from the moving-with-the-times dept
Publishers find themselves confronted by a difficult dilemma at the moment. On the one hand, they might want e-books to succeed, because digital devices represent a huge new market to which they can sell their back catalogs. On the other, they might want them to fail, because e-books will cannibalize sales of traditional books, and it's not yet clear how low the price of e-books will have to go in order to avoid the kind of piracy problems the recording industry exacerbated through persistent overcharging.
But maybe publishers can have it both ways – selling high-volume, low-price e-books, and small-run, high-price physical books. As a recent feature in the Guardian devoted to the rebirth of "beautiful books" put it:
What the rise of electronic publishing has done, rather, is create a context in which the book's two distinct incarnations – as beautiful object and as a set of vaporous pixels - are linked not by "or" but "and".
The rise of beautiful books described in the article is a classic example of using abundance to make money from scarcity. Freely-available e-books encourage people to read a text they might not have encountered otherwise. When they discover they enjoy it, they decide to buy it in a form that enhances the pleasure of reading – a high-quality physical book.
This is certainly what they believe at the Folio Society. You might think that a company that has dedicated itself since 1947 to publishing exquisite editions of classic texts – everything from Beowulf to Elizabeth David's Italian Food – would be feeling glum about its chances in this new landscape. But David Hayden, the publishing director and a bookselling veteran, is feeling perky. An unabashed fan of new technology, he reckons the result of the seismic shifts in publishing will mean "fewer and better-produced books". In particular he believes in the model of the "retroactive purchase", which goes something like this. You buy an e-reader and, at a stroke, have access to thousands of out-of-print classics via Project Gutenberg. One evening, at a loose end, you download The Mill on the Floss, having always wondered vaguely what it was about. You find yourself transfixed. You love this book, you really do, and want to suggest it to your book group. So you buy the Penguin Classic edition, because it's easy to scribble on and pass around. And then, when your Mum's birthday comes around – she loves George Eliot and has been on at you for ages to take the plunge – you give her a handsome presentation copy of the book, bound in buckram and silk, the sort of thing that the Folio Society does surpassingly well.
This phenomenon is why publishers should not see low e-book prices – which are likely to come, whether they want it or not, not least because of Amazon's growing power – as the end of the world. In the digital age, where raw information can and will be copied freely, it no longer makes sense to pursue a business model based largely on selling what's inside the book. Instead, publishers should think about the unique elements of the content's packaging, which can't be shared in this way. That's exactly what companies built around open source have done, and Red Hat is now a billion-dollar business.