eBooks and Just Plain Books

FIRST: I love the kindle3 and the “paper-white,” and find myself reading much more now — partly due to the amazing ease of staring at the e-ink screen, and partly due to the convenience of obtaining material from Amazon. I now read The New Yorker and Science News exclusively on my Kindle, along with miscellaneous books.

HOWEVER: We are now entering into the book publishing industry’s dinosaur phase, wherein they emulate the music industry’s reactionary and unimaginative response to digital media. The duration and impact of this period of dim-witted “marketing” remain to be seen, but I seriously doubt if digital books will go away in the face of artificially jacked-up prices.

The publishers (most of them) are doing exactly the same thing as the record industry — trying to force their customers off the new technology and lend false strength to their increasingly obsolete physical packaging businesses.

Two books I recently wanted to buy on Kindle — This Is Your Brain on Music and a couple of titles by Lewis Black — cost more than twice as much on the Kindle as they do for a brand new paperback from Amazon. The third-party sellers, of course, are often less than half the Amazon paperback price, but they’re not publishers, so their pricing isn’t germane. Obviously, an eBook doesn’t cost even a significant fraction of a printed book; one can only conclude that this price disparity exists solely as a deterrent to eBook sales.

The saddest thing about the publisher “price penalty” for digital editions is that this kind of tactic is precisely what drove so many otherwise honest music industry customers to find ways around predatory pricing and rights management. There is no higher motivator for grass roots users of a digital product, to succumb to the temptation to steal it, than to price it so offensively that it engenders true animosity. The record companies turned their customers into enemies, even to the extent of installing root-kit virus hosts on personal computers (Sony/Columbia) and suing children and grannies for downloading tracks (RIAA et al).

As a writer and composer and publisher, I am totally in support of digital rights. But managing these rights through draconian rules and insulting marketing practices is very counter-productive.

Had Sony put all the tracks in Columbia’s vast archives immediately on-line for sale at reasonable prices, while providing total access to every conceivable tie-in product (session notes, cover art, session photos, alternate takes, musician bios, concert dates, websites, musicology, history, etc., all linked together), and charged micro-payments for each item, collectors would have gone berserk buying everything by their favorite artists, fans would have bought far more product than just the top 2-3 tracks from 1 top album, and Sony would quickly have become the go-to source for all things related to their artists. Instead they declared war, and had to be forced to stop vandalizing customer computers by a coalition of states attorney generals.

What the music industry completely missed was that making it convenient to obey copyright laws is by far the best deterrent to breaking them. It’s also the basis of their original business model: making it convenient to buy recordings (by manufacturing and distributing them in attractive packages).

Is the publishing industry on the same path? Certainly some of them are. Charging $12.99 for a Lewis Black Kindle book that I can buy new from an Amazon third party for $3.00 is idiotic, myopic, and regressive. Preventing me from lending a book to someone ever is equally short-sighted, since that’s a major factor in promotion. Letting me lend it once ever is simply beyond reason, and in some ways worse than prohibiting it entirely (Which one person will I lend it to? Which 14 days will they be likely to have time to read it?)

Technologically, we’re probably beyond having an atavistic book publisher plant a rootkit virus on my computer, but surely in their boardrooms the strategy discussions concerning the new age of digital publishing must be severely depressing. To them, and to us, their (perhaps unknown to them) loyal customers.

So buy a Kindle — it is still the best of the current crop of eReaders. But be mindful that some publishers are out to rip you off for your techie tendencies, or to squeeze you into reading only print editions. So a lot of the books you’d like to read on the Kindle will be just too obnoxiously over-priced to be worth it. And the astonishing usefulness of this great consumer product — which should be driving huge new sales channels into the struggling world of book publishing — will be postponed. Probably until new companies emerge with their eyes open and their thinking caps already on.

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