Friday, July 17, 2009

E-book Bonanza

I'm exhausted by all this e-book pricing talk (link to agent Nathan Bransford's blog posting, which in turn has many links to various opinions), but it's an important debate to have. Perhaps we should look to the newspaper world for some sort of lesson: once some big players started making online content free, everyone did it, and now they have all this online content for which they cannot charge, with ad revenue not high enough to keep them afloat. We need to hash out how to sell e-books at a rate that will be sustainable if this market keeps gaining ground at the rate is has been. Despite Amazon's insistence, $9.99 might not be the magic number.

Many are blogging about Jack Shafer's Slate article on the danger of pirating in e-books, which is of course related to the pricing. He makes some okay points in this article but I think his larger point about needing to really take the consumer into consideration is problematic. If we focus too much on the consumer, are we going to devalue the work that goes into writing and even publishing a book? Just because a book is easy to download and read on a portable device doesn't mean it was written or edited or produced with the same level of ease.

As usual, I hope we can find a balance here. It seems to be, the end should match the process. If an author is a scribbler who churns out a novel or two a year, something very genre oriented such as romance or thriller, books whose primary format is mass market, then a cheap e-book edition makes sense. But then you look at a large and thorough biography and things change. My partner just purchased D. Guttenplan's American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone, a 570 page, $35 hardcover. He bought it full-price at the charming Provincetown Book Shop, an independent worth supporting, but he later expressed surprise as the price, when he thought about it. I explained how a big biography like that should be expensive. The author spent over a decade writing this book, so he should be paid for that time. It makes sense that the reader should pay for the privilege of reading the result of his labor.

In this talk of e-book pricing, I worry that the call to think of the consumer is overlooking the efforts of writers, and that this will contibute to the ongoing trend of editors pushing writers to finish projects in months, not years, even if projects demand more thorough research and more delicate writing. Then we get crappier products for cheaper prices, and authors have books that they cannot take as much pride in, and publishers have lists that don't hold up to close scrutiny. All for a reader's convenience. It just doesn't seem worth it.

The time is now to set these prices, and I just hope the so-called market doesn't prevail. I haven't read the new book by Ellen Ruppel Shell called Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, but after hearing her on NPR, it sounds like she touches on my concerns, in other industries. We now scoff at a t-shirt costing more than $5 or a bookshelf that's more than $20, so retailers are getting the prices down by cutting costs on production, on labor. This could just as easily happen in publishing if we keep diving deeper in our prices, endlessly worried about the consumer.

The more this hypothetical consumer is discussed, the more s/he sounds like another evil, made-up character that recurs in media discussions: the undecided voter. So irritating. They shrug and we all struggle to make them happy. I'm over it. We shouldn't be beholden to this threatening, petulant figure, always threatening to not give up his/her vote or purchase. At some point one must wonder, how real is this character?

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