Book and Reading News

A la carte and the Apple tablet

Wired‘s Brian X. Chen has a vision of Apple’s tablet with an interesting angle: The potential for a la carte pricing of books. It’s not a new idea, but his point about college students being excited about buying individual chapters of a textbook rather than the whole book rings true to me.

Would publishers consider pricing a textbook by the chapter? I doubt it, but this is something their primary customers may respond to, giving publishers an opportunity to experiment profitably. After all, if a textbook in paper costs $80 and can be broken into 15 $5 chapters that can be sold separately to more buyers than could or would buy the whole book, the possibilities become intriguing.

Offering chapters as free promotions is old hat, of course. What about rewarding buyers of chapters with rewards that encourage more purchases? If, after buying three or four chapters, the reader gets the whole book or credits toward chapters of another book by the same author, that could be an interesting twist.

The rest of the article anticipates Apple’s wiping the competitive table with Amazon’s Kindle and solving the world’s problems with tablet-of-destiny. Chen suggests that application-based delivery of books is a good idea. It isn’t because it represents the ultimate form of DRM–a book that won’t play unless the customer complies with strict rules about the device, application and codebase of the iPod Touch operating system. Apple, unlike Amazon, does not provide forward compatibility for applications or, if iTunes is any indication, will not curate a customer’s collection of e-books for redownloading if the file is lost.

The writer confuses a monolithic distribution technology with convenience. Texts, however, need to be portable to be useful and profitable on the lower price readers expect to pay for e-books. Portability is good for readers, writers and publishers.

Moreover, Chen is eager to see Apple fix e-book pricing with “arm twisting.” That perspective ignores the fact that Apple’s interests are in selling the device (and content that runs on that device, and only that device) but not necessarily with the interests of authors and publishers who need greater freedom to explore creativity than a universally low price point for e-books would allow.

The Reading World

E-books aren’t just digital pages

Follow the Reader‘s Susan Ruszala writes that she’s not bonding with the Sony Reader she received from the company recently. The problem reduced to a few words is, the digital book does nothing new or special. Publishers need to realize that a book converted to digital format is still less than a book, a “flat tire,” as Alan Kay describes badly designed technologies seeking to replace an existing technology.

Susan suggests book-club pricing schemes, and that may be an attractive way to bundle the choice of a few books out of the gate. Audible used to do something similar, letting people choose five books when signing up for a year of service, but that’s not the problem.

The problem is that e-books over-promise and under-deliver. They don’t do anything a book does, other than display words. They don’t help readers understand the text better and they don’t even show readers where they are in the book, which they can assess with a glance at the pages in the book. She suggests a calculator that tells how long, at one’s current reading pace, one will take to finish a book.

How about a simple volumetric display, a kind of at-a-glance view of how far through the book the reader is, so you can see there is only a third of the book or some such easily understood view of progress?

Susan concludes with: “I believe there’s a real danger that their curated and edited content won’t be as widely consumed as it could be—and that is a far bigger danger.” I think that’s missing the point. Curation, which means helping people find their way through books or ideas, and editing, which means working to improve the quality and authority (by vetting for accuracy), does add value. Just scanning a book, especially without adding the benefit of experience since it was published in paper—what if the author has learned a lot, or that the whole thesis they wrote about, is wrong—is what will make a book stand out from any other words packaged for the page.

Interestingly, though most people don’t understand it was so, this exactly the same problem publishers had in the early centuries of print.