A Culture of Free
Yesterday I speculated on one aspect of the future of books, the idea of how technology will (or won’t) affect the presentation of a book. Today my speculations are more about the market and the changing perceived value of a book.
One thing that concerns me about our current Internet culture is that it’s conditioning people to expect a lot more for free. Information is losing its monetary value because it’s available to anyone at the click of a mouse. We live in the “Information Age” but who knew that would mean information itself would depreciate?
In a culture where so much is available for so little, it means people are going to be less and less willing to pay for books. Initially this will apply to non-fiction books, and that dynamic is already firmly in place. There are some topics, such as parenting and many “how to” subjects in crafts, cooking, and home improvement to name a few, in which it’s already very difficult to sell a book. Anyone can go online and download parenting tips and instructions on how to bake a soufflé, keep your house organized or knit a scarf.
Printed books aren’t going to disappear overnight, obviously, even with the advent of eReaders on top of what’s already available on the Internet. For a long time to come, I think people will find value in books. The love of being surrounded by overflowing bookshelves, the simple pleasure of pulling a book off your shelf and flipping through it. The permanence and the physicality of a book—you can hold it in your hand and keep it, as opposed to having it disappear when you click away with your mouse.
But slowly, printed books will become less common, starting with topics that are purely for informational purposes. The books we read to enjoy and savor, or to ponder in a more leisurely way, will probably be around in printed form longer, and people will be willing to pay for them. Information that’s quickly changing, such as technology, is less likely to remain available in book form.
There are other factors eroding the perceived value of books besides the Internet “free culture,” and this is where it starts to affect the value of fiction as well. Publishers and booksellers have been concerned that the typical $9.99 price for an eBook is eroding consumers’ willingness to pay $25 for a new hardcover, or even $18 or $13 for a new trade paperback. The concern escalated massively in 2009 when big-box retailers like Walmart and Target began the book price wars, announcing they’d be featuring bestselling titles at less than half the cover price. Add to that the fact that you can now rent a Hollywood blockbuster movie down at the RedBox for only $1, and you have an environment in which our entertainment options are more plentiful and cheaper than ever before.
Everyone’s concern is that nobody is going to be willing to pay a decent price for a book anymore, and where does that leave the current business model of publishers and booksellers?
The writing is on the wall—things are changing and we can’t stop it. We had all better keep our eyes and ears open, and make sure our thinking doesn’t stay stuck back in the glorious 1990’s. Since consumers are less likely to pay higher prices, far fewer of us will be able to make a living either writing books or working in publishing. Stories and information will still be shared, but it will be a challenge to figure out how to profit from it.
The power you have right now to stem the tide is this: buy books. Buy them at brick-and-mortar bookstores. Buy as many as you can, as often as you can. Show the booksellers and publishers and the world at large that there are some of us—many of us—who are still willing to pay for a book.
And maybe if we’re lucky, the bulk of the revolution in the book world will happen when we are too old and decrepit to care. We’ll watch from the sidelines, surrounded by our stacks of books, and tell our grandchildren, “Sonny, I remember when….” And we’ll be okay with it.
Q4U: Do you think you’re expecting more for free because of the Internet?