What’s Wrong with Publishing? #11: One More Digital Thought

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.


I know I said last time that I was done talking about e-books for a while, but, like Michael Corleone, I keep getting pulled back in.

Over the weekend, a thought occurred to me. This isn’t really a full-blown argument or even a rationalization. It’s just a notion that might shed some light on e-books and the pricing and DRM-ing thereof.

Then again, it might just complicate things. :)

OK, here’s my beginning: When we purchase something, we are — by and large — making a statement that the thing in question is, in our opinion, worth the price paid. Now, for things like medical treatment and other basic necessities, this isn’t always true. We may not have a choice, for example, but to pay an extortionate gas price. Or electrical bill. Or what have you.

But in general, we pay for something because we think it’s worth what we’re paying for it.

Now, when you plunk down somewhere between six and twenty-odd bucks for a book (depending on discounts and format), you’re making the statement that you believe the book itself is worth that. Especially since books rarely fall into the “necessities of life” category! (I mean, I would feel a lot less alive if I couldn’t buy books, but I wouldn’t die.)

So far, I don’t think I’ve said anything controversial. Here’s where that changes.

What is a book? More to the point, what are you actually buying when you buy a book?

Reading what I’ve said above, you might be tempted to say that a book is specific content made into a physical or digital artifact. That’s a decent enough definition.

Or is it?

What if the definition of a book is really this: Specific content made into a physical or digital artifact, each with varying properties and freedoms.

What I’m getting at is this: People become upset at the idea of any sort DRM (even the sort I consider very reasonable) on their digital books, but might that be because they’re not looking at it the right way?

People say, “When I buy an e-book, I want it to act exactly like a real book, only on my computer.”

To which I say (having just realized this): “But they can’t act exactly the same because they’re not the same thing. The content is the same, but that’s just part of what a book is. And besides, you’re paying so much less for it!”

Say physical books cost anywhere from $6.00 to $30.00, depending. And say an e-book runs you less than that $8.00. (How much less doesn’t matter right now, but let’s stipulate that it’s a nontrivial amount less. Enough that you notice.)

Well, in that case, when you buy the physical book, you are buying specific content made into a physical artifact with specific freedoms. In other words, you pay a premium and you get a premium: The ability to loan, sell, trade, or give away that book. You’ve never thought of it that way before because there was never a different option. In the past, it was impossible to buy a book that you could not loan, sell, trade, or give away.

When you buy the e-book, though, you are paying less. The savings aren’t just from the non-physical nature of the book (as I discussed last time, there may not be huge savings to be had there after all), but also from the fact that you are literallygetting less. You are buying specific content made into a digital artifact without specific freedoms.

So if all you want is to read the content and you don’t care about anything else, then buy the e-book. Or buy the physical book, but that case you are overpaying. You’re buying more than you actually want or need. No one’s stopping you, but that’s what you’re doing. And, yes, this means a lot of people have been overpaying for centuries because the technology did not yet exist to give them the option.

It’s like the difference between free, ad-supported software or TV and pay-for-access, no-ad software or TV. I can watchModern Family on ABC for free, but I have to sit through the ads. Or I can buy it from iTunes, in which case my money buys me freedom from the ads. (Yes, I realize that the sources seem reversed in this example. The sources don’t matter in this case — it’s about the idea of paying more [or paying at all] for specific freedoms.)

It’s your choice: Pay a premium to be able to re-sell, trade, loan, or donate. Or pay the rock-bottom price and get just the content for your own personal use.

Now, I don’t think this is necessarily a perfect solution. For one thing, the price differential between e-books and physical books would have to be perceived to be great enough to justify this distinction in freedoms. Note that I said “perceived to be,” not that it actually would be. The perception part is the problem. Many people already believe that the lack of a physical medium means that an e-book should cost in the smaller fractions of the price of a physical book. No publishers have opened their ledgers to me, but I have a sinking feeling that such a drastic price cut may not be possible. If it is, great! I’ll be happy. But if it isn’t…

Well, if it isn’t, then this argument will be going on for a long, long time.

So, there’s my latest thoughts on e-books. Feel free to tear me a new one in the comments. :) Next time, I really will move on to something else.

I think.

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)

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