Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The sharks are hungry for e-books!

With the recent fairly rabid online discussions of e-books, some in the publishing world are pushing forth into a feisty, barebones capitalist world. I am amused by how much some publishing folks shudder at the idea of pricing and selling, preferring the market of ideas to the market of sold products, but this other extreme leaves a much worse taste in my mouth. Take this guest post over at The Millions, from Bryan Gilmer, who self-published a "crime thriller novel" called Felonious Jazz through Amazon's program. He writes about making it an e-book, and how he sold the novel in that format by marking it down from $7.99 to a price of $1.99. "As of 5 p.m. Friday - about 36 hours later - Felonious Jazz was the No. 1 selling hard-boiled mystery on the Amazon Kindle Store and the 17th best-selling title in Mysteries & Thrillers." Then he quietly put the price back up to $4.99 and "sales continued, but at a slower pace." One lesson he's learned: "A cheap price is enough to buy your way up the rankings among national names with a zero-dollar PR campaign." He uses this to show the advantage he had as one guy selling his own book versus corporate publishers who have other expenses, though he doesn't know why they are charging more - he suggests perhaps "higher costs, more parties to share the revenue with, or the fear of cannibalization of paper-copy sales."

Reluctantly at the end, Gilmer admits quickly:
A bad side effect is that without barriers to entry, a lot of non-professional-quality content creates clutter. But to some degree, crowd sorting (via online reviews and such) can cope with that.

A-ha! Herein lies my problem with a new frontier, this every-man-for-himself concept. If publishers disappear and everyone publishes her or his own book, with those with the best reviews rising to the top... I just don't trust that system. And I refuse to hear that it's democracy at its best, as we cannot make social darwinism and capitalism into democracy. I don't mean to be some naysayer, some kind of brahmin calling for some protected reading class, but having someone discover the wonders of marking down a product to increase sales is not exciting to me, and in fact it's politically and artistically dangerous.

We can take these lessons but should use them to form collectives, whether inspired by particular artistic and/or social justice movements. An author bragging about his rankings is just frustrating. It has the painful tone of a late-night infomercial to me. "I found success, and so can you!" I prefer Mike Shatzkin's ideas at the Idea Logical Blog (linked from MobyLives), though I have not fully digested his close critique of Motoko Rich's recent article on e-book pricing. Shatzkin poses the question, "if the looming problem for publishers with ebooks is their margins (and I think we can agree on that), then why not mention the ultimate solutions: publishers selling digital downloads directly to consumers and, at the same time, reducing the discounts off retail (the margins) offered to intermediaries?" Again, this idea can be incorporated into a collective idea to keep schools of thought (and action) together in a publishing model, with significant changes to keep on top of the retail environment.

One voice of reason in these debates happening everywhere on e-books is PublicAffairs founder and editor-at-large Peter Osnos, who writes over at the Daily Beast about publishers packaging formats together to meet the needs of today's readers. Now I'm listening.
For readers, the ideal development would be to make books portable. In this scenario, you would buy a printed hardcover or paperback book for, say, $25 and could then activate it as a digital file or downloadable audio from an embedded password. Ergo, the book becomes a multiplatform object transferable wherever the reader wants to go.

Smart - like records with codes for free downloads. This is the kind of not-throwing-baby-out-with-bathwater approach I can understand, that can offer a way to incorporate technology and reader interests without scrapping some good aspects of the current publishing model.

This e-book stuff is exhausting, but the debate is very necessary. What still amuses me ultimately is the snail's pace at which publishing moves, but I'm also thankful for it - so books should survive for at least one more generation, right?!

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