June 10th, 2008

PC keyboard

E-books, the marketing plan

The New York Times had an interesting piece by Paul Krugman the other day. He described technology guru Esther Dyson's prediction from 1994 that the ease with which digital content can be copied will force some businesses to sell or even give away their "creative" products—software, music, movies, and books. Dyson's idea was that businesses would make their money from selling related products or services, and her prime example was the Grateful Dead, the band who let people tape their live concerts but then sold them tee shirts and more concert tickets.

Krugman jumps over any question of reader acceptance of e-books and foresees this scenario applying to their publication:

"Right now, publishers make as much from a Kindle download as they do from the sale of a physical book. But the experience of the music industry suggests that this won’t last: once digital downloads of books become standard, it will be hard for publishers to keep charging traditional prices."

I'm not sure I buy that e-books correlate to print books the way that downloaded music correlates to CDs. I think there is too much difference in the user interface for that. But there are similarities. Krugman takes it one step further:

"Indeed, if e-books become the norm, the publishing industry as we know it may wither away. Books may end up serving mainly as promotional material for authors’ other activities, such as live readings with paid admission. Well, if it was good enough for Charles Dickens, I guess it’s good enough for me."

Now that I just don't see. For one thing, a lot of good authors are lousy readers. For another, it's too expensive to do. Look at how few authors do book tours now.

I don't think it's the Grateful Dead who provide the business model for the Internet age but rather Google—give away the product but sell ads. So instead of Annie Proulx's selling tickets to her reading of The Shipping News, her publisher will post it on the web and sell ads to cruise lines, chocolate manufacturers, and family counseling services.
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