Thinking Out Loud

July 2, 2012

What’s a 250-Page Book Worth?

This week I got an email notification that a local author’s three books — two fiction and one non-fiction — are being offered as free downloads on different days this week. Having known writers who were a little distressed that their books were remaindered, and musicians who were little disappointed that their albums were deleted, I can’t imagine the motivation for broadcasting the fact that the product you labored so hard to create is being valued in economic terms at nil.

I can see how this author might believe that this is going to help him get his message out to a wider audience, or that it might raise his profile on the world stage, or that it might result in other books selling at closer tho his normal price. But on a transaction-by-transaction basis, it means his works are now owned by people who have no particular investment in them.

My thesis is that people are not reading. All our leisure time is now consumed by supporting our screen habits: The pocket screen, the Mac/PC/laptop screen, and the 42-inch plasma screen.

Furthermore all our leisure time money (dollars, pounds, etc.) are tied up in supporting all those same screen habits.

You may wish to argue that “sales” of eBooks are brisk; that this is why the brick-and-mortar bookstores are dying off, because people are downloading books electronically and watching/reading them on a variety of devices.

Let’s consider that possibility.

The greatest promotional vehicle for a book is word of mouth. When enough people have read a particular new release, they start talking about it and they tell their friends.  So all of this downloading ought to result in a groundswell of book interest, which might explain my author-friend’s excitement about the free download offer.

If in the highest categories, electronic book sales only represent 22% of the total number of copies sold — let’s be generous and say 1/4 — then those people are going to spread their passion to their friends:

  • one friend will buy the book electronically
  • three friends will buy the book in print

So you have a few books that go out at ridiculously low prices — in North America let’s say $5.99 or $2.99 or $0.00 — that spark the sale of many more both in Nook/Kindle editions and in print.

But it’s not happening. 

I think the reason is that people are downloading books but not finishing them. They’re using the low-priced and free titles to practice seeing what their electronic toys can do. Perhaps they are reading the introduction and the first chapter, and then, having spent nothing on them, they spend no time finishing them.

Now, let me be clear. I think some print prices are too high. I have continually challenged how the U.S. publishing industry, caught in several years of bad economic times — insisted on keeping the practice where first editions were published in hardcover.

Driven by greed, many author’s works which were pending were deleted and the authors released from their contracts in the years from 2008-2010, because the industry decided they would rather get nothing than sacrifice a publishing paradigm that keeps the books priced high.

The print equivalent of a $3.99 or $5.99 download is a $5.99 or $8.99 value edition; and the industry has no reserves about using this format for older titles, but isn’t interested in using similar tactics to introduce new authors and secure a future for their brand.

But in electronic reading, all bets are off. It’s like a new wave of marketers rushed to the head offices of the various publishers and presented an idea that would see people “adding to cart” all manner of titles and create the illusion of a vibrant and active electronic publishing sector.

Just two problems.

The books aren’t getting read.

The books are being devalued in the process.

June 12, 2011

Reading Now Consists of Short Word-Bites

…It started out on one of my other blogs.   First, I posted this…

It’s the one thing that separates us from the animals: We record our personal and corporate histories, our dreams, our fables, our ideas and our discoveries; and we pass them around to each other and on to the next generation. If we stop reading and writing and move toward using media only as a basis for temporary experience, we are, as a species becoming less developed not more developed.

For Christians, this becomes even more vital and more complex, because we are in many respects a word-based family of faith, so when we neglect the responsibility to be readers, we risk the very realistic future of our beliefs becoming forgotten.

Then Phil from the UK wrote back…

Interesting thought, Paul — but isn’t this precisely what books do, preserve a record of temporary experience? Isn’t that why we need(ed) them, because our experiences are necessarily temporary? And does it matter whether our words are committed to paper and ink: are they not just as powerful — even more so — when recorded via electronic media (such as this blog) with its immediacy and global reach? It’s the question no one in the book trade wants to face, but has the time come to say books are history? I’m not saying it has: just daring to ask the question…

To which I wrote back…

One of the hardest decisions I had to make was when my parents wanted to get rid of the acoustic upright piano that had been in the family for three generations. I was already a huge fan of digital pianos but still didn’t want to give up the acoustic, even though it weighed a ton and would have been costly to move and re-tune. I had to wrestle with the question, “What is a piano?” Even though it has no vibrating strings, the digital piano we now enjoy is actually much more versatile and I don’t miss the old upright much at all. So I am prepared to concede on this one, if I have to, even though I believe digital books are going to grow from the present 10-11% of the industry to as much as 25% by 2013, and then plateau at that level.

But this post was about reading in general, which I feel is on a rapid decline. There is something being lost here, and the new formats are confusing the issue and causing us to miss the more serious trend.

To which Phil replied…

I’m not so sure, Paul: I think it’s more the way we read and write that’s in decline. We’re all reading and writing tweets, texts and Facebook status updates, sometimes longer emails and blogposts, snippets and short articles in magazines and newspapers — but less in-depth reading, an inability to concentrate on anything that goes on for much more than 500 words or so…

… and I think the Christian community has to take a large share of the blame for this: take a look at the way Bible reading is encouraged in churches with short snippets of the Bible taken out of context in daily devotionals that take no more than 5 minutes to get through. Take a look at any Bible reading notes published: how many of them encourage people to read or interact with more than half a dozen carefully selected verses?

How much has Christianity contributed to the degeneration of reading rather than encouraged literacy? It’s no wonder our society can’t focus when the People of the Book have lost it…

…and then I exported the whole thing here, and now it’s your turn…

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