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Posted by James McQuivey on December 15, 2009
"Dear book industry, I'm so sorry to tell you this, but your books really aren't worth $25. Just like newspapers weren't really worth what people were paying for them and magazines, either. And CDs, and DVDs."
I caused a bit of a fuss last week when I blogged these words here, or in a mirror post on Paidcontent.org. This has been one of the most commented and tweeted posts I've ever offered and much of the feedback centered on this question: was it fair of me to drag the price of books down?
My answer: Current book prices are a lie
I'm cheating when I say this, of course, because I know full well that most people who buy hardbacks don't pay list price anyway. Even in an airport, you can get 20% off a hardback if you time it right, not to mention the 50% you can get off bestsellers at Barnesandnoble.com (sorry, the sale is over, but yesterday you could get Sue Grafton for $13.97, Ted Kennedy for $17.50, Mitch Albom for $11.99, and the list goes on).
So people pay discount prices, yet bristle when I suggest books should be cheaper. Let’s figure out why. To explain where book prices come from, I must first explain where they do not originate. Books are not priced based on:
Is all hope lost, then? No, the secret to recouping the value of a book is to make sure you multiply the experience of the book’s value as far and wide as possible. An unlikely model emerges here in the form of James Patterson who does this by generating (careful choice of words there) what seems like a book a week. And they're all available in digital format. He evidently understands that reading is an addiction that can be fed quite easily by opening the supply of the drug of choice.
If I were an author or publisher hoping to preserve the value of books -- whether physical or digital -- I would focus on the most convenient book experience possible; make it easy to find, easy to evaluate, easy to consume, and easy to share. The more easily these things can happen, the more people will consume. If we do this right, ten years from now, more people will read books than ten years ago. And they'll each read more titles than they did ten years ago. And though they'll pay less per book, it could actually generate more profit (slightly less revenue against markedly lower costs).
In the process, we'll see a shift in how authors are developed. Yes, authors who have proven themselves in the digital minor leagues, will get picked up by the majors at a handsome price and then they'll have the chance to milk things like exclusives: exclusive interactions with the authors, exclusive content available only to subscribing members, exclusive hardback editions that are printed in limited runs and hand numbered by the author. But the bulk of authors will not achieve this, and instead will find an audience of a few hundred or a few thousand readers they can appeal to and thereby share what caused them to invest so much time, effort, and passion. As an author myself, I’ll admit that while I’d love the former, I’ll at least take the latter – something I can only do in a digital world.