Friday, January 14, 2011

Digital books (29 August 2007)

Why would anyone buy a digital book reader? I found myself asking this question while reading this somewhat nonsensically titled BusinessWeek piece, "Making Digital Books into Page Turners." (Huh? I guess they thought best-seller and head turner were too cliche, so they went for an only tangentially related set phrase. Does "Turning the Page on Digital Books" make more sense?)
The market for digital books is nascent, and Sony, despite the Reader's less-than-splashy debut, still sees its potential, believing people will eventually warm to reading on a flat screen everything from books to the magazine you're holding now.
The strange thing is, I've already got a machine that can do this, and in fact I read those very words on its screen. I wasn't holding a magazine at all! No, I'm not a magician or a time traveler from the future; I've got this thing called a "laptop" and it can do many other neat things beside display the pages of a book. It displays these things called "web pages" that have all sorts of information on them, and I can even use what's known as a "search engine" to find just about any information I want. When prices of cheap laptops are going ever downward, who the hell wants a stupid toy that only displays proprietary pages? What was in Sony's mind, besides greed, when it decided to limit its digital reader to its files alone? When will media companies get it that no one is going to pay for digital information the way they did for collectible things?

Book buyers like to collect things; reading the books is somewhat incidental. If they wanted merely to read, they could go to library. And no one likes reading on screens; they will do it however if the content is free. They are never, ever, going to pay the same amount for a digital book, as Sony seems to expect, as they would for a real one -- they will not pay for the eyestrain and the absence of an object to arrange on their bookshelves. Only when real books cost $150 will people consent to explore the possibilities of digital ones for $20. And at that point, people will have mastered the art of distributing books as pdfs anyway. I'm sure you could search torrent sites now for pdfs of just about any best-seller as well as just about any magazine. People will go to the trouble if its free. If they wanted to pay, they would buy the actual object. So this makes no sense:
To stoke sales, Sony has knocked $50 off its original price for the Reader and rolled out a new print ad campaign in publications such as The New York Times (NYT ), USA Today, and Vanity Fair. As part of this marketing push, Sony is offering new buyers, who are also registered Connect users, credit for 100 free classic titles, such as Great Expectations and Moby-Dick. "In terms of timing, with people going back to school, there is a lot of interest in classic literature," said Jim Malcolm, director of marketing for Sony Electronics. "It gives people an incentive to buy."
But you can download classic novels, for which there is no copyright, for free already. You can get many of them in cheap print editions as well.

Perhaps Sony has seen what digital music has done to company balance sheet and are trying to get ahead of the curve. The digital-music-marketplace logic seems to be this: when distribution costs zero, you only have to sell a few to be profitable. So then if you can guilt some small proportion of the public into paying for digital content with the intellectual-property boogeyman or the specter of your crack legal team, you might still have a viable business. But music and books are not particularly comparable goods. Music affords an immediate experience and often serves as a backdrop for setting a mood or manifesting an identity. Books require attention, a commodity becoming rarer all the time. When people have the attention to pay, they'll invest it in such a way to maximize the pleasure and utility it affords them -- that means getting comfortable with a printed book, or getting utilitarian with a wide array of digital materials to that may be cut and pasted and reincorporated in whatever it is the user is trying to accomplish.

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