21 Sep 2009
There has been a vigorous debate for a while now about the benefits, or otherwise, of giving away e-books. The loudest voices proclaim that free e-book versions of a print publication not only do nothing to harm print sales, but may actually boost them.
Giving away DRM-free digital versions of your book is a form of advertising, they say. The implication is that readers will get half-way through the work and think, "hmm, I'd really like a proper copy of this".
I'm unconvinced. And I have a concern that, even if it sometimes works now, it's short-term thinking that is storing up a problem for the future.
Nothing at stake
A notable characteristic of most of the people who propose this free-for-all is that they don't earn their primary incomes from books. They are often academics, issuing their pontifications from the safe haven of tenure. Or they are professional pundits whose careers are built on being 'thought leaders' and for whom a little controversy is positively career-enhancing. Either way, they have no real stake in the truth of what they're saying, or the outcome. If they turn out to be right, they will happily take the credit. If they turn out to be wrong, hardly anyone will remember. They are little better than astrologers or psychics.
Another problem is that supporters of this concept seem to have little evidence to go on. It's basically no more than a hunch.
A recent study by Palgrave Macmillan, which tracked sales of an academic textbook, suggested that there may have been some fall-off in print sales when the book was made downloadable for free. But it was a very small study. And it involved the kind of book that readers are more likely to want in a print version: would the result have been the same for a novel?
Morris Rosenthal at Fonerbooks, a self-publisher, found that when he stopped making the entire text of his book available for free, sales of the print version rose significantly.
Obviously, I'm concerned here solely with the giving away of full versions of full-length books. At WebVivant Press, we make sample chapters available for free online. And we are looking at producing short free e-books as promotional devices.
Even with these reservations, I'd be happy to concede that allowing free distribution of a DRM-free PDF or ePub version of your book might be good for raising one's profile and generating interest. But I have a worry about what kind of expectations it might also be raising.
The web has spawned a 'freetard' ethos. People expect to get what they want for nothing, and are often not too concerned about the legalities of what they're doing. Just ask the music business.
The concept behind free digital versions of books is that, by and large, people still prefer books in print form. And right now, that might be true.
But it might not be true next year.
Books, in case you hadn't noticed, are going digital. Amazon.com's sales charts suggest that the Kindle version of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol is outselling the print version. E-book readers are among the most popular apps on the iPhone. Sony has embraced the open ePub format. The digital book revolution is here.
It's largely a matter of habit and technology. Those of us raised on books have an enduring love for the feel of a paper tome in our hands. It's hard to imagine that anyone could prefer any other form. The same won't be true of future generations.
And denigrators of e-books are quick to trot out complaints about the limitations of early e-book readers. (And I still see comments that suggest some people think e-books are read only on desktop computers - comments such as "you can't read an e-book on the Tube".)
Technology moves fast. The current generation of e-book readers are pretty good, with highly readable screens and good battery lives. And e-books have advantages print books can't offer, such as text searching and the ability to carry a small library in a pocketable device. Very soon we will reach one of those technological tipping points where most of the reservations people have about e-readers will have been overcome, and those that remain will be far outweighed by the advantages.
From that point, here's what will happen:
E-book readers will become massively more popular, driving down prices and giving manufacturers a revenue stream to invest in even better technology.
E-book reading technology will merge (or 'converge' if you prefer) with other technologies - tablet computers, mobile phones etc. That's already happening on the iPhone. So people won't have to buy e-readers, they will own them by default.
Publishers will recognise that there is now a customer base out there. And their accountants will run the figures and realise that the distribution costs involved in reaching these people are negligible, whereas the dsitribution costs involved with print books are horrific.
E-books will become the primary format for new books, relegating print to an 'also available as' status. Print books will continue, but it's possible that they will all be suuplied using Print On Demand (POD) technology for the dwindling percentage of people who want their books in that form. That may drive up the relative cost of print (as opposed to digital) which will accelerate the public's take-up of e-books.
The digital format isn't appropriate to all kinds of book. Highly illustrated, coffee-table books don't work well in e-book form (at least, not until the next revolution in screen technology and mobile platforms). And current e-book formats, like ePub, are a tad crude, working best with text-only books. That said, about 70% of books are text-only. And as a percentage of book sales, that share may be higher.
So what happens to the whole concept of giving away e-book versions when e-books become the normal, most commonly used medium? It doesn't make sense.
So, you might think, when that happens we'll just stop giving away the e-book version.
My concern is that, by that time, we may have created the expectation that 'digital' is synonymous with 'free'. We may have built a culture in which the sharing of e-book files is seen as acceptable and natural - even more so than the current illegal sharing of music.
So, with this whole free e-book concept, are we giving away the future of publishing?