95) for top-end best sellers. Then, we expect to be able to copy them, give them to our friends, and post them on the Internet for free.

Because they aren't real!

The point of this rambling article is that if we just gave away eBooks instead of trying to sell them, we would have all the eyes that we could get through the pirated copies. Potentially infinite readership. But no one makes any money, except for those few people who will read, enjoy, and then go out to put the paper version on their bookshelves as a "real" asset in their library.

What are we going to do? I'm a proponent of free eBooks. Not stolen eBooks. The problem is that somehow we still have to pay for the design, art, promotion, marketing, editing and—oh yes—authoring of the book. So, do we build advertising messages into the eBook so that someone might possibly, eventually, click on one of our ads and generate a few pennies revenue? Do we place ourselves at the mercy of the readership with a "donation" button in every book? Do we cut all the expenses (except authoring, of course) by not doing professional design, covers, marketing, or advertising for our books and hope they "go viral?"

I don't think there is a right answer that has emerged for this yet. But I do know that some activities increase the likelihood of pirating. The first of those is staging or "windowing" the release so that the paper book has a two to six-month lead before the eBook is released. The pirated electronic copies will hit the Internet before the paper book is in the store! The second is charging the same price or a less discounted price for the eBook. Charging $14.95 for eBooks instead of $9.95 won't help sales of paper books, it will only increase pirated eBooks. The third is stronger digital rights management (DRM) that makes unbreakable copy protection. We should have learned this lesson from the music industry by now. It failed there and it will fail in publishing as well. And of course, fourth is more rigid enforcement, closing down of book exchange sites, torrents, and sharing sites has certainly proved ineffective for video and music. There is no reason it would be more effective for publishing.

So what do we do? Give up? Give it away? Ignore it and hope it will go away? What is the future?

No comments:

Post a Comment