BY NICO VREELAND
There’s quite an interesting post on Booksquare today about ebook pricing, and why the publishing industry is keeping eprices artificially inflated. The writer, Kassia Krozser, lays into publishers for fearing to get on board with ebooks, refusing to invest in epublishing the same way readers are investing in ereading, and not realizing that they now have to follow the Kindle’s $9.99 pricing model.
She offers both hope:
People will pay for content as long as it meets some basic needs. Digital books offer as much pleasure as print books, but digital books are also viewed as something slightly different.
and harsh reality:
In the digital marketplace, books have to remain competitive with other media. It’s not so much your opinion of the value of your product that matters; it’s all about how the customer values your product…. You can trot out your business model and your profit-and-loss statements, but your customers don’t really care.
The thing is, I understand why big publishing houses aren’t getting behind ebooks. It’s the same reason people buy more Nora Roberts books than Karen Brown (besides the fact that they’ve never heard of Karen Brown).
The problem is that we all have a deep-seated aversion to risk, an aversion which allows consumers to be more easily controlled by major media corporations who themselves are seriously risk averse. This cycle is strangling the development of artistic media in the modern world.
However, the digital revolution of media (lynchpinned by digital piracy) has a chance to free us from that risk aversion, and lead to the resurrection of art, including, maybe most of all, the resurrection of good writing.
The care and feeding of a risk-averse human
Making a wrong choice stings: you read (part of) a bad book, you watch a bad movie, you get a bad album. The real punishment, back in the pre-digital age, was that you had to pay for all of that.
A good choice, on the other hand, does not elate nearly as much as a bad choice hurts. So you read (and buy) a good book– isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?
This becomes akin to gambling: the biggest thrill lies in risking loss. For most people who aren’t compulsive gamblers, risking loss is not a thrill at all. So, avoiding loss becomes a higher priority than achieving gain.
That’s what leads people to read Nora Roberts. Nora Roberts is not good, and is not a gain for a reader. But it is also not a loss, and for most readers, that means it’s a safer bet than buying and reading an unknown quantity like Karen Brown.
Risk aversion leads to much wailing, gnashing of teeth
When most media consumers are thus conditioned to be so risk averse, it leads to the media landscape we have now: every medium is dominated by a few enormous producers, whose hallmark is mediocrity.
This is where crappy summer blockbusters come from, it’s where Stephenie Meyer comes from, it’s where ‘N Sync comes from.
(It can also be extrapolated to just about everything else. How many companies can you think of that make laptops or cars or ereaders?)
The few major media producers have the exact same aversion to risk as their consumers. They risk a lot by creating genuinely good content, because good content will necessarily appeal to a smaller audience than content that’s just good enough not to make you angry.
The first stage of media globalism is appealing to the lowest common denominator. Luckily, we might be about ready to move on, with or without major corporations.
In the future, everyone will be published. Literally.
One side effect of digitizing books is that the means of production becomes so democratic that literally anyone can upload a copy of their novel to the internet, to be (potentially) read by an incredibly wide audience. The first casualty of ebooks will be “self-publishers” who charge you a chunk of change to perfect-bind a few dozen copies of your space opera fan-fic.
Soon, the only differences between a self-published author and a bestseller will be the breadth of the former’s distribution and the cache of the latter’s name.
I wrote a post not long ago about how digital distribution could lead to a media meritocracy. I won’t rehash it now, but I’ll say this: if we are to achieve a breakdown of corporate monopolization of publishing, the major piece of infrastructure missing is an adequate filter.
If there was a third-party who reliably recommended good media, and that both increased visibility (and hence distribution) of small press digital publications, and invested them with independent cache, the playing field becomes much more level, and the major publishers become steadily less relevant.
Plus, of course, the role of piracy
The thing about digital piracy is that it lowers the risk of experiencing new media. If you download a movie, or an album, or an episode of a new show, you might waste a bit of time, but the experience of choosing bad media loses that financial sting. This could eventually break the cycle of risk-aversion and nudge us toward that meritocracy.
I’m not saying that’s a good thing for record labels and publishers; on the contrary, it’s a very bad thing. It is, however, a great thing for listeners, readers, and consumers of all types of media.
With a combination of reliable recommendations and low risk in trying new artists, that meritocracy stands a much better chance of actually existing.
It’s easy to see, then, why major publishers are not lining up to push ebooks on their paper book customers, and why all producers of media blow a fuse at the idea of DRM-free media, and the inherent risk of piracy it carries.
For most of the lives of these publishing houses, they’ve had the luxury of relying on risk aversion to buoy their bottom line. As the revolution of epublishing ramps up, these major publishers are facing a soup-to-nuts reimagining of their role in the world (not to mention a whole lot of work).
Among all digitized media, books have the lowest monetary cost of production. Hopefully, that means that books will have the greatest chance of becoming entirely democratized. All we need is a system of publicity and quality control–a system which allows good writing to emerge above bad–and major publishers will be irrelevant.
The bad news for publishers (and good news for readers) is that this revolution is inevitable. Publishers can drag their feet all they want, but it’s only a matter of time. Which is why, despite their instinct, publishers need to lead the charge into ebooks, because ignoring epublishing will prove to be the biggest risk of all.