Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Now an E-Book: My First Biography

You can now buy my first biography, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, as an e-book. Amazon has it for sale here. Barnes & Noble has it for sale here.

Why now? After all, the book is eight years old. Because I urged my publisher to release an electronic edition, and the company agreed. I mention this because some may have formed the impression that I am some kind of Luddite, thanks to my posts about e-book pricing. No, I am not opposed to e-books. If anything, the rapid rise of e-books shows that interest in books remains alive and well, despite our click-click short-attention-span digital culture. That's good. I like people reading, no matter what format.

Do I still have qualms about digital pricing? Oh, yes. I can't stand blather on Amazon customer reviews about how "it stands to reason" that packaging, warehousing, and shipping comprise the bulk of a book's cost. That's simply uninformed nonsense. If that's so, why does Microsoft charge $150 for its Office product, when its cost of packaging, etc., is radically less than that of a heavy $35 hardcover? More important, why do you pay $150? Why pay $55 or more for a video game? Both software and books are intellectual property—what gives them value is not the delivery system, but the fact that they embody creations of the human mind. You don't imagine that you're mainly buying CDs when you buy software, nor should you imagine that you're mainly buying paper when you buy books. I've never heard of anyone who was enjoying a good book looking up and saying, "Gosh, honey, this book is printed on such nice paper! You should see this—the ink is fantastic!" No, you quote the passages that you like.

The value is in the content. And the content is the same no matter what the format, e-book or physical book.

Of course, I recognize that, under current conditions, digitization will tend to depress the price of books. Currently, the main force is downward. Yes, there are some savings with digital books, though nowhere near as much as people think. But most of the downward pressure is exerted by competition among retail outlets, particularly Amazon, which is willing to absorb losses in return for market share. Be warned: This downward pressure is building up resistance, which will spring back upward before too long. For one thing, Amazon cannot continue to absorb losses forever. But even if it succeeds in setting all e-book prices at $9.99, the spring back up will inevitably occur. That, or certain books will disappear from the marketplace.

A research-intensive book of the kind I write requires an upfront investment from the publisher in the form of an advance. Then comes a major investment of time and money on the part of the author, followed by lots of product improvement by the publisher—editing, copy-editing, design, etc.—as well as marketing. Unless a radically larger number of units sell at Amazon's magical $9.99 price point than have been selling in physical form, that $9.99 price will lead to a loss for the publisher, and ultimately the author. Already there is intense downward pressure on advances, and it will only grow worse as revenue from books falls. The inevitable result will be that serious, research-intensive nonfiction will be abandoned to academics (who are not rewarded professionally for writing well), or else book prices will go up. It's the fierce law of the market.

I couldn't have written The First Tycoon in my spare time. Nor could I have undertaken it if the list price on all copies sold was $9.99. It wouldn't have been possible. Self-publishing? I'm sorry, but that doesn't fly with my kind of work. For multi-year, research-intensive books, the self-publishing business plan goes like this: "First, be rich. Then, live off your wealth while you write."

But my point is this: Books are not interchangeable. The effort and process of writing them, let alone the experience of reading them, is radically different from book to book. None of that has anything to do with whether the book appears on paper or in digital form. There is no earthly reason why a one-size-fits-all price should apply to e-books. Yes, I want books to be cheaper, too, but readers should accept varied prices, and not be fooled into thinking $9.99 is a natural price for all e-books.

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