Wednesday, January 19, 2011


This post started as a comment to a blog post at Patrick Tillett's excellent blog, but quickly grew into a blog post in its own right. Pat's comments about the death of the "record/CD store" are quite valid, but as someone who has been in the publishing industry for years and as a small publisher myself I have a slightly different take on the subject of e-books versus traditional print books

The difference between books and music is one of technology. In order to listen to recorded music in the twentieth century some sort of interface was required right from before the turn on the century be it wax cylinders or vinyl LP's. People are used to having to interface with technology in order to enjoy their music. The latest delivery system, computers, i-pods, what have you, is only a newer iteration of that. 

Books are different. The technology is far older, beginning with Gutenberg's printing press and evolving through mass market presses right up to print-on-demand, but the forum for delivery of the printed word has remained the same - marks printed on paper.

E-books represent a much larger sea change. Different technology is now required. It's a whole different paradigm and the reading public (the majority, anyway) has still not bridged the mental gap between reading a convenient paperback and reading on your computer or your Kindle or your Nook. Most people aren't used to having to have an interface. When you buy a book you open up and read. Simple.

Requiring the user to invest in an electronic interface is turning out to be a big psychological hurdle. Kindles are prohibitively expensive and the way the books are "leased" (for wont of a better term) to your Kindle pad is problematic for those who want to own the books they read. Perhaps the Nook is better. Perhaps the iPad is even better, it may be a game changer. I don't know.

And that's the point. There is no one convenient technology that replaces the experience of cracking a book and reading anywhere -- on the bus, in the park, in the laundromat, in the bathtub, even. Paper is resilient. Drop a paperback in water it will eventually dry and the words can still be read. Drop your Kindle/Nook/e-reader/iPad in the bath... well, you get the idea. There's also less of an incentive to bring an expensive piece of technology out of your backpack while you are riding the bus. If you lose a paperback you're out maybe $10. Lose an iPad (something far more worth stealing then a paperback, let's face it) and you're out a major wad of change. iPods, by contrast, can be tucked in a pocket and still enjoyed without threat of theft as long as you have ear buds.

Pundits have been forecasting the death of print books for decades now but the printed book is still with us because the electronic delivery systems have not been perfected. The economic paradigm is also different. Books have been priced the way they have for decades because of the costs of printing and distribution. Hardbacks are more expensive then paperbacks partly because of the size and the different binding, but mostly because of the number of units produced. They're usually referred to as mass market paperbacks because the printing houses print so many more of them they they do hardcovers because the paperbacks go everywhere -- grocery stores, drug stores, newsstands, airports -- as opposed to hardcovers that mostly only go to bookstores. (same for trade paperbacks).

With e-books there is no printing or distribution charges. For the publisher that should be great news. It's like having the book buyer supply their own paper and ink. All the publisher brings to the table is the formatted text. So on the surface, if the latest Stephen King hardcover costs $25 (or more) to buy in a store, then the electronic version could easily be sold for, say $4.99. Right?

In a word, no. Stephen King's latest hardcover of stories, was the same price in electronic edition as it was in print. Why? Because it's what the market will bear. You have an iPad, you want to read Stephen King's book now you pay the premium. Maybe later the price of the e-book will drop to $10, roughly the price for the paperback, but it won't drop much lower.

Perhaps that's an unfair example. Stephen King is..., well, he's Stephen King. That's a whole different ball game. What about a mid-list writer? They could offer electronics versions of their books for $2.99. The publisher and the author would still see the same profit as they would on the print version. So why don't they do that?

Well, again it is a matter of economics and what the market will bear, but it is also about the inherent value of the product. Average price for a song on iTunes is between .99 cents and $1.99. If you want to buy a whole album you pay $9.99 or maybe $11.99. But a single song is an investment of three minutes or so of your time to enjoy it. It comes up in rotation on your mp3 player and you can listen while you are doing something else.

A book represents an investment of much more time and attention than that. You can't read while you're driving (at least one shouldn't), you can't read a book in three or four minutes, and you can't have a room full of people experience a book at the same time (nor can you dance to a book). A book is an investment of time and attention and book sellers want to price their product in a comensurate fashion. A book should be worth more than a single song. It doesn't matter that it does not cost as much to get it to the consumer, just as it doesn't matter that an entire album delivered to your ipod doesn't cost as much to produce and distribute as a CD, they still charge you $10 or $12 for it.

So, yes, stores that sell CD's are closing up shop at an alarming rate. Is it because of the availability of music online? Partly. Is it because of the economic slowdown? Partly. Will bookstores follow? Probably. The trend is for smaller bookstores to give ground to chain bookstores (Coles, WHSmith)  and smaller chains to give ground to bigger chains (Chapters). Is that because of the availability of e-books? Partly, maybe, but I think it has more to do with the current economic environment and the general trend in North American business. The internet has hastened the the decline of newspapers, but e-books is not threatening the publishing industry overmuch. Conglomeration and the quest for ever more profits has done more harm to publishers than the existence of e-texts.

Will printed books disappear? No. Despite the rise of paper and printing costs in recent times even POD (print-on-demand) books, in which only one book is printed, are fairly reasonably priced and relatively easy to obtain.

At the end of the day it comes down to choice. If you have bridged the technological gap and are comfortable reading e-texts, then for you there will be e-texts. If you like reading hard copy books, as the majority of the reading public still do, then there will be hard copy books. There will likely be fewer bookstores per se, but there will be books in grocery stores and drug stores, even if it's just the latest churned out product masterpiece by James Patterson, Dean Koontz, John Grisham or Diana Gabaldon.

As for the rest of us, those of us who don't write runaway bestsellers? Well, we'll be there somewhere. Like, right here! If you like e-books we got 'em. If you like print books, we have those too.

I've been here and there. I've drawn a lot of pictures. I've written a bit, too. I'm not good at this self-promotion thing. Look, you want to know about me? just visit these websites. Okay?


Pat Tillett said...

You are of course correct that there will always be a need for books in certain segments of the industry. But I'm afraid that the normal, run-of-the-mill paperback is all but history. Yet, folks who own ereaders state that they are reading that type of book, more than they did the "real" thing. Also, almost 10% of all book sales are now digital.
The most recent turmoil I've been involved with along these lines is digital cameras vs. film cameras. There will always be film cameras, but the percentage of them still in use is microscopic.

As a long time photographer, I held on to my film cameras for a long time. I eventually changed because regardless of what "purists" say, digital is better. It's MUCH better.

I hope you are right, but I don't agree about books being different than music at all. In fact, it is much esier to digitize the written word, by far... Over 75% of all Americans already have access to e-readers or computers that are e-reader capable. Add to that the number of phones that can now display books and I bet the number is much higher...

The electronic delivery system is perfected! It takes about 5 seconds to download an entire book to an e-reader. If you lose it, the suppliers of the books replace them for free...

It's not just going to happen, it's already happening. I'm not in the business, but I'm a consumer who buys a lot of books. I see it...

Very thought provoking stuff!

M. D. Jackson said...

Ease of technology means nothing if the consumer won't buy it. Ten percent is a tiny amount particularly when you consider how long e-books have been available. My partner, G. W. Thomas, has been involved in e-publishing for a long time and he can tell you it is a hard sell.

Those who are comfortable with e-books are VERY comfortable with it, but convincing the rest of the reading public is a real hurdle. Physical book sales still far outnumber e-book sales. Given how easy it is to deliver text that number should be higher, but it isn't. Cleaqrly there isn't the acceptance of it as there is with downloading music or even video.

I wish there was more acceptance, then I wouldn't be struggling to get a piece of only 10% of the market.

Pat Tillett said...

Many of the same things were said about music, movies, digital cameras, paper mail, paper advertising, newspapers, magazines, land line telephones, analog watches, and on and on.

You are right, ebooks have been around for while, but the readers have only recently been perfected. Seriously, it is much easier on the eyes to read a Kindle than a book.

I want to have the option to decide for myself, but unfortunately it's usually big business that decides what we get, and it appears that they've already decided. There is no other supplier that has total control over the point of sell companies. What other industry takes back ALL unsold inventory? None that I know of. That goes for magazines as well as books. That's why books are so expensive, the major retailers do not have the ability or authority to discount them. Why? Because they don't really own the books...

I'm sorry to have gone on so long and I hope you are right. I hope there is enough to go around.

passionofthemom said...

W-O-W!! I'm here from the Comments section of Pat's blog, and I'm definitely hooked!! What a remarkable post. Say hello to your newest follower! =)

Kal said...

I have been following both of your arguements and it's a great conversation. I can say that my mind was changed back and forth several times. You can't know how much my brain thanks you both for that. I don't know what the future of the printed word will be but I am glad that both digital and hard copy books will remain in some form for a long time to come. Great stuff her guyes.

M. D. Jackson said...

passionofthemom: Hello, newest follower! Welcome to the blog!

Kal; It's been a great discussion and I've enjoyed it immensely. Pat is an admirable sparring partner.

Pat Tillett said...

Thanks my friend! I hope that the final outcome is closer to what you've said here...

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