Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Format Shifting

The dead-tree-publishing world is slowly starting to worry about online, possibly illegal, distribution of books. Not nearly enough to get smart about it though.

To me, it seems brain-dead obvious that if I buy a paper copy of a book for anywhere from $20 to $50, I ought to be able to use an electronic copy. I don't know the law on this, but I don't have pangs of conscience downloading a gray-market PDF of a book I've already bought, because the publisher wants to charge me again for an "e-book bundle" or because they make the content available in an annoying format.

But that's just the tip of the blade. In a short while, things like Kindle will take off, and the next generation -- motivated to leap in because of expensive textbooks -- will start assuming all books will be free.

Publishers should be experimenting with their models right now in attempt to adapt.

Here's one idea: the whole hardcover-softcover release cycle makes about as much sense as releasing a movie in the U.S. on Wednesday and not expecting it to be an xvid in homes in Thailand by Friday.

I like paper books, but I don't like hardcover books for anything non-classic. They're overly large, awkward to carry, just plain silly. So what happens when a publisher releases a new book I want to read in hardcover? I'm not inclined to buy it -- heck if I wanted to carry the hardcover around I could just get it out of the library.

I could download it as soon as someone puts it online, but I would want to print and bind it ... so I'd have to submit it as a print-on-demand job somewhere, hope they don't complain about the copyrighted material, and get it sent to me. I guess Kinko's is an option.

Anyone else see the problem/opportunity here?

For now, anyway, the hassle and cost of print-on-demand makes it a cost-neutral issue; I simply don't have the option getting a bound paper copy of the book for free. So given that I'm willing to -- and indeed must -- spend money to get the book, why won't the publisher sell it to me in the format I want?

Publishers ought to be taking the risks and making the friends now, before e-book readers make a big dent in the marker. Otherwise, it will be game over soon enough.

And before anyone suggests that the publishers play some critical role in blessing publications, I would point out that is just an artifact of the traditional physical distribution mechanism (paper, shelf space, etc.) ... the Internet already allows vastly more content than could be run through a press and tossed up at Borders. It's not all "good" ... but the net does a fine at creating search, moderation, and recommendation networks that allow one to find the good stuff, in a way that 3x5 "recommendation" cards tacked under a bookshelf at the local store cannot.

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