Books Don’t Want to Be Free How publishing escaped the cruel fate of other culture industries

From The New Republic:

If you’re in the business of selling journalism, moving images, or music, you have seen your work stripped of value by the digital revolution. Translate anything into ones and zeroes, and it gets easier to steal and harder to sell at a sustainable price. Yet people remain willing to fork over a decent sum for books, whether in print or in electronic form. “I can buy songs for 99 cents, I can read most newspapers for free, I can rent a $100 million movie tonight for $2.99,” Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice president of Kindle content, told me in January. “Paying $9.99 for a best-selling book—paying $10 for bits?—is in many respects a very strong accomplishment for the business.” At the individual level, everyone in the trade—whether executive, editor, agent, author, or bookseller—faces threats to his or her livelihood: self-publishing, mergers and “efficiencies,” and, yes, the suspicious motives of Amazon executives. But the book itself is hanging on and even thriving. More than any major cultural product, it has retained its essential worth.Of course, publishers think that $9.99 is still too low for popular e-books, an assessment that drove their ill-fated effort to work with Apple to take control of what they cost. (After racking up legal bills that “look like the unit sales numbers of Fifty Shades of Grey,”as one of their CEOs put it, the houses settled anyway and incurred that $3 penalty and a raft of other punishments.) It may be that a higher price would be more equitable. But other media still have reason to look at the relative economic health of the book with envy. Putting together an album requires not just the talents of the musician, but expensive instruments and recording equipment, costly studio space, and a team of engineers and technicians. Each edition of a newspaper consumes enormous resources. Movies and television involve sinking millions into performers, crews, and effects. Yet audiences have come to believe they should get all that on the cheap, if not for free. Meanwhile, books—not as complex a production—have held up much better.

In publishing, meanwhile, the deal with the customer has always been dead simple, and the advent of digital has not changed it: You pay the asking price, and we give you the whole thing. It would make little sense to break novels or biographies into pieces, and they’re not dependent on the advertising that has kept journalism and television artificially inexpensive and that deceives the consumer into thinking the content is inexpensive tomake. Two new services are vying to be the Netflix for e-books, but most publishers are wisely keeping their distance.

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