The Economics of Paper vs. Digital Books: Diversity Edition.

/The Economics of Paper vs. Digital Books: Diversity Edition.

So apparently the post the other day about the economics of ebooks got a little bit popular on Tumblr (more popular that I might have imagined for, well, a post on the economics of ebooks). Apparently literary accessibility is concerning to certain segments of Tumblr which, firstly, yay, but secondly…

Okay, so. Here’s the thing. I was browsing some of the post’s reblog because I discovered Tumblr now has this little drawer thing which slides out to show you the reblogged post on the Dash which is pretty cool but irrelevant to the point ANYWAY I was looking at some reblogs, and I noticed a particular argument popping up.

The argument went something like this:

“Yeah, ebooks suck. I don’t buy ebooks I buy paper books because if I don’t buy them they won’t get published because capitalism is evil and yay books!”1

And, okay. Look. Y’all gonna sit down for a second, and listen to some truths. The truths is this:

Paper books are not going to go away.

They just aren’t. Authors and publishers fucking love them, for starters, and so do people, because everyone likes having a big ass bookshelf to show off to visitors. Here’s one I prepared earlier (and was able to take a photo of without moving, because I’m lazy):

Actually, my mother made me this.

My bookshelf brings all the boys to my house / and they’re like / wow that’s a lot of World of Darkness stuff you got there.

Paper books are not going to go away, because ebooks, in the same way hardcover books didn’t go away because paperbacks, or the way physical videogame discs didn’t go away because Steam.2

What is going to happen, and has already happened in the case of hardbacks and is happening with videogames, is that the physical artefact is going to become the premium edition of the thing. If you really, really love a book, you buy it in hardcover when it’s released for $35.3 If you only maybe love a book, you wait for the trade paperback at $20. And if maybe you’re coming to a series late or whatever, you buy the mass market paperback for $15. Ditto with videogames: you can get the physical Collector’s Edition for $150, the physical edition for $100, the Digital Deluxe edition for $60, the regular digital edition for $40, or the Steam Sale edition for $10.

With me so far?

Okay, so here’s the second piece to this puzzle. Content comes in tiers, as described above, which is great if you’re an established franchise like Blizzard or (ready your drinking game shots) Stephen King. But what if you’re… not? What about the Giant Spacekats and, well, Alis Franklins of the world?

Then you get released in digital.

This already happens in gaming; indie devs release digital on platforms like Steam or the iOS App Store. A version of it’s been happening in publishing for a long time, where you’d have to “earn” your hardcover releases; most debut and midlist authors would start with paperback releases only, and be “stuck” there until they hit the bestseller lists. If they hit the bestseller lists.4

In the last few years, however, what’s been happening is that–because of production costs and market saturation so on–new and niche authors are skipping physical books entirely, and are instead seeing what’s called “e-first” publishing deals. This basically means, “We’ll publish you digitally and, if you sell like 50,000 units, we’ll think about a paperback edition.”5

In other words, more and more, books that are “risky” are only ever likely to see publication as ebooks.

So what counts as “risky”?

In publishing, “risky” is a combination of two things:

  1. books by unknown/debut authors, and
  2. books with unusual or non-traditional subject matter.

And all you people who complain about traditional publishing being “boring”? Who are wondering why, say, fanfic is the “only” place you can find your stories of lesbian androids in love or whatever?6 Yeah. Y’all need to pay attention to this part.

Because this, my friends, is what you’re really doing when you straight-up boycott ebooks; you’re hurting potential innovation in the market. If the niche and the new is mainly getting published digitally (and it is, and is getting even more so), and only “established” stuff is getting done in paper, by only buying paper you’re directly contributing to the “boring-ness” of your local bookstore’s print selection. And while it’s true that, yes, every now and then an Ancillary Justice sweeps the award ceremonies, and smaller publishers like Angry Robot do amazing work, the reality is the bulk of innovation in publishing is, more and more and more and more, going into the digital space.

Incidentally, in case it’s not clear enough, “innovation” here means things like “books with queer characters” and “books with heroes of colour” and “books with non-traditional plotlines” and so on and so forth.

Diversity, in other words. Digital is where the diversity lives.

Paper isn’t going to die, at least not any time soon. But diversity always struggles.

And the really interesting stuff? The bleeding-edge? The before-its-time?

It’s there, and it’s digital.

If you miss it, it’ll be gone.

  1. I may be paraphrasing a little. ^
  2. Physical music albums, you say? Yeah, about that; physical albums and books have different economics to them. See this for why. ^
  3. Or whatever hardbacks cost where you live. ^
  4. This is why you still see “released in hardcover!” as a sales pitch for books. Because it still is a big deal. ^
  5. Incidentally, “50,000 units” in publishing is a huge number. Seriously. Sales numbers in publishing are a lot smaller than you think they are. ^
  6. Cough cough. ^
2018-05-22T08:55:25+00:009th November, 2014|Tags: books, culture, ebooks, publishing, xp|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. ebookporn 9th November, 2014 at 5:11 pm

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