The Future of Books

Over at Blog Kindle, Matthew has a post that asks if the Kindle is destroying the publishing industry. Matthew's main point is that books have always been evolving and are continuing to evolve today. The most significant aspect of the current evolution is the move from physical books to ebooks. As Matthew points out, once you take away the paper, the publishers' model becomes less sustainable.

Publishers and many authors are fond of pointing out that publishers do a whole lot more than “print books” and that, anyway, the cost of producing and delivering the physical book is not a significant part of the price of a book. Authors, they say, simply aren't equipped to deal with editing, marketing, and fulfillment and therefore they need the publishers and therefore publishing will go on just as it always has.

But then Cory Doctorow ran his With A Little Help experiment to test those assumptions. Among other things, he found that a mere author can run the whole production cycle and that the oft cited fact of the relative insignificance of the cost of the physical book may not be true. A growing number of authors have reached the same conclusions and are choosing to self-publish directly to Amazon or to a print-on-demand service like Lulu.

None of this means that publishers aren't useful or that they're doomed but it does suggest that they should take a lesson from the music industry and try to avoid the same mistakes. In particular, they are going to have to rethink their business models. Just because charging a premium price for a new hardcover book and then reducing the price for the paperback edition a year later worked in the past doesn't mean that it will continue to work with ebooks. And maybe a little sanity is in order for their pricing models. When I go on Amazon and see that the Kindle version of a book costs more than a physical copy of the same book, I'm insulted. I'm insulted that publishers think I'm so stupid that I'd actually pay a premium for something that costs them less to produce and ship. And I'm not alone. I know the arguments for why this happens but I'm not impressed. All I see is that I'm paying more for something that costs less to produce just so that publishers can protect their business models.

As it happens, I think publishers are useful and I wish them well. But they're going to have to wake up to the reality that things are changing or they're going to be disintermediated right out of existence. And it won't be the Kindle's fault; it will be theirs. As Matthew says, “We're moving on.”

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