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Monday, May 27, 2024

Column: Forgetting the deal

There’s a lot of talk about the book industry in the press lately. While some find its future prospects grim, others aren’t so pessimistic.

“It’s the best time in the history of the printed word to be a publisher or a writer,” said Dave Eggers, author and founder of independent publisher McSweeney’s, last weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Yeah, easy for him to say. But Eggers isn’t alone – eBooks, in particular, are sounding more and more like viable alternatives and industry savers.

An April 26 article in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta titled “Publish or Perish: Can the iPad topple the Kindle, and save the book business?” described the delicate political power struggle between major publishers and retailers in the eBook market. The iPad, Auletta writes, is gaining notoriety as a savior for the book industry since it places a much-needed check on Amazon’s predatory book pricing.

It’s a solid argument. The real problem with the book industry isn’t simply the Internet or the growing threat of eBooks. What’s slowly killing the industry is the overwhelming notion that eBooks are no different than any other industry affected by new forms of Internet media – that as time progresses, the service should be cheap or free.

It’s strange that an additional competitor like the iPad is considered a savior for the market. Though eBooks still make up less than 10 percent of the total book market, Amazon dominates the eBook sales. So when Amazon capped eBook prices at $9.99 – operating at a loss for each sale – it undercut almost every eBook publisher by boldly and cleverly betting on long-term market success.

Publishers want a new “agency” model, which would give them more control over eBook prices and therefore surpass Amazon’s $9.99 price level. Apple is allowing this with the iPad, hence the praise. Other companies like Google, who recently paid the book publishers $125 million to further their goal of scanning and releasing every book in existence, are following suit.

Asking consumers to pay more for an eBook is hardly popular, simply because books are an expensive investment – especially if they’re nothing more than virtual files on a hard drive. Buyers are willing to pay more for a well-printed book on the rare occasion, but there’s no distinction between a paperback and hardbound covers on an iPad. Justifying a torrent download of a textbook, when the UC Davis bookstore offers the same product for $160, wouldn’t be difficult.

But nobody should discount the value of this agency model. Nobody deserves the lower price of $9.99. If this format is going to proliferate like it seems, publishers should have the ability to determine prices. The price cap threatens publishers, authors and independent bookstores, who without a doubt are already on the losing end of this situation.

It’s understandable when pundits and commentators immediately jump to the music industry to provide a metaphor for a free digital trend. In a recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Auletta argued that Apple’s release of iTunes in 2003 combated a culture of free music that had previously controlled the consumer mindset. Paying the set price of 99 cents for a single song infuriated record labels, but transformed the free culture into an enormous consumer base that would, in fact, pay money for a digital file. Prices have since increased, and iTunes is still the top music retailer in the U.S.

But the music parallel isn’t entirely fair. Hard copies of albums are arguably more sentimental and less practical than physical books. A high quality digital file can rival the quality of a vinyl record if it’s a raw WAV file or encoded at a high bit rate, but the content of an eBook is identical to the content of a regular book. And, as Auletta correctly states, few would be willing to buy a single chapter of a book other than college students.

And if college students don’t start supporting the book industry, it’s hard to tell who will.

JUSTIN T. HO would still gladly download a copy of a book when the “new” edition is the only version available at the bookstore. He’d also gladly download a version of the NUT 10 reader if it were possible. E-mail him at arts@theaggie.org.


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