Thursday, January 13, 2011

Guest Blogger, Meghan Stevenson: Gloves Off in the E-reading Arena

I live in the book world. My friends are editors, agents, publicists, marketers. We all speak the same language, full of pub dates and signatures and e-books.

But I do have friends on the outside. And the other night, I was privy to a very interesting conversation. I was out with five friends of varying professions, and the talk turned to e-readers. I had my Kindle; my friend Josh—who works at a hospital—had his Nook.

As an aside, I must admit I adore my Kindle. If I leave without it, I feel wrong, just like I did when I first got an iPod or a cell phone. I mean, what am I supposed to do, read an actual book? But at dinner Josh’s Nook initially wiped the floor. He showed off the color touch screen and some of the animation his kids’ books had. Everyone appropriately oohed and ahhed. But then I showed people the cartoons from The New Yorker which were crisper. And the text was better.

“How much is it?” Maddie asked Josh.

“$250?” Josh said about his Nook.

“About $150 when you factor in the cover,” I said, hoping that Maddie would choose me. She asked to play with my Kindle, so I handed it over, showing her how to turn the pages and find individual chapters.

“And how much are books?” she asked. I briefly explained the agency model and how publishers are working with Amazon and B&N to sell e-books at reasonable prices. Then the most interesting segment of the conversation came in.

“I don’t want to pay for books,” interrupted our friend Yama. “I just want to read. Can’t I borrow them from the library?”

“I think they’re still working that out,” I explained and she made a face. “But whatever one store or product does, everyone else ends up copying it eventually. So, for instance, a few months ago someone who had the Nook could lend to other people who had the Nook. But you couldn’t do that on the Kindle—though now, you can.” This got nods all around. “So I expect that library lending will come about eventually. But Yama,” I said, “you know that buying books pays the author and me, right?”

This is an interesting point that few people realize. In fact, my best friend (who also works outside publishing) called the other day to crow about finding all of Stephen King’s e-books for free online---clearly stolen or illegally copied. I hung up on him. When he called back, I told him: “My salary just disappeared.”

Here’s the crux: people want content for free. Whether it’s a Britney Spears single, an e-book or a New York Times article, if we can get away with not paying for it, we will. (And I’m certainly no exception.) That’s because largely, our society thinks of piracy like this: Stephen King, hugely bestselling author, rich guy. He doesn’t need my $9.99. The New York Times, they sell subscriptions, they’ll still exist even if I, an individual, read it solely online for free. Britney Spears, she has tons of mansions and concert revenue, she doesn’t need or even get the .99 cents from iTunes, so why should I pay it?

But all artists need people to pay for their content. While Stephen King may or may not need the advance and royalties off his backlist, Scribner certainly does. It has to pay the editor , her assistant, the cover designer, the production editor, the copyeditor, the publicist, and everything else related to the publication of that book that the consumer never sees and often doesn’t even know exists. And that’s where the conflict comes in.

We’re at a precipice in publishing, where the normal consumer like Josh, Yama, and Maddie are buying Kindles and Nooks. If we want to compare the book publishing industry to music, as we do often, I think we’re in 2004 or 2005. That’s the moment where the early adopters and dedicated music lovers met the average consumer, and iPod sales went through the roof. Hopefully, just like music, book publishing will witness a moment where people give up on finding the new Napster or LimeWire and decide just to buy the new single on iTunes because it’s easier. There’s a moment where it becomes easier to pay than to pirate—and that, I believe--among other factors--will keep publishing afloat.

And, as a side note, all the devout readers in my group of “outsider” friends—including the reluctant Yama—preferred my Kindle.


  1. Barnes and Noble's Nook allows you to borrow library books for free.That was a huge factor in me choosing it over the Kindle.

    Also, I can buy my ebooks from B&N, Powell's, or any other vendor.

    Kindle users are limited to Amazon books.