The Dollars and Sense of Digital Books

Wednesday, 01 June 2011 16:59 Lloyd Jassin
In the the mid-to-late-19th Century the custom in England was to publish novels in three volumes which were affectionately known as "triple deckers."  They were published at artificially high prices for subscription library sales, and select readers willing to pay a lot for a new book. Cheap reprints came later.  The genesis of hardcover first.  High prices for new books sold to institutions, followed by cheap editions for the masses.  Commercial publishing is doomed if the price of new books continues to fall. At some point, even free will seem like a lot of money.  Cheap prices devalues literature. That's what the remarkable--and successful--campaign to adopt agency pricing was about.
But, with the explosion in digital sales, comes cheap and nasty pirated editions, which compete with full price digital downloads. Okay, maybe I was wrong.  Everything you need to know about digital publishing, the music business can teach you. Peer-to-peer sharing of digital downloads killed the record business.
What do to? Publish hardcover books bundled, at no extra cost with access to a digital version of the book stored on a remote computer. To be clear, I am taking about books stored on remote servers. Browser-based ebooks, bundled free with each premium pbook sold.  As such, the book would be readable on multiple devices. The silliness that accompanied the introduction of the late great Stanza reader will seem, well . . . silly. It's about content, not the reading device.
How Do You Compete with Free?
Bundling a book and browser book is a temporary bulwark, not a solution. The main battle to be fought is how to create value when purchasing a book becomes optional.
Like the home video distribution window, the digital-only version should be released two to four months after initial release of the premium pbook (i.e., pbook bundled with ebook) edition. Pbook first would address protests by booksellers who can't compete with Amazon, Apple and Google in the digital arena.  Pbook first can stem the coming storm of free, pirated ebook versions.
A drastic fall in book prices and peer-to-peer sharing of ebooks, means many authors won't get paid. Royalties of 10% of the published price on books was arrived at according to Victor Bonham-Carter's "Authors by Profession," on "the calculation that it represented one-half of the net profits remaining after the cost of printing, advertising and putting the book on the market was covered."  One-half of nothing is nothing.
For traditional publishers and traditional booksellers, a premium "P"/"E" bundled edition is one strategy for fighting the digital book wars.  Yes, I'm talking about defending the system. But, don't brand me as a supporter of the status quo. Defending the system need not be at the expense of new bussiness models. Publishing entrepreneurs can start from scratch with e-subscription models, e-syndication models, e-advertising supported, short term licenses (e.g., Richard Nash's Cursor), and other models that leverages their copyrights and/or the eyeballs they aggregate. How you extract value from your intellectual property assets (and readers) is up to you. It's just a matter of how you plan to ride the storm.
Some people just have to read a book when it comes out. Others can wait several months. If you must have a book when it comes out, you can purchase a pbook bundled with a browser-based ebook.
Alternatively, release books digitally at a premium price prior to the release of physical books.  Perhaps, make the browser based book available for a limited time at a premium price.  Downloadable ebooks are growing geometrically.   Things are about to get cheap and nasty, and Amazon, et al, are intent on destroying the existing supply chain.
Memo to traditional publishers: Work with traditional booksellers. Don't further jeopardize those relationships by releasing downloadable digital books day-and-date with bound books. Neither you, nor your bookseller partners can compete with Amazon, Apple and Google on their terms. Embrace digital, but, don't undermine traditional booksellers.
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Last Updated on Thursday, 02 June 2011 15:25
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