The book publishers are in the process of picking a fight with Amazon and other sellers over the pricing of e-books. If the publishers are lucky, they'll lose. Here's why.
Publishers generally sell e-books to Amazon and its competitors for the same price they sell paper books to retailers—about half the list price of the paper version. Amazon and the others insist on selling most e-books for about $9.99, which pleases the publishers when the e-book retail price is close to that of the paper edition: Currently, Amazon is selling the $14 list paperback of The Big Sleep for $10.98 and the electronic Kindle version for $9.99.
The publishers dislike the rigidity of the e-book price, however, when the hardcover lists for $27.95 and Amazon sells it at a loss for $9.99. Why? For one thing, the publishers worry that the e-book vendors are robbing them of their ability to set prices by encouraging customers to think that every book should be priced at $9.99 and that further down the line this will take a bite out of their profit margins.
Authors and book agents also fret that low e-book prices will "cannibalize" hardcover sales, which will "undercut the sales and royalty potential of the printed hardcover," as one agent puts it. One publisher of a hotly anticipated book is delaying the e-book by six or more months because he fears cannibalization. But it's not clear whether Kindle sales cannibalize print books or add to them. In a May presentation, Amazon's Jeff Bezos dropped numbers that indicated some migration: "Today there are 275,000 books available for the device. On Amazon.com, 35 percent of sales of books that have a Kindle edition are sold in that format." That 35 percent figure is from May. In February, it was just 17 percent, but these percentages don't tell us a lot unless they come with total sales.
While publishers, authors, and agents are well within their rights to attempt to maximize profits by forcing e-book prices up, their efforts may backfire. Put off by higher prices, readers who have grown accustomed to $9.99 Kindle editions may choose to flout copyright law and turn to the lush "pirate" markets for books on the Internet. It's a simple matter of querying a search engine to find thousands of e-books—best-sellers included—that can be imported without charge into a Kindle, a Sony Reader, personal computer, or smart phone.
What has kept illegal e-books from taking off? First, all the electronic reading gadgets on the market are subpar, if you ask me, making the reading of books, newspapers, magazines, and even cereal boxes painful. The resolution is poor. The fonts are crap. The navigation is chunky. Not since the eight-track player has modern technology produced such a heap of garbage. If you're looking for the reason e-books constitute just 1 percent or 2 percent of all book sales, stop the search. Second, the hassle factor is too great. Only a student or a deadbeat with a lot of time on his hands is going to want to search the Web and scour the torrents for, say, a free, bootlegged copy of A.J. Liebling's The Telephone Booth Indian. It's as tedious as fishing! Third, not all bootlegged e-books are created equal. On finally finding that free book you so desire, you may find yourself wishing you had purchased the legal edition: Your bootleg may be filled with typographical errors, thanks to the slipshod application of optical character-recognition software. If a nicely produced Kindle version of The Telephone Booth Indian that doesn't have to be monkeyed around with can be easily nabbed for $9.99, which it can, why bother breaking the law to obtain an inferior edition for display on a rotten device? It's like using an acetylene torch to loot a kid's piggy bank.
Right now, the electronic-book market finds itself roughly in the same place the market for MP3s was in 1999, the year after the release of the first portable MP3 player. First adopters of e-books, who are filling their devices with content and proselytizing to their friends, have it better than the early MP3 users. The iTunes store, which was established in early 2003, was among the first online sites where music fans could easily buy music files, a la carte, from a huge selection. The other commercial sites, wrote the New York Times, were "complex, expensive and limiting" and "failing because they were created to serve the interests of the record companies, not their customers." Basically, before iTunes arrived, if you wanted portable tracks, you had to rip your own, borrow collections from friends, or grab "free" tunes from the "pirates" at Napster or other file-sharing sites.
It doesn't make me a defender of illegal file-sharing to say that the music industry goofed by waiting until 2003 to agree to sell individual tracks for the reasonable price of 99 cents. Its absence from the electronic-music market in those early years allowed illegal file-sharing to take root and spread, and it helped shape the perception, especially among younger consumers, that music "should" be free.
So far, few consumers think books should be free—a fact that I attribute to the klugy Kindle and its affordable Amazon store. I conducted an informal census of friends and associates who read lots of books, and I found none who partake of the bootlegged variety. But that could change in a matter of months if the book industry insists on 1) jacking up the price of e-books and 2) withholding potential best-sellers from the e-book market. Cool devices that make electronic reading painless are just around the corner, and the e-book market is about to explode. If publishers insist on pushing prices too high and curbing availability, consumers could rebel—as they did with the sharing of MP3s—and normalize the trafficking of infringing e-books.
My sense that not all publishers understand their readers is shared by Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps. "Publishers are in denial about the economics of digital content," she told the Wall Street Journal this month. "What we've seen in other industries and in the evolution of digital content is that consumers are not willing to pay as much for content that is separated from its physical medium."
Obviously, it's easy to exaggerate the parallels between the book and music industries, but it's only a matter of scale. Every e-booker who decides to sidestep the book industry by downloading unauthorized copies is a potential seeder of the illicit market. As long as he takes the right precautions, it's not very likely that he'll get caught.
No title is safe from file-sharing. As the Instructables Web site detailed a couple of months ago, a do-it-yourself, high-speed book scanner can be made for about $300. The file for a hefty book like Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is about the size of a five-minute MP3 and can be downloaded in a couple of minutes. Does the book industry want to join the digital flow, the way the TV industry has with Hulu and TV.com? Or by its obstruction does it intend to encourage the establishment of a Bookster?
If I can't find a book I need at any of the four bookstores near my office or at the university library just a 10-minute walk from my desk or in the personal library of a colleague or at the public library a mile from my home, or if the passage I seek can't be found in the "Look Inside" feature at Amazon or via a search of Google Books, I can imagine asking my officemate Tim Noah for permission to use his Kindle to download the title. But it hasn't happened yet. Send your best the-Kindle-saved-my-ass story to email@example.com and listen to the gas music on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)