Are E-books an industry killer?

I read this piece on SF Signal the other day wondering if e-books (as currently exemplified by the Kindle) would end up killing or at least diminishing the publishing industry. It links to this article which suggests that it certainly will.

Its central argument is here:

One of the unintended consequences of the Kindle and its brethren (desirable for readers, more woe for publishers) is that it will reduce the number of books that are actually sold. This will happen not because of piracy (with the proprietary Kindle, piracy may be a small problem, though ebooks built with open standards may pose larger problems for publishers), but because the architecture and business model for the Kindle support a “buy only when you need it” frame of mind, aka “just in time” inventory management. In the hardcopy world, where many books (no one knows how many) are bought “just in case,” the number of books purchased exceeds the number of books read. The Kindle will remove the excess, adding to the legions of misfortunes of publishers and authors.

Digital sales will end impulse buying, so you’ll only buy books that you’re actually going to read, when you read them. I simply can’t bring myself to believe almost any of the arguments in his piece. sf signal links to an excellent rebuttal with anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Even more interesting is the reminder that tons of books that were shipped to book sellers go unsold and are sent back to the publisher. I can remember friends who worked at Barnes and Noble bringing back the occasional book with the cover ripped off (and sent back to the publishers) because these were unsold books.

There’s just a couple things that I want to add, based on nothing but my own experience shopping digitally. With the cheaper prices I get on Amazon as well as free shipping, I impulse buy a lot more than I used to. I shop whenever the hell I want, not just when I go and haul my lazy ass to whatever store I need to go to. Amazon is really good at showing you a wide variety of related stuff, coupled with reviews and what not, and I purchase way more than I should from them.

More importantly, with the Kindle you get to download first chapters free. There’s been tons of times when I’ve been curious about a book, but just was like, eh, maybe later. With the Kindle, why later? I can download the first chapter and read it at my leisure. If I like it, I buy it and can be reading the full book seconds later. That’s amazing and with a cheaper price point the barrier to purchase is even lower – cheaper price and more confidence that I will actually enjoy the book.

When I’m on vacation after I finish the book or two that I’ve brought (which inevitably happens) now I’ll have all of Amazon to shop from to find another. There’s another book I’d not have bought. In general after I finish a book, I can simply browse for a new one that instant. Maybe Amazon will recommend new books right there, “People who just finished reading this book….” I’d guess that series will start doing really, really well if you can grab the next one right there.

Plus, people may read more, with the convenience of the Kindle porting around all sorts of things like books, magazines and what not people will be able to read what they’re in the mood for to fill in all those various times they’re out and about. Just like how I use my iPhone when I’m on the train or I’m waiting in line or at a restaurant, something like a Kindle will more easily fill those moments.

I’m an optimist about e-books. I think that they will mean mostly good things for the publishing industry. Freed from the constraints and risks of printing paper, it’s possible that we’ll see more books published, increasing up front costs to the publishers but perhaps making it up on the long tail since digital storage and distribution approaches free. What the hell do I know, I guess time will tell. Do you think e-books are the end of publishing? Or it’s saviour? Or just a natural evolution?

  • Good points. You can't stop progress anyway, which is basically another word for "easier ways to be lazy" and who is not for that?! Plus, I can't think of another industry that is already more screwed by the very nature of it's product. They sell physical containers with stories in them. What do you do when you read one you like? You don't tell your best fried to buy it, you give it to them. This is also the first time I can remember where the digital version will probably be shared less than the physical versions, at least this moment in time. Interesting topic.

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