reading machineThe endless eBook debate grinds on and on and we do not propose to rehearse it yet again here: a host of sites are already doing that and the best illustration of the confusion and despair it provokes we have yet seen is this from Maria Langer.

Maria Langer.

Knocklofty sees two obstacles to the progress of the eBook which need to be overcome if it is to begin to fulfil its promise. The first is the need for a reader device which will do for books what the iPod did for music.

A number of devices, all with more than a degree of clunkiness, are beginning to contend for a share of an embryonic market bedevilled by incompatible formats and anachronistic business ideas. The device we would most like to see is this suggestion to Apple and we hope Steve Jobs’ wisecrack about nobody reading any more is, as is widely speculated, a ruse to conceal what may be going on in the back room.

The problem of the reader will eventually be solved. But the second obstacle is in the minds of publishers. One large Australian bookshop chain is offering a proprietary reader and a range of eBooks to go with it, but the eBooks themselves are priced at only a little less—about $5 less—than their printed equivalent. On top of that, the eBooks are subject to a digital rights management system which is as absurd as that promoted by the dinosaurs of the music industry.

At Knocklofty we are well aware of the ever-increasing cost of books and we have watched publishers’ production values decline as prices have risen. Within each price range, the books get smaller, the paper feels cheaper and the binding less robust; books, indeed, are pricing themselves out of the reach of many people—and so publishers become more conservative and less inclined to try anything new.

As with all markets, the book market is driven by the same sentiments that make a mockery of the conventional wisdom that markets are rational mechanisms that provide the best outcome for all—greed and fear.

Fully two thirds of the purchase price of a printed book are in printing, distribution, warehousing and transport. It is expensive to maintain a backlist and very few publishers now do so. And it’s wasteful: even with a bestseller, as much as a third of the print run is ultimately pulped because of the vagaries of the market.

If publishers want eBooks to succeed, and from the amount they are now beginning to invest it is plain that they hope eBooks will succeed, then it’s time they turned honest. Instead of offering an eBook version of a $25 printed book for $20, why not price it realistically at $10—and then split it with the author?

The economics are quite elementary: if it’s cheaper, you sell more of a far more profitable item. Greed is satisfied and the fear of loss is much diminished; people can buy more books and authors can buy new shoes for the kids. There will be a lot more culture around and it’s well known that culture is the commodity that sells all the other commodities.