Philosophical Musings

July 5, 2009

Where Cory Doctorow is Wrong – You won’t Make Money Selling Books in the Future

Filed under: business,Copyrights,Digital Culture,ebooks — Elad Kehat @ 9:57 pm

I was delighted to find an interview with Cory Doctorow in the July-August 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review (available here, but behind a paywall). I’m a huge fan of Cory, and while there was nothing new in that interview, it was still fun to read.
The point of this post however is spread the word about the interview (for that there’s twitter…), but rather to take the opportunity to say that I think Cory’s got his views on the future of books wrong, and to bring my own experience as a counter example.

The case in point is his claim (oft-repeated elsewhere) that an electronic book isn’t a substitute for a printed book, and thus authors can expect to keep making money by selling printed books in the future, while giving away e-books for free to gain publicity.
Of special interest are the following question-and-answer:

HBR: What about the Kindle? Doesn’t it throw your model into question?
CD: I don’t think so. First of all, anyone who’s willing to spend $350 on a Kindle is not someone who’s going to cheap out about spending 10 bucks on a book. The Kindle may come way down in price, but I think it’s going to do that by adding a bunch of features that increase appeal and the volume produced. Once you load the Kindle up with features, you have the same problem you have with a computer – it becomes too distracting. So I’m not all that bothered. Now, maybe I’m wrong about this, and if I am, then I’ll have to figure out another way to make money on my books. Of course, spending 10 years at the coal face of electronic publishing will give me the tools to find that new income model.

Like I said, I’m a huge fan. I read many of Cory’s books. However, I never paid for them. I read them all in e-book format on my Sony Reader (a competitor to the Kindle). I spent far more than $350 on Sony Readers (I bought 3 of them to date – for my wife and my father as well as for myself), but that doesn’t make me not “cheap-out” on spending $10 on a book. Even though I admire the author, if he gives the e-book away for free, I see no problem in not paying for it. Moreover, future features notwithstanding, my Reader is, and has been since I bought my first one 2.5 years ago, my preferable way to read books. Whenever faced with a choice between a printed book and an e-book, I choose the latter. In fact I go out of my way to acquire an e-book version of a book that I want to read even when I have the printed version available at hand.

Obviously, this single counter-example – myself – does not mean that the majority of the market will behave the same as I do. Cory himself seems to acknowledge the exceptions to his expectation by saying that “It’s a rare person who treats an electronic book as a substitute for a printed book” – that could leave me as one of those rare cases.
Nevertheless, I don’t think that he supplies any strong arguments to support his expectation that my case is going to be the rare exception. His main argument is the problem with reading off the computer screen is its myriad distractions. I disagree. My reason for preferring to do my long-form reading on my Sony Reader rather than my computer screen(s), is that it’s much more comfortable for curling up with in bed, on the sofa, or reading on the table during breakfast. Laptops, even NetBooks, are too big and uncomfortable for that, and Smart-Phones are too small. The average paperback has the near-perfect form factor for book reading, and the Kindle / Sony Reader manage to improve on that!

Finally, we’re discussing here an author who gives his e-books away for free. As most books become available in digital editions, and digital readers proliferate, the publishing industry is going to experience the same fate the music industry did. No DRM scheme would save them (as Cory had claimed himself in the past).
In conclusion, I think that Cory had better put that coal face to good use. If anyone can find a new income model for authors, it’s him.

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