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The price is wrong, bitch

I’m sorry for cursing like that, Grandma, but I’m all riled up that prices for new releases on the Kindle are going to increase because publishers really believe an electronic book is worth more than $10. Until now, Kindle was the only ebook marketplace worth mentioning, but then Apple announced the iBook store, the main distinction of which is that publishers can charge basically whatever they want, not a $10 limit for NY Time bestsellers that the Amazon marketplace used to insist upon. One publisher has already broken ranks and demanded a price increase, and Amazon caved and granted it. The rest are sure to follow.

Publishers, you are so unbelievably idiotic it makes my blood boil. The music industry just went through this. Were you not watching the news? We’ll pay for your product, but only at a price we don’t perceive to be highway robbery. Remember the $18 album? How can you believe the $15 ebook can make it?

Ebook prices need to come down to new paperback prices, in the $5-$8 range, or lower. At paperback prices, the convenience of electronic text makes sense, and probably makes up for the biggest drawback for most people. I’m talking about DRM, the software that controls under which circumstances you can enjoy your new ebook. Specifically, it disallows loaning or reselling the book and reading it on other devices. This is true for all three major reading devices on the market.

New releases are bad enough, but for old books the prices are actually insulting. Consider The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick. I can buy a new softcover copy for $10.82, or, by getting a digital version that I cannot share or resell (and that may no longer be mine if I have to replace my reading device), I save a whopping $0.83. That’s the discount — over a new copy. You can pick up a used one for around $6, online and in Half Price books.

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. This book is 46 years old. The author is long dead. It’s widely available in both used bookstores and libraries. For that matter, a simpleton could find it on bit torrent and transfer it to their device through USB. Quality control is generally poor — publishers clearly don’t even bother to hire proofreaders to spot obvious errors when transferring to an electronic format. I’m really, really getting tired of finding more errors in paid content than in books I pirate. In the case of the book above, they’ve even given the middle finger to the blind and disabled the text-to-speech option because they claim that the Kindle’s robotic voice constitutes an audio performance, which is separately licensed.

And they want twice as much as a paperback for it — a paperback that I can loan to a friend when I’m done reading it.

This is not how you endear yourself to customers; it’s how you show them your contempt. It’s how you show them just how incredibly out of touch with everyday values and beliefs you are. It’s how you drive them away into the waiting arms of whatever Napster-like community springs up once readers are ubiquitous.

Publishers, you have the power to keep yourselves relevant, but you have to accept what the music industry took a decade of kicks to the groin to understand: you aren’t nearly as important as you used to be. The internet is orders of magnitude better at the distribution part of your job than you can ever be. You may think that customers were paying for some intangible intellectual property all along when they picked up the latest Dan Brown at Barnes and Noble, but you’re kidding yourself. They were paying you for a physical object made from a bunch of dead trees. That’s all. Now there’s a better version of that artifact, and we don’t need you to put it on a truck and drive it to our big-box outlets anymore. You’ve been out-technologied, and there’s no return to a world where you present business model makes any sense.

You could embrace this fact: streamline your business, reducing it to editorial, talent-finding, and marketing and get rid of that entire third of your company that the internet made obsolete. It’s not all bad — you don’t have to take a large capital risk to put a book in front of consumers before knowing how it sells, because the per-unit production price of the artifact is measured in tenths of a penny. If you accept which way the wind is blowing and act on it, you might still have a place as editor and tastemaker for the literary world — just not as its distributor.

Or, you can keep asking outrageous prices for something you’re not, in any real sense, actually selling me. Your call.

And for the record, anyone who thinks that the iPad will make a large dent in the eReader marker is an illiterate yokel. People have been able to download and read books on laptops and netbooks for a decade, and yet they haven’t. Why is that, I wonder? Do you think it has anything to do with the discomfort of reading on a back-lit LCD screen?

Posted in Books, Technology.

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