You try telling Jonathan Franzen his next novel isn’t actually being printed:
What also gets squeezed, or I should say what gets squeezed the most, is the ability of publishers to continue printing books on paper. As Crain says, “It may not be possible for a single company to publish e-books at that price and also retain the infrastructure necessary to publish ink-on-paper books.” I added the emphasis, but I think it’s pretty obvious that it has to be there: as I noted above, one of the forms of control at stake in this haggling over price points is the publisher’s ability to determine how or even whether to release eBook versions alongside the printed product. If Amazon is committed to wresting control over price points for eBooks, it’s also exerting indirect control over what the profit margins have to be for printed books to compensate for the losses incurred over eBooks. Being print-first (organizing one’s whole production chain from acquisition to fulfillment around the print copies of a book) may end up being a luxury no publisher can afford.
Granted, there’s a lot of sense here (in fact, it’s a great post), but given that it took a generation for authors to even warm up to the idea of having their books done in paperback original, I’m guessing it’ll be a while before the idea of only being in electronic print sits well.
Beyond the very real, very sensible cultural reasons for keeping print alive (remember how Amazon disappeared everyone’s copy of 1984?), with POD technology and printing advances in general it’s become cheaper and cheaper to do a print run, which also makes me think publishers won’t be ditching those printed books any time soon. If publishers really want to stay in print–even at a highly symbolic 2,000-copy print run–I’m sure they can find ways to do it. After all, how cool would it be to have a $50, author signed, gold-plated, personally numbered, anti-Kindle edition of . . . you get the idea.
And then there’s this:
Mass culture hooked us on stockpiling: units cheap enough to buy without regard to need, constant advertising and prods to purchase for the sake of purchasing, a huge but barely differentiated menu of products—all these factors, the basic DNA of the culture industry in the classic sense, are now playing out under new circumstances as a desire to fill our hard drive with more music than we will ever listen to, television shows or films that we may never watch, and now with text files we’ll probably never read.
Jacques Attali’s bizarre little study Noise details some of the more abstract consequences of the economics of stockpiling (e.g.), but the concrete point that is somewhere in his analysis is that stockpiling is pleasurable in a way that even purchasing is not. The very process of searching for and acquiring difficult-to-find media—whether that is in the bowels of a used bookstore or on a bitTorrent site—is inherently pleasurable and does not diminish very much with repetition, or even with failure. You might always find it tomorrow, and if you find it today, there will be something else to find tomorrow.
This may be the salvation of the publishing industry, although generally we’re wont to fill our hard drives with electronic media because when you download it from iTunes it costs a good deal less than comparable physical versions. (And we’ve just learned publishers don’t really like really low price points for their books.) Perhaps subscription download systems, which seem to be working out well for audiobooks, are workable model for ebooks in the future.