November 30, 2009

Digital hoarders and literary snobs

Jane Friedman was CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide before becoming co-founder and CEO of Open Road Integrated Media, a new company that produces and market ebooks. She discusses the future of the ebook industry in this informative lecture and Q&A at NYU.

There's little for me to disagree with, except I think it's a mistake to try and compare the digital versions of anything with the "standalone" physical (paper) product. Though Friedman's suggestion of a trade paperback pricing standard is more enlightened than treating ebooks as hardcovers.

And she says up front she's open to changing her mind if market forces so dictate.

Compare an episode of House that you can watch for "free" on broadcast TV or Hulu. You can also rent it through Netflix for around $2.00. Or pay a ten dollar premium on top of that to own the DVD. Which lots of people do, even if they'll never watch it enough times to amortize the cost.

Renting's fine with me. Pretty much the only DVDs I buy are anime titles going out of print. The scarcity threat. I'm sure at the heart of this behavior is a primitive pack-rat mentality about hoarding and possessing. We happily pay a premium for "things." Not data. Owning data is like owning smoke.

If the typical trade paperback price is $15.00, then minus the ten buck "hoarding" premium puts the price at $5.00, or more in line with mass market paperbacks, which are also not intended to be hoarded. And that's non-DRM. There's also the "sharing" premium enjoyed by books and CDs and DVDs.

My local library rents DVDs for a dollar. Books and CDs are "free" (beyond taxes, but you bought a TV to watch "free" TV). When I was growing up, any book in the house would be read by everybody in the house, and then often donated to the library to be read by hundreds more.

And when I was in college (during the late Bronze Age), there was always a kid in the dorm who had a nice stereo system, including a high-end turntable and tape deck. So if somebody you knew had an album you liked, you bought a cassette, borrowed the album and made your own mix tape.

I wonder how much of such "borrowing" goes on with physical books, CDs and DVDs, versus the typical Kindle owner or iTunes subscriber (with and without piracy factored in).

But the most brutal realization for publishers may be that digitization has shifted the value of status seeking and signaling from the content to the device. Your album collection doesn't impress as much as your MP3 player. Your bookshelf doesn't impress as much as your ebook reader.

Being infinitely reproducible at almost zero cost puts the value of hoarded digital content at close to zero. Digital pirates hoard so much because the added value of each file--both in real and psychological terms--is so low, and so they end up hoarding more than they could possible consume.

Content sharing and social networking software could address that. But making that work would require a significant rethinking of the bad unintended consequences of DRM and the good unintended consequences of technologies like text-to-speech when assessing what people are really paying for.

Even the diehards at the RIAA won't deny that pretty much the whole point of a boombox is so that other people can hear what you are listening to.

For example, combine social DRM with managed file sharing. When enabled, anybody within WiFi or Bluetooth distance could preview your stored ebooks (or your marked selections). Free advertising for the publisher while broadcasting your literary tastes and marking your social status.

This suggests a value in backlists and "classics" other than reading. I can't help rolling my eyes when people post those "favorites" lists invariably salted with the egghead titles everybody was supposed to read in college but never actually did. Or if they did, because they had to and never will again.

I cheerfully admit to being a cynical literary populist who puts a premium on "entertainment." But perhaps ebook publishers should stop treating their readers solely as consumers, and rather as status-seeking snobs at a tony cocktail party, who want their purchases to say (in part), "Look at me!"

And at the other end of the social spectrum, as introverted otaku desperate for electronically extroverted ways of sharing their obsessions with other like-minded geeks. Not to mention all those writers with their interminable works-in-progress who could now show, not just tell!

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# posted by Anonymous Wm Morris
11/30/2009 9:52 AM   
But perhaps ebook publishers should stop treating their readers solely as consumers, and rather as status-seeking snobs at a tony cocktail party, who want their purchases to say (in part), "Look at me!"


Exactly! And not just status-seeking snobs, though. That may work for certain publishers/authors/types of fiction. Others may require viewing consumers as collaborators and mega-fans.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
11/30/2009 11:27 AM   
Good point! I'll add a concluding paragraph to that effect.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
12/02/2009 9:32 AM   
Is not marketing a bigger issue than DRM with digital books? A physical book sells itself (despite the idiom of not buying a book by its cover).

It seems avid readers will browse just about anything but the casual reader (ie traveler or tourist) is going to purchase whatever is on the airport shop shelf on impulse.

As I think through this I don't see much changing as books go digital. The bookstore hosted on the e-book reader will promote certain books and these books will capture most sales. The challenge for low-budget authors to generate consumer interest remains.