Tuesday, February 02, 2010

What is a Book, Really?

If you follow book news on the Internet, you'll know that the industry is still fumbling about for how, exactly to handle electronic books and where e-books fit into the overall publishing picture -- how should they be priced, how should they be treated, when should they be released, etc. I'm not going to get into any of the specific battles involving particular retailers and publishers, but I do want to address something that many of the people involved in this and sounding off about it -- publishers, retailers and readers -- seem to be missing entirely:

A book is not a physical object.

Yeah, it may appear in the form of paper bound together inside a cover, but that stack of paper is not really a book. Neither is the collection of bits and bytes stored in an e-reader. Those are just the manifestations of the real book, the projection of the book into the physical universe. They're ways of transmitting the real book from the mind of the author to the mind of the reader.

The real book is the content, the ideas, words and stories contained in the physical object. The content is not equal to the form, and it isn't the form that dictates the value. Form and value are not linked that tightly. The real link is between the content and value.

Because the content is what matters, books are not interchangeable, and they aren't purchased like other consumer products. People buy a particular book because they want that book, and another book isn't likely to be a good substitute (unless you're just browsing for anything to read). If it was the physical object that mattered and if one book was as good as another book, I wouldn't need to buy another book or check another book out of the library for at least a year because I've got more than a hundred unread books sitting on my shelves, most of which I got for free. And yet, I keep buying new books because I want to read those books more than I want to read the books I got for free that are sitting on my shelves. Books aren't really price-sensitive -- if you want a particular book, you won't buy a different one just because it's cheaper. The price only matters if you're choosing between two books you want equally. You may adjust your overall book purchases based on your budget, but if there's something you really want to read that you can't get any other way, you'll choose that one book over buying two books you aren't that interested in (unless you're in a situation where volume matters, like needing to kill time on a long flight. Then you might choose two paperbacks over one hardback, no matter how much you prefer the hardback.).

Meanwhile, where I think publishers are really not getting it is that a book in hardcover is not automatically more valuable to readers because of its format. Yes, some readers do want hardcovers because of the durability, appearance on the bookcase or the prestige factor (because they're living in the 1950s, when "real" books were published in hardcover and only "pulp" was published as paperback originals). I don't like hardcovers, and not just because of the higher price. I don't like the form factor. They're less comfortable for me to read (I have rather small hands, so I can't hold a hardcover book comfortably with one hand). They're less portable because they're larger and heavier. I can't stick a hardcover book in my purse to have handy in case I get stuck waiting somewhere. They're useless for airplane reading because they take up too much room, and I can carry multiple paperbacks instead of one hardcover. They take up too much shelf space. I don't have room to shelve any more hardcover books.

But, again, a book is not about the physical object, and if I really want the content, I can overcome the higher price and the form factor aversion and will buy the book in hardcover if that's the only way it's available at that time. I went to bookstores at midnight to buy Harry Potter books on release day because I wanted to know what happened next right away, and I wanted to read it for myself before I got spoiled, which was likely to happen very soon after release, since everyone else in the world was reading the same books at the same time. The content was valuable enough to me that I was willing to pay what it cost in order to have the book right away. I'd have paid the same price for any form of those books to have them at that time, whether it was paperback or e-book (if I had an e-reader). If the content is less valuable to me, I'm willing to wait. If it's a book I know I'll want to keep but don't need to read it immediately, I'll wait for the paperback. Otherwise, I'll wait to get it at the library. Sometimes, I'll get on the waiting list at the library at the time of the hardcover release, then buy the paperback when it comes out, just because I don't want to own a hardcover book but I don't want to wait for the paperback. There are some series I follow in paperback where I'd be willing to pay a little more for the paperback to have the next book on release day because the content is that valuable to me.

On the other hand, a lot of readers seem to be equating the value of the book to the cost of producing the physical object. Since e-books don't require paper, printing, warehousing or shipping, these readers believe the books should be practically free. But again, the book is not the physical object. It's the content, and these readers seem to be forgetting this, that they're buying the ideas, and those ideas still have value, even if there really is no physical object involved. They're buying the link between the author's mind and their own. When you're thinking in terms of value to the reader rather than the cost of producing the physical object, an e-book is actually even more valuable than a hardcover book because it takes up less physical space, is more convenient, is easier to carry and can be customized (you can adjust the type size, for instance). I'm not suggesting the e-book should cost more than the physical book because of this value, since those benefits are paid for in the purchase of the reading device. I'm just pointing out the fallacy of thinking that the e-book is somehow less valuable (and therefore should have a significantly lower price point) simply because the cost to produce it is lower (and it's not as much lower as you might think -- the cost of producing the physical book is a small fraction of the cost of the book, only a couple of dollars for a hardcover).

I don't have an answer for how e-books should be priced or sold. I just think it's time to mentally separate the physical form of the books from the real book -- the content -- and everyone from publishers to retailers to readers needs to consider this.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Just wanted to leave a quick note to say hi. New to the blog but just finished reading the Enchanted series for the 3rd time. (4TH time for the first three). Fingers and toes crossed that the 5th comes to be and I would love to see the movie...but I'm sure you hear that a lot. I liked your post. Made me think. Never really thought much about ebooks as I like the ritual of paper but now that you mention it I have to agree that what I buy is the authors work not the communication method.