What Is a Book?

With everyone now doing at least some of their reading on devices, it may be a little late in the day to go back to the early arguments against e-books, yet Amazon itself has recently begun to point out some of the limitations of the format.

Seven years ago when the Kindle was introduced, there was a lot of talk about whether e-books and e-reading devices would even catch on at all. Kindle launched with a video of Toni Morrison – writer, editor and literary grande dame – speaking about her love for the new tschotke. She hit several important talking points that would be repeated mantra-like through the years – you could travel with a lot of books, you could read trash without other people’s knowing, you could set the print large enough so that you wouldn’t need glasses. There was other stuff too. You could look up words without getting out a dictionary. She didn’t mention price though. She didn’t say the books could be cheaper, though if you followed the early Amazon forums, the public certainly thought they should be. Content was an issue back then. Readers wanted bargains, and the big publishers weren’t playing along. Amazon tried to cap ebook prices at $9.99. War ensued. These days the cold war between Amazon and publishers is still ongoing. And why not? Amazon has clearly stated its goals including cutting out the “middleman” between readers and content – whether that be agents, publishers or maybe authors eventually if they figure out how to automatically generate stories.

Early on, some brought up aesthetic issues. Print is just better looking. It’s not a question of “sharpness.” It’s about the look of books – the fonts, the covers. You may not always be able to judge a book by its cover, but you could judge people by the sorts of books they keep on the shelves or what you see them reading on the train. But these arguments, seemed elitist somehow, and publishers really didn’t pick up on them. Yet, the very physicality of books continues to be a selling point. Watch any talk show where an author is plugging away. You won’t see the host holding up a Kindle.

From a consumer point of view, of course ebooks should cost less. There’s no warehouse required. No shipping. There are production costs – writing, editing, cover design, publicity etc, but no manufacturing ones. No paper. No binding. No warehouse required. No shipping. If you go back and look at the Amazon forum posts in the early days of Kindle, you’ll see major sticker shock as the first adapters realized that stocking their kindles with bestsellers would not be cheap. When the pricing war first began, Amazon was able to offer consumers the cheap content they craved through public domain titles and self-published genre novels. Best selling authors on Kindle may have been authors that no New York publisher had even heard of.

Publishers have always seen the manufacturing costs as irrelevant. For them, ebooks are part of a whole. They need to be assured they’ll get back what they invested. They put out a number of books and some of them may not make money. You can’t price too low or people will stop buying print, then you lose stores and stores are places people go and browse and see and feel and touch books, places where they may even go to meet authors – see and hear them in the flesh. When an author goes on a talk show, the host doesn’t hold up a Kindle to show the audience. Amazon took a different approach to marketing. It invented a new way of browsing that could be done anywhere, anytime, and on almost any electronic toy, but always within the confines of their electronic marketplace.

Of course, pricing ebooks too low couldn’t be good for publishers. Even if Amazon’s figures about the numbers of people who will buy at a lower price are correct, Amazon’s entire system is designed to make “publishers” irrelevant.

And so the war continues to simmer. Hachette holds out for higher ebook prices. Amazon argues that they’ll sell more volume at lower prices. Independent bookstores may offer ebooks through companies like Kobo, but they can’t make much on them. If print fades away, and bookstores are lost, and Amazon gains an even bigger market share, we (readers and writers) will be screwed.

But here’s something to keep in mind — Amazon originally sold its Kindle device on the premise that ebooks were as good as, maybe better than print. They were pretty clear on this. In that Toni Morrison video, one of the things that excites her was that you could “mark” your books – highlight them, individualize them and therefore “own” them. The first kindles had physical keyboards for that reason – so you could add your notes.

The idea of “ownership” of books was an integral part of Amazon’s early strategy and is still important.“A thousand books in your backpocket” was one tagline stated by a consumer in a commercial for a Kindle Paperwhite. The implication being that you aren’t just reading “content” but books – that you own, like real ones.

But now Amazon is sending out two different messages. On the one hand they continue to tout ebooks as the superior choice. On the other, they now point to some of the disadvantages of ebooks as reasons why they should be priced lower. In their infamous letter asking indie-authors to support them in the Hachette fight they stated that one of the reasons ebook prices should be capped is because you can’t resell an ebook. While they’ve improved “lending” it’s still a different experience that lending a physical book, and it’s still at Amazon’s discretion – because you do not in fact “own” the “books” you purchase. You own a license to read those books – a licence which can and has at times, been revoke. You can’t really even “give” someone an ebook. You can send them a gift certificate for the book, which they may or may not use to buy the gift. Remember when you used to scrap off the price tags on a book you were giving someone? That’s another thing you can’t do with an ebook. In fact, you can’t even look at all those books on your TBR that you won’t ever read and give them away to people who will.

Actually, you could do some of the above. You could hack the DRM and copy it a thousand times, but that would be illegal, a violation of the author’s copyright and of Amazon’s rules, which you agreed to somewhere along the line. This of course brings us to another reason that ebooks need to be cheap – piracy. The I-Tunes strategy of making content cheap enough so that most people will legally purchase it has often been mentioned as a model for ebooks. The problem is, it’s not a sustainable model. Musicians can sell themselves – their ability to excite an audience in a live performance in a way that’s completely different from the experience of listening to music on your headphones. No one is going to shell out $500 for front row seats to Stephen King reading from Carrie. Most fiction writers, even the successful ones, have depended on things other than book sales to make a living – movie options, teaching gigs, even fellowships and awards for a few, but getting at least some income from the sales of books is important.

I don’t think Amazon is the great Satan. Long before ebooks, independent bookstores disappeared as the great chains moved in. Than those behomoths emptied out as people began to buy more books online. The same is true for retail generally. There was talk twenty years ago that all the new tech was killing reading and the book business. The conglomeratization of publishing was already a thing. While Oprah and others popularized “book clubs” and shared reading experiences, the truth is people still read less fiction – especially challenging fiction – than they used to. Check the New York Times combined print and ebook sales and you’ll find that while a few non-genre books make it, most of what people buy are thrillers and romances. Amazon has actually done a lot to sell content and get people talking about books – even if a lot of the books they talk about aren’t particularly “literary.”

As a consumer, I don’t want to pay a lot for a book I don’t actually own and can’t hold, and I would contend that even the most ardent fans of ebooks feel the same way. There have been very few times I’ve spent more than $8 on an ebook. Usually, it was impulsive – a book was new and I wanted to read it THAT second. Generally, if the used paperback costs less (including shipping) than the ebook, I’ll go for the used paperback – which gives the writer a royalty of NOTHING.

As an indie-writer, I’m thankful that Amazon gives me access to readers who might find my books. But I know they didn’t do this to be my friend. I’m fine with big publishers keeping their ebook prices high because low price is one major advantage that self-publishers can offer.

Perhaps it would have been better for the big publishers if they NEVER had made their books available electronically at all. Sherman Alexie and the other early opponents were probably right. A book is a book – a license to read words on a screen, is not. The publishers should have just said no. Instead they initially kept the prices high allowing Amazon to look downright generous and progressive for wanting to lower them.

Why didn’t they band together to say, “We don’t like this format. Period. It’s inferior.” Why didn’t they let Amazon throw public domain classics and all the publishing-rejects in the world on Kindle, but leave the good stuff exclusively in print? Publishers could have purchased digital rights from authors but with stipulations like no ebooks until two years or five years or six months after publication, depending on the book and how they thought it should be marketed. Instead they bought in to Amazon’s vision – even as they fought for a bigger piece of the pie. They should have just rejected the pie. They could have invented a model more like their own model for hardcovers and paperbacks. First comes the expensive hardcover, then the slightly less expensive trade paperback followed by the mass market paperback, and finally the ebook would come out – giving new life to the work and hitting another audience segment. If consumers really demanded the ebook format for its convenience, and couldn’t wait, publishers could have offered an ebook matched with each print sale. They could have offered their own straight-to-ebook imprints for cheap thrillers and romances – as many are just starting to do now.  Meantime, they could have pushed the message that books are books – used some of their vast wealth and power to promote the sexiness of those square edges and hardcovers, the casual relationship one might have with a paperback, even leaving it on a park bench for some stranger to find. They could have shown commercials – A couple arrives at the young man’s apartment. He goes to get her a drink. It’s her first visit. She checks out his books while he’s in the kitchen. By the time he’s back, she’s gone.Or maybe it’s the other way. By the time he gives her her cosmo, she knows he’s the one for her. Tagline: Books they say a lot about you.

Granted, in the end tech usually wins, but I don’t buy into the idea that we are now a “sharing” and society, therefore everyone is good with “licenses.”  Books have always been sharable. Libraries and used bookstores have been around for quite a while, yet people still get excited and pay for the latest releases by their favorite authors.  In a world of cars, we still ride bicycles, and some of us still love to dine by candlelight. Slow food has became a thing. If print disappears it won’t be Amazon’s fault. It’s the publishers job to save publishing and print. They’ve done a lousy job.

(These are just thoughts from somebody not paid much to think these days. If you enjoyed reading this, you should check out some of my fiction, or click on any of “my picks” above, and then if you buy anything over at the Amazon they’ll give me pocket change which I won’t be too proud to accept.)

2 thoughts on “What Is a Book?

  1. Excellent break down.
    I buy both. If I love a book, I have copies in digital and *real* formats.
    In this light, I also aim to offer both formats for my own books, though I sell far fewer paperbacks. That said, I see it as a service, rather than a money maker for me.

    1. Agreed on the paperbacks. I don’t have them for my novellas, but a couple of people have asked, and I’m considering bundling both for a paperback or maybe writing one more novella and then putting all three together. It’s more for those readers who just don’t want to read on the screen. I did my Loisaida with my own imprint through Lightning Source, but with all my trying to get it right — returns accepted, Ingram listing etc, it still mostly just sold on Amazon and not in stores except consignment that I did myself. I have another now under a pen name, and I went with Createspace to save on expenses. The quality is just as good.

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