In a Friday Op-Ed in the NY Times, Paul Krugman examines technology and the profitability of the ancillary market for publishing in light of the advancing market share of the ebook.
He cites the the predictions of Esther Dyson, who in 1994 predicted that digital content itself would not be the source of profit for emerging companies; instead, services and support surrounding the content would be the actual revenue-generating aspect of business. Comparing technology and software distrubution to the Grateful Dead business model, in which “enough of the people who copy and listen to Grateful Dead tapes end up paying for hats, T-shirts and performance tickets,” Krugman states that there’s a need for publishing to prepare itself for the coming market change, brought about partially by ebooks and their popularity.
Once again the industry of books and music are compared to one another – which is always a rocking good time, because while they have some finer points in common, among them being structurally bugfuck crazy, the two models are very, very different. However, ancillary market profit might be one of the areas that the two medias come to share. The question is, how?
Music sales from “touring, merchandising, and licensing” are becoming mainstays of band profit as “downloads… steadily undermin[e] record sales.”
So, what about books? BEA was all about eBooks, baby, and ebooks are the new market for books. Touting the Kindle-Aid, Krugman draws a parallel between downloaded music and downloaded, aka pirated, books.
How will this affect the publishing business? Right now, publishers make as much from a Kindle download as they do from the sale of a physical book. But the experience of the music industry suggests that this won’t last: once digital downloads of books become standard, it will be hard for publishers to keep charging traditional prices.
I wrote recently about the price tag of ebooks but my problem with the price has nothing to do with the comparative $0.00 sale price of ebooks from pirate sites. For one thing, I like good reading and know that snagging a free book means one less byte of good writing for me in the long run. For another, the formatting is often atrocious, the quality crap, and did I mention the immediate satisfaction vs. future quality reading thing? Yeah. Threaten me with the absence of good books from talented authors, and I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll even clean the sink trap (*ew ew ew ew*).
Krugman points out that newspaper attempts to profit by ancillary subscriptions for content they otherwise give away have backfired – and that free vs. subscription prejudice from consumers works both ways. Count me among those who get very ornery when a magazine I subscribe to prevents me from reading that same content I already paid for on the publication’s web site. (Consumer Reports, are your ears burning? The only reason I pay twice is because you’re a non-profit and your recommendations never fail me).
However, with publishing attempts to market books in innovate ways, the free ebook is making many, many consumers happy, and if it’s working appropriately, then one free download that’s professionally sanctioned (and professionally formatted, please, kthxbye) can make a world of difference in creating new fans and new customers of an author’s backlist of product.
But here’s the part that really made me stop and ponder:
Indeed, if e-books become the norm, the publishing industry as we know it may wither away. Books may end up serving mainly as promotional material for authors’ other activities, such as live readings with paid admission. Well, if it was good enough for Charles Dickens, I guess it’s good enough for me.
This is the part where I wonder, “Hmm. Do romance readers figure into dire predictions of the death of publishing as we know it?” How many readers here and at other sites swear by paper books, the tactile experience of them, and the pleasure of shopping for them, trading them, borrowing them, and keeping them for rereads?
Books as promotional materials for other activities? I’m confused. I’m still rather startled at the degree to which authors are asked to make themselves in to celebrity representatives for the sales of their own books, and that they allow greater access to themselves for the sake of a voracious readership that wants more, more, more between the issue of each new book.
If you’re a reader like me, you read fast and eagerly, and the finish of one excellent book is a sad event soothed only by the anticipation of the next adventure in a new book, with luck also a good one. Reading is among my very favorite activities (right up there with sleeping, eating pastry, and drinking wine). So whether I’m reading an ebook, or a print book, I’m still after the book, not the promotional reading. I’m a solitary person by nature; I don’t have any desire to sit in a room with other people to listen to my reading. I want to read by myself in the quiet. I’m not after the author and I’m not after the experience of reading-as-interaction. I just want the reading of the book, in any form. And while I do blink at the equal price of ebooks, I still buy the ebook or the paper, because I want to read.
I agree with Krugman that the markets that intend to profit from digital media will have to alter themselves mightily to create new functioning models that account for the sizable difference between pages and bytes. But am I alone in thinking that so long as there are books to be read, there will be folks like me paying for them?
Thanks to SonomaLass for the link.