Monday, March 1, 2010

E-books versus hardcovers

Everybody knows that the rise of electronic books ("e-books") is going to change the nature of publishing, but nobody is really quite certain exactly how. Will e-books drive paper out of business? Will it be good or bad for authors? There's an interesting article in the New York Times today, discussing the comparative economics of e-books versus hardcovers. Out of the twenty-six dollar suggested retail price of a new hardcover, the bookstore's share is half, and out of the publisher's thirteen dollars, the author's share (assuming 15% royalties on hardcovers) is $3.90. This could be a little better with e-books... or it could not, depending on what other expenses have to be covered. And how much royalties the authors get. A lot of people aren't going to be willing to pay $12.99-$14.99 for an e-book, I think, as publishers are about to discover the hard way. There's just too much stuff available free, and while a lot of it is worth every penny of that, there is some really good stuff, too.

And, as the article points out, people buying e-books online are going to kill off bookstores. Or at least make it harder and harder for them to stay alive. That's a real pity-- I love bookstores. (But then, Amazon.com is already threatening to kill off the classic bookstore, Kindle or no.)

I don't think that real books made out of paper will ever die, not completely, but they may become a choice that people make for the aesthetic value, because of the heft and feel of it, while everyday reading (and textbooks) turn to electronic delivery. A book would be like a hand-knit sweater-- something that some people like just because they like it, regardless of the fact that it's more expensive and a little retro.

If you're interested in a related subject, web publishing, it's probably worth a look at what Elizabeth Bear says about it on Charlie Stross' blog. ("I am trying to figure out how the heck to continue doing what I am good at--what I have spent twenty years learning how to do at a professional level--in the face of developing technology.")

But, really, nobody knows.

(Or, check the borg collective thinking about e-books at wikipedia.)


Charles Gramlich said...

It just seems to me the prices on ebooks should be way down from printed books. No printing costs or inventory. Although there are certainly costs. I guess it'll shake out eventually.

Vertigo said...

An eBook reader hasn't become a must-own item quite yet, not like an iPod. Once I've read a book, it usually goes on the shelf, never to be read again, whereas music I'll listen to over and over. While I'm constantly changing what type of music I'm listening to, and never know which of the over 2000 CDs on my iPod I'll want to listen to, I only read one or two books at a time. I don't have the need to carry hundreds or thousands of books with me in my pocket. For that reason, I'll probably stick to paper books for some time to come. On the other hand, most of the "new" music I've bought in the last six months has been digital. (Though I've probably spent twice as much on $1 CDs at the Exchange in the same period of time.) Buying the albums digitally costs less, usually includes some exclusive bonus tracks, and all I'm gonna do with the CD is copy it to my iPod and stick it on a shelf anyway.

The only way I see myself preferring eBooks to paper books is if they're far, far cheaper to buy and include more than I can get with a printed copy. Make it cost half as much and include both the text and an audiobook, and I'll be sold. I can read on my lunch break, and then switch it to the audio version while driving. That might get me to buy an eBook reader.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau