When you buy a print book you own it; when you buy an ebook you are licensing it. Might this eventually become one of the key decision factors when selecting a book?
Let’s think about cars. How many more new cars do you suppose are on the road because they are available to lease at lower monthly prices than if they were only available to buy? It looks like during difficult economic times somewhere between 50-60% of all car acquisitions are leases in the U.S., and this number declines as conditions improve. Clearly the availability of the leasing option puts more cars on the road and keeps cash flowing for the companies that invest in making cars and trucks.
For books, we already have good information from the AAP and others indicating that ebooks are extending the market reach of publishers and authors. I never thought I would say this, but I actually find print books to feel a bit dated now when I wander through a bookstore. Reading on a tablet feels more advanced from an evolutionary perspective. This from someone who has worked in bookstores and publishers and cherishes many of my old books, including my grandmother’s first edition complete set of Proust in French.
I am very happy to “own” that Proust collection. I “inherited” it. Quite a meaningful gift. There is weight behind the collection; I can feel my grandmother’s hands on the pages, and my mother’s. I imagine them chuckling at the Baron de Charlus in the same sections that appeal to me. When my mother was dying, she asked me what I wanted of her personal effects and I said her old books. They are like a fine antique chair in our home, but better.
On the other hand, there are many books I do not need to own and leasing them is just fine. Preferable. So when a publisher leases me a new novel for $9.95 I feel that makes sense. I can choose to pay $29.95 in hardcover if I want to own it. But as with software, licensing is just fine for most content and the lower licensing price means I will engage with content I might otherwise not. I expect as digital/print volumes continue to shift, publishers will be able to charge $40 for a well-done hardcover for those who want to own and cherish the title.
Ebook licensing via libraries will continue to be important for spreading knowledge to those who might be denied. The major publishers are coming together around a licensing model where a library pays a price to license an ebook 26 times before they need to pay for it again. The license will close down the edition, same as done with trial software. My former software colleagues would say: “Hey, simple, it’s just code.” (Hopefully the person who borrows the ebook does not find out the hard way at home the license has expired. Not sure how that will work.)
I am very optimistic about these changing business models and what they will mean for reading. Licensing ebooks should open up access and also earn authors more than they are paid now. With print, the author only gets paid the first time a book changes hands. Do you really think the street people selling “Piracy and Its Discontents” out front of the city bookstore care that the author is not being paid each time the book changes hands?
When I sell my used car…the one I own, I get paid.
So let’s see how many more readers we can bring into the fold as the digital age improves our lives in so many ways. Open minds will make it happen.
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