What’s bad for publishers is great for readers

By Jack Shafer
January 20, 2012

As tech giants Apple and Amazon apply the squeeze, there has never been a worse time to be in the publishing business. Apple has turned its disruptive death ray on the publishers with an update of its free “iBooks” app, which allows anybody with a Mac to build an ebook and publish for sale in the company’s iBookstore. The rapacious bastards at Amazon are attacking on the same front with their KF8 Kindle software, plus they’re signing book authors (Deepak Chopra, Timothy Ferriss, James Franco, Penny Marshall and more to come) to their publishing imprint. An email, purportedly written by an anonymous book industry “insider” and published at PandoDaily today, got a lot of attention on the Web with its claim that Amazon’s ultimate goal is to destroy conventional publishing.

If it’s murder for publishers and booksellers, though, it’s heaven for book readers. I’ve been buying, reading and collecting books since the late 1960s, and with the exception of the times I’ve found rare first editions for sale for a buck at thrift stores or made similar discoveries at library-discard sales, books have never been more available or more affordable in my lifetime.

Until the late 1990s, I always kept in my wallet a neatly folded short list of books I was looking for. Theoretically, any of these books could have been mine by paying list price at a bookstore or by paying a  book finder to run them down for me. But because I was so poor in my early years and so cheap in my later ones, I always resisted paying full ticket for a book. Any book I purchased would remain on my bookshelves — even after I had read it — because I might need it again for work or pleasure. The only time I got rid of books was when I visited used shops, where I would exchange books in a trade.

Then came the Internet. The pain and pleasure of chasing down new books was erased by my Amazon account, where they were always cheaper. The never-ending stacks of used books at AbeBooks and Powell’s (and later at Amazon) made my neatly folded short list obsolete and, to my delight, put a smaller dent in my wallet. One of the great joys of buying used books online is that the sources are now international. Just last week I picked up Michael Frayn’s “Towards the End of the Morning” for $10 delivered from the UK.

Oh, every now and then I’ll strike out. A book will be so rare that not even the AbeBooks consortium has it, or if they do the price is prohibitive. Sometimes the title is so obscure that Google Books or Archive.org hasn’t gotten around to preserving it and I will have to go to my public library or a university library. But that’s really rare. Even if a book is out of print, it’s usually within reach, which is the whole point anyway.

The falling prices of new books caused me to buy more of them. But the collapse of used-book prices brought on by the Web are what really caused my collection to swell. The lower prices changed my relationship with books. I no longer considered each and every volume “my precious.” Yes, I still loved every book, but the Web had made them easily replaceable. In the new order, a book that wasn’t carrying its weight in my collection could lose its spot on the shelf and be shuffled off to a used shop. But now that the Web has driven down the cost of used books, the cash or trade that I was offered rarely made it worth the trip to the shop. So I started tossing books, or if my mother-in-law insisted, I would donate them to the local library book sale. Had my fireplace been working, I would have burned them to stay warm in the winter.

Except for a few volumes in my library — my journalism books, my drug books, my Mencken books, my lit-favorites, and a few other volumes I’ve developed a sentimental connection with — not many books have a greater hold on me than a stack of magazines. (And, yes, I used to collect magazines. You would have adored my collection of the first five years of Wired.)

The electronification of books has only made this reader’s life better. Whenever I need a recent book on deadline and my local bookstore doesn’t have it and Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature fails me, I can still usually download it via Kindle. Filling my iPhone and family iPad with free classics (like Lafcadio Hearn’s “Kwaidan”) I feel just like the character in the “Twilight Zone” episode “Time Enough at Last,” only I still have my eyeglasses!

I welcome the Apple and Amazon wrecking balls if only because their efforts will add to the ubiquity of books, and that growing ubiquity will further drive down the prices of used books. At the rate we’re going, it will soon make economic sense for me to repair my fireplace and stave off winter’s cold by burning books. I intend to use my paperback edition of “Fahrenheit 451″ as tinder for the first blaze.

******

Send free ebooks to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. I hope someday to publish my collected Twitter feed as an ebook. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns, and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller speaks at a news conference introducing a digital textbook service, in New York, January 19, 2012.  REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

3 comments

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Great for readers, bad for publishers, but even worse for authors. The EULA for the latest iBooks software is so over the top and restrictive that no professional author in his or her right mind should ever use it. Essentially, they (Apple)are asserting right of ownership over not only its software, but also the software’s output. Publish any e-book or manuscript using their software, and that’s it, you’re done. Your intellectual property is essentially now theirs. You can’t distribute your work through any other entity but Apple, and even worse, Apple can decide not to allow any distribution at all (even by Apple itself).

Posted by RAMadigan | Report as abusive

Dear Mr Shafer
In your brave new world of a Publishing dualopoly — Amazon and Random House (Bertelsmann) — who will publish the books which a future ardent reader / collector such as your current self obtains so cheaply and easily and happily today? The relentless Giant-killing-off-by-acquisition of established Names of Houses that brought you the books you now love, is murdering the works and hopes of future writers before they leave their laptops. And although I believe this tragic forecast with all my heart, I don’t know why I have wasted the time to set it down. The tragedy of the death of books will only be recognised after the final act. Good luck with your ebook of Twitterfeeds.

Posted by dgurr | Report as abusive

Jack, you managed to divert attention from Apple’s big news yesterday, their threat to the textbook industry. The photo above says it all.

As we’ve said elsewhere, somebody should stop these “innovators” before they destroy another industry without asking anybody. Killing business people’s cell phone companies, Nokia and RIM, is one thing. Killing the companies that educate our children is quite another.

Kids need iPads instead of books about as much as they need to play video games instead of sports. Being one click away from Facebook, Twitter, et al when you’re supposed to be learning math is a formula for continued deterioration of American educational achievement.

These guys aren’t in it for society, they’re in it for the sales.

Someone should put the kibosh on this before the textbook companies are dead and buried. It’s frightening to think that disciples of Steve Jobs might control what our kids see.

We agree with you on other books though. And it sounds like our collection of Sports Illustrated is to us what your Wired is to you. We just want them to not kill the text book publishers.

http://www.WeWereWallStreet.com

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive