As probably everyone reading this knows I work for a book publisher. Watching the e-book evolve from “I guess this will probably happen eventually” to an economic reality has been interesting, though one thing has bothered me about it. I can’t remember where I first came across this insight, but it’s often been said that the music industry’s decline began as soon as they made the leap to digital: transform music into easily and perfectly reproducible digital information and you’ve made file-sharing and downloading inevitable. In 1982, it was likely impossible to foresee the rise of the internet (though widespread CD burning seems easier to predict), and yet one can still see that initial decision to turn music into data as a self-inflicted, potentially fatal, wound.
Surprisingly, almost no one ever mentions this same line of historical reasoning in discussions of publishers choosing to make e-books. Everyone is so focused on whether or not the Kindle or whatever is inferior, comparable, or superior to the printed book that almost no one I’ve run into bothers to worry about the pitfalls of turning books into data. One of my company’s new ideas is to allow users to rent e-books—50% off list price for 180 days; $5 for thirty—which seems pretty smart, given that the audience for many of our books consists of students and researchers, if you’ve never heard of Napster, famously begun by a college student.
Of course, the economics of book publishing differ significantly from the music business and the existence of libraries might make this argument a tad hysterical. But I was glad to see this post by Zone Styx Travelcard, especially with its hilariously bleak concluding paragraphs, a rhetorical move I plan to steal in all arguments about the future from now on.