Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Ebooks And Such

I recently ran across an online ad for the Sony Reader. It is a device for reading ebooks. It apparently holds hundreds of books, and plays MP3 music files as well. I'm all for these things. There's no particular romance for me in holding a paper book in my hand, but I must say that I don't understand the business model. At this point there are a very limited number of titles available for these things, and the cost of the ebooks are ridiculous. It seems to cluster around $15. That's the cost of a trade paperback, and it's absurd. An ebook doesn't require a manufacturing plant with printing presses and such. It doesn't require a physical warehouse. Why then does is it being peddled for the same price as a trade paperback?

I suspect that it has a lot to do with book publishers trying to protect an increasingly obsolete business model. Whether or not they would state it as such, publishers still conduct themselves as though they are a manufacturing concern that produces physical books. However, with computers, the internet, and print-on-demand, there's really little reason for them to be involved in anything more than marketing and distribution. If I were a book publisher, here's what I would do. In the first place, I would become an adviser in self-publishing. Anyone who wanted to could publish with me. I would offer editiorial, cover design, and marketing services for anyone who wanted it, but at a price, and I would list anyone who wanted to publish with my imprint in my catalog. There would be a fee for this listing, since I would also be keeping a laid-out copy of the book in my computer. In most cases, I would not print any copies of the book. The author, or bookstores, or whoever would have to order copies, which would be printed on demand. I would also offer traditional contracts to established authors, and authors who started selling well on my site. I would then foot the expense for actually publishing, marketing, and distributing the book. The author would get a percentage on each sale, as they do today.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons why such a model has been slow in coming, at least among the powers in the publishing industry. Chief among them is fear of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Similar remarks could be made about the music industry, and there the pressure from artists and consumers on the music companies seems to be stronger. For example, you can't download individual songs in MP3 form because that's the way the companies wanted it. They would prefer that you have to buy a CD to get the one or two songs that you really want, but the consumers forced their hands with pirated downloads and such.

The future, though, is in devices like the Sony Reader. In fact, I think ebook readers will be merged with several other devices to produce a single personal assistant that is cell phone, personal computer, music player, ebook reader, and what have you. This device will even take the place of credit cards. There are already places, like Finland, the home of Nokia, where you can make purchases with your cell phone. You just dial a number enter the relevant information. It's even likely that you will be given one of these devices of the most rudimentary sort when you apply for a Social Security number, and that your number will be encoded within the device. Companies will make their money by providing upgrades and services for these devices, not by actually selling them. Bar codes are next, on the back of your neck. No wait, that's science fiction. Bar codes are so crude when they can implant an unremovable identity chip at birth.


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