Don't Write Off Books

The ascent of the Kindle and other e-readers has many continuing to predict the death of the printed page. But as Hollywood already knows, more options can lead to more opportunities.

So far 2009 has been a very big year for the expansion of e-book reading. There was the release of the Kindle 2, which got rave reviews everywhere from Slate to BusinessWeek. Sony added 500,000 out-of-copyright books to its Sony Reader catalog. E-book use on the iPhone exploded, with over a million downloads of the Stanza application alone. And a number of media behemoths have announced investments in digital reading technology. All this surely must mean we are verging on the e-book promised land. Well, not exactly.

The end of days for reading, for printed books, and/or for publishing is a recurring forecast, which carries extra impact in the midst of all the dismal news of the present financial crises.

One characteristic of today’s debate on the future of print versus digital media is that it tends to be portrayed, for emphasis, as apocalyptic. The end of days for reading, for printed books, and/or for publishing is a recurring forecast, which carries extra impact in the midst of all the dismal news of the present financial crises. But I was surprised to read a piece entitled "Why E-books Must Fail" on the blog Black Plastic Glasses, by Evan Schnittman, who is an influential top-tier digital executive at Oxford University Press. Egad, I thought, has Schnittman now lost faith in the promise of a vast galactic universe of content? Read the post yourself. The gist of his argument is that the economics of e-books, if they become too pervasive, will not provide the cash flow publishers need to stay in business.

His point is that the expensive acquisition of books—by which he means large advances paid to authors, the six- or seven-figure sums that are fodder for envy-engendering news items—will persist, as will the expense of editing and marketing these books. The cash outlays required will not be met, in Schnittman’s view, by lower-priced e-books, with payment made only when books are sold. Sure, he acknowledges, you don’t have to manufacture the printed book and you won’t get truckloads of unsold inventory back, but those savings will not be matched by the high costs that publishing still carries, especially in the commercial marketplace. So Schnittman’s solution is not the eye-catching notion of e-book failure that his headline declares, but rather the necessity of a continuing co-existence of printed and digital material.

I’m for that, too. My guess is that reading is likely to follow the pattern of movie viewing, in which consumers choose how to watch from a range of options: theaters, DVD sales or rentals, on-demand, downloads, cable or broadcast, all of which are still viable revenue streams. Music has evolved another way, in which one technology essentially replaced its predecessor altogether: vinyl to CDs, and now, inexorably, to MP3s, which means spending is sharply reduced from what it used to be even though audiences are still huge. These days you already can choose to read books the traditional way, and in various digital and audio formats. J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and others have proven to be irresistible to millions of young readers. Every small child (and grandchild) I know will curl up to be read a book, the kind of early encounter with stories that becomes indelible, even when they have access to computer games and television.

However, the question of costs is less susceptible to dewy-eyed sentiment than the power of the reading experience. On that score, an inevitable tug-of-war is under way among the various participants in the book world. Depending on who they are, consumers, authors, publishers, and booksellers all are focused on the benefits of the lowest price or the greatest revenue return, a balance of interests that can never satisfy everyone. The notion that because e-books do not have to be “manufactured” they can be cheaper has some validity, but there is already a reasonable pricing menu for books, the difference between hardcovers and paperbacks. Downloaded audiobooks also can be cheaper than those that need to be to be packaged and shipped. Applying the movie model to books again, each system of delivery should have its own pricing formula, giving consumers the final choice of what they want. The issues of fair digital pricing and revenue-sharing are far from resolved.

There is a very significant factor about e-books that generally is underestimated in the future of publishing economics: the impact of availability. With the exception of a limited number of mass-market fiction and nonfiction stars, books are printed in very small quantities, such as 5,000 or 10,000, which means that locating them in stores always has been a formidable task. Amazon makes books feel available even when they are temporarily out-of-stock, which I think is one of the reasons its share of book sales has increased so dramatically. People still think of most books as having to be found, as in “I’ll see if I can get that title,” which is a significant deterrent to making the effort. E-books and the new range of formats and devices can change that attitude. The urge to own a book will be easily met, and the likelihood is that more sales will result for previously hard-to-find works. Publishers and authors still will have to do their damnedest to get your attention, but when they do, one way or another, the book will be there for the asking. That is progress.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at the Century Foundation, where he writes the weekly Platform column. Osnos is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House, and was a correspondent and editor at the Washington Post. Visit for a full archive of Platform columns.