The Pryor Times

Opinion

April 3, 2012

Caterwauling over death of books premature

— The traditional book-publishing business, like the music business and the movie business before it, is struggling to deal with the digital marketplace. And just like the music business and movie business, the book business has bobbled it.

Borders didn’t go bankrupt because traditional book business was so good. Barnes & Noble is teetering. Every dollar a publisher makes selling a $9.99 book on Kindle is a dollar it didn’t make selling a $26 book in a brick-and-mortar store.

But when I hear a person say, “I’ll never buy one of those Kindle things. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the feel of a book in my hand,” what I hear is, “I’ll never use one of those newfangled microwaves.” Almost everyone has a microwave in the kitchen now. Yet I don’t know anyone who threw out his conventional stove once he got a microwave. We’re very comfortable using both. We make our food on the stove, and we defrost it and reheat it in the microwave. One doesn’t preclude the other.

The future of print is much the same. Print books, digital books and sound recordings of books will coexist peacefully for a long, long time. And the book business just might learn there is money to be made in the long run.    For years, the movie industry fought VCRs. (For those of you who came in late, a VCR was what we used to record TV programs before DVDs and TiVo.) As soon as the industry stopped fighting the technology, it started making more money than ever. It will be the same for print.

The really big change will not be in how we read something, but in what we read. The whole definition of a book has changed. I might buy the digital version of the latest Stephen King book, but now I also can buy the print version of my niece’s photographs from her class trip. It’s really more of a memento than a book, but it looks just like a book, and I ordered it from her Web page. At last, you don’t need the OK of some snooty editor to put that tale of young love thwarted by war, a couple of bad marriages, zombies, another war, vampires and a Xanax addiction between covers.

Anyone can be an author now, as long as he or she doesn’t mind the low pay and long hours. Just put your words on Kindle, sit back and wait for the money to roll in. Amazon.com lists more than 5 million books on its website. I read about a hundred books a year. So I should finish them all in about, hmmmm, 50,000 years.  

One of the books I read this year was a series of stories a writer had done for a magazine over the last few years. By and large, the words of the stories were exactly the same as they appeared in the magazine, where they ran next to ads for shoes, underwear, vacations and stockbrokers.

The price of the book was $26. But let’s say the inside back cover of the book was an ad for a cosmetics company or a car company, and because of that advertising money, the publisher was able to sell the book for $23. I know what would happen. The publishing world, the readers and the pundits would be universally appalled. I can almost hear some people saying, “We read books to get away from that sort of thing.”

Why? How would advertising corrupt the book-reading experience? It doesn’t seem to affect the words when they appear in a magazine or a newspaper, but somehow it changes them in book form?

What if the publisher sold the center spread and the inside front cover, too? Now the $26 book might sell for $9.99. Everyone would make the same money as before — maybe more, because a less expensive book may well sell more copies than an expensive one.  

Is that the future? I don’t know. Fifty years ago they told us we’d be driving flying cars to work.

    

(Jim Mullen’s newest book, “How to Lose Money in Your Spare Time — At Home,” is available at amazon.

com. You can reach him at jimmullenbooks.com.)

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