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How I Think About E-Books
January 19, 2011 - 9:30pm

"……the under 30 crowd? They are nearly as skeptical as their grandparents, with 58% saying they had no interest in e-books. Of that group, price wasn't the biggest issue. They just prefer the experience of a printed book."

--from the marvelous Barbara Fister's blog post, "Undergraduates and E-Books: A Marriage Made With a Shotgun"

I'm with the under 30 crowd! (Sort of, because I care more about price).

Given a choice between a paper version or a Kindle version of a book, I'd take the paper version any day. The only reason I buy Kindle e-books is price. A Kindle book usually costs around what I'd pay for a soft-cover edition, and I like to read books when everyone else is also reading them.

But there must be some reason that e-books exist beyond price. I have read in a number of places that the printing, distribution and selling of physical books is in reality not that big an expense. According to Wired, "the physical aspects of book production can account for as little as 15 percent of the cost of the title. The rest can be divvied up among the author, editor, designer, marketers, publicists, distributors, and resellers".

The Meissner research group calculates that for a $26 hardcover book, the cost of printing, storage, and shipping is $3.25. For a $12.99 e-book, the cost of digitizing, typesetting and editing is $0.80, equally a savings of only $2.45.

So if I'd rather read paper than digital, and the artificially cheaper e-book price is a perhaps temporary promotion (loss-leader) on the part of Amazon and B&N to drive sales of their e-book readers and built long-term loyalty, than why do I still love e-books?

Complements, Not Substitutes: An e-book is not a complement to a physical book, but I think an e-book can be a great complement to an audio or paper book. Since the marginal cost of selling an additional e-book is so low, I think that Amazon or another seller will eventually get smart and bundle e-books with the sale of other formats. I pay a bit under $10 bucks a book from Amazon's Audible for each book (under their Platinum plan). I might pay a dollar or two more if an e-book was bundled for my Kindle, particularly if they figured out how to synch the pages. Sometimes I want to listen, sometimes I want to look at words on a (digital) page. I think book sellers would sell many more books if they offered more flexibility and choice (including the ability to share books) in formats for each purchase.

An Author Advantage: E-books might be causing problems for many authors (see "Authors Feel the Pinch in Age of E-Books" from the September 2010 WSJ), but I see a big upside. I have about 3 books in my head that I'd love to write, none of which I think would make any money. I'd like to write these books for the same reason I blog, to get ideas out into the world and make connections with people. The option to publish solely in an e-book format might be a way to keep the price of the book to something low enough that a critical mass of readers will find the book. How low that price has to be pay for editing and digitizing I'm not sure, but in my case (since I'm not relying on the book for income), the price just needs to cover these costs.

Perhaps it is time we found a way to move beyond the e-book vs. paper book debate, and instead focus our energies on getting people to turn off the tube and pick-up (in whatever format) this glorious and wonderful technology that we call a book.

Tell me where I'm wrong.

What are you reading?


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