Book publishers need independent markets for e-books

Book publishers need independent markets for e-books (credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor) Book publishers need independent markets for e-books (credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor)
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Is every e-book, or even every e-bestseller, worth $9.99?

They aren’t. Have you seen what makes the bestseller’s shelf? Half of them aren’t actually written by their “authors” and far too many seem to have editors who have perennially stepped out for a lunch break.

Quality of content aside, what exactly is it I should be paying for: the author’s blood, sweat, and ink? Should I pay three times as much for Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 — three “books” published as a single volume, topping 900 pages — or should Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winner Sense of an Ending be discounted due to its brevity?

Is it just a novel that is worth $9.99, or is a novella worth the same? If I serialize my story, do I make more or less? Are graphic novels the same, and what about non-fiction?

Should anyone even be publishing short stories anymore? As a society, should we just stop reading — especially on paper?

The book publishing industry is just one more 19th-century innovation disrupted by the rise of digital information transfer and ubiquitous computing devices. This transition, or more aptly revolution, shifted control of book pricing from physical and local bookstores to Amazon — not to a sea of competitive e-book sellers, but to a monolithic entity whose storage and distribution costs are negligent and who has much greater restrictions over post-sale transfers.

Through Amazon, e-books have been commoditized: $9.99 for every book. You purchase it and it cannot be transferred. You don’t own a physical object, you can’t hold it in your hand, you can’t lend it to a friend who is browsing your bookshelves, and you can’t donate it to the local library when you are done.

E-books, and the entire book ecosystem as a whole, is irreparably damaged by Amazon’s actions. The local bookstore and even the national chains are dying or dead. The quality of the book as an object and of the content itself as having worth is lost with the rise of e-books.

Most unfortunately, the act of reading hasn’t improved. You can carry thousands of books with you at a time, but reading and the associated actions of thinking or learning haven’t been beneficially transformed in these early stages of our digitalization.

And this is why the Department of Justice’s lawsuit charging Apple and five book publishers with colluding to raise the price of e-books stings to the erudite loyalists among us.

Bibliophiles who care for the book and the material inside it are not being helped by forcing book publishers to spend their already-limited resources fighting lawsuits that will save consumers an insignificant two dollars a book.

If the publishers don’t all settle (and it seems Macmillan and Penguin will rightfully not), the technology will have radically evolved to be so distant from the current landscape that the suits will be irrelevant long before they are resolved.

I offer this solution to the publishers: Tell Amazon if it requires — and if the Department of Justice regulates — the ability to set its own prices, then you simply cannot do business with them.

Set up your own digital storefronts. Sell e-books in the formats of your choice for as much as you’d like and as much as the market will pay.

If you truly stand behind your agency model, fight for it by making it the standard. It provides clearer revenue models for digital sales and allows you the freedom you want.

It isn’t collusion if you each handle it in the way that makes sense for your publishing house, your customers, and your books — keep the books the first priority.

And while you are building these digital storefronts, remind us, the readers, and society as a whole why you are still relevant at all in a world of simple and direct self-publishing.

Prove you can innovate: Bring in the digital humanists, the internet publishers, the minds behind extending ePub and push out digital books that disrupt the act of reading. Give your e-books more than just reflowed text: Give them life.