I have to say, I’m kind of a fangirl of Hillel Italie, the AP reporter who covers publishing, books, and all things literary. His article covering the BEA over the weekend gave me a massive pile of things to ponder, from the amount of money in publishing, and how it might be redirected, to the future of local booksellers, and whether the “Literary Liberation” stickers that will be sent to booksellers will be cool.
The CEO of Penguin Group USA, David Shanks, is quoted as saying, “I think when this is over, we’re going to do some soul searching…. There are people in this hall who have spent way more than a million dollars at a time when we all should be pinching pennies.” Citing “harsh numbers” and declining book purchases, the tone of the BEA was rather grim, according to Italie.
The two parts that caught my eye: Jeff Bezos hawking the Kindle, which is to be expected. Folks at his speech were apparently hoping he’d unveil new gadgetry like Jobs at the Apple Unveilings Of Pomp and Circumstance (t-minus 5 days until 7 June, yo!) and Bezos mostly barked the evangelist script of Kindle yay, Kindle revolutionary, drink the Kindle-aid, it’s good for you.
As someone who has had a gulping bucket of the Kindle aid, lemme just say: I’ve noticed a very very odd prejudice on my part when it comes to book prices, and ebook prices. Let me start by saying I am well aware that I am utterly barmy for thinking this way, and yes, I do want authors to get paid and get paid well, but at the same time, I also suspect that I am not the only one who thinks this way, even for the moment before clicking “Buy Now.”
In the realm of books, I think matter matters. Actual three dimensional matter affects people’s perceptions of price and value – it does for me anyway. Say there’s a new book out. The hardback could be $25, or $29. I rarely, for that reason, buy hardbacks. I think of all the other things I could buy with that money and I wait out the paperback or trek down to the library to borrow it. With the added weight of a hardback in my bag, and the fact that I read while commuting, paying more for something that adds to the overall heft of my purse is not, in my mind, value. I harbor a general dislike of hardbacks. Books are all about portability. I definitely hurt the local booksellers who stock mostly hardbacks, because I rarely if ever buy them. I think the last time I bought a hardback, it was a gift, probably for my dad. Unless it weighs eight pounds and comes with a free box of Doan’s Pills, my dad doesn’t consider it a real book.
So it would make sense that I’d be eager for eBooks. They are, of all things, portable. They weigh as much as the device itself: whether the device holds 100 or 2, it’s the same amount of heft.
So why do I dislike ebook buying? Because while I have no problems paying $5-$7 for a paperback book, I find myself affected by matter prejudice, because an ebook is physically nothing. I get a little shiver of “Damn that’s a lot” when I pay $5 for an ebook. I know, I know, I am making no sense. And my little shiver of “damn” is not going to stop me from buying ebooks, so fear not, epublishers. But the fact is, when I browse the Kindle-Aid store, and the newest books and the oldest ebooks, like Kinsale’s Midsummer Moon, are over $7.00 – $7.19 to be specific – I am startled. Now, $7.19 for a paperback of Midsummer Moon? I’m down. $7.19 for the ebook, and I have to overcome an internal sense of, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s so much, it’s hardly a deal at all.’
If I think about it economically, $7.19 doesn’t make a lot of room for the author, the publisher, and the myriad of other people whose incomes are hooked into the publication of a book to get paid and paid fairly, let alone well. So I click and buy and enjoy my book. I do make the purchase. But I blink at the price.
Ray Bradbury is quoted in Italie’s article as saying during a speech last Friday, “There is no future for e-books because they are not books…. E-books smell like burned fuel.” I disagree with him there – I’d rather avoid spending the fuel to go to the bookstore, even the one that’s 3 miles from my house, because holy shit, gas is $3.75 a gallon in NJ, and we won’t even discuss Connecticut (well past $4.20, if you’re interested) or, and say this in a hushed whisper like you’re talking about something truly awful, gas prices in Manhattan. E-books don’t smell like burned fuel to me; they smell like fuel saved, especially since I shop digitally and don’t heft my booty out of my chair.
But I do question the future of ebooks for people like me who have to overcome (I’m working on it, srsly) a sense that similar prices for ebooks vs. paperbacks is unfair, because while $7 for the three-dimensional paper and matter of a paperback is ok in my mind, because of the tangible item I’ve purchased, $7 for the digital words that transmit through the ether and then get deleted from my device (though stored at Kindle-Aid Headquarters) seems too much.
That said, I’m fascinated that at the same convention, there’s Bezos hawking the revolution away from paper, while American Booksellers Association announced the “Literary Liberation” movement that will attempt to “build communities nationwide” by shipping “cards, stickers and other materials” (all made of …wait for it… paper) to independent local booksellers. Cross purposes, perhaps? Is it possible to resurrect the paper bookstore and advance the ebook? I suspect so – though I ponder if more bookstores will have to become community centers – coffee, books, discussions, etc – in part to accommodate those who look for books and socializing, using the socialization to further additional sales. What do you think?