I read Virginia Postrel's Atlantic blog on ebook pricing with some interest -- but as a gadget freak, not as a book junky. Look, book junkies aren't much interested in reading digital books. Not even those of us who also happen to be gadget freaks.
But Virginia's comments about marginal prices got me thinking about another market for ebooks, one with lots of profit potential: Out-of-print titles.
Pretend for a moment you're like me. Nicely done -- but put down the martini for a moment so we can talk serious for a sec.
Pretend you love real books. Pretend you have some out-of-the-mainstream tastes. Pretend those tastes often take you to the local funky used bookstore. Or, more likely nowadays, to Amazon's used book resellers.
OK, quit being me for a moment. Now pretend you're a publisher.
The cost to move a title, any title, to the ePub ebook format (can we quit putting "e" and "i" in front of everything already?) is trivial. If it costs more than a few bucks to get a semi-skilled monkey to do it, I'd be amazed. I'm not even certain the monkey needs to be entirely sober. So: Look at Amazon's top sellers and see which titles in your back catalog still sell for more than a few pennies in the secondary market.
Are you still with me? OK, great. Then slip back into your VodkaPundit smoking jacket for a moment.
You (me?), who has no interest in digital books, are looking for an obscure-yet-tasteful title from the A. N. Roquelaure oeuvre. So you go to Amazon and run a search. You find a few hits -- consisting of a few dog-eared old paperbacks of questionable longevity and utility, or a brand-spankin' new digital copy. Both are selling for about four bucks. (A dollar-plus-three shipping for the used paperback, four dollars straight up for the ebook.)
Which do you buy?
Now let's say the ebook is only three dollars, but the ragged paperback is still Amazon's unofficial standard of a buck plus $2.98 S&H?
Well, I'd certainly prefer to curl up in bed with a real book... but I know the ebook will last forever and somebody else has already highlighted and dog-eared the paperback version.
At this point, and at that price, I'd likely go digital.
OK, put your publisher hat back on.
The cost to digitize a book is trivial. The cost for marketing it is... about the same. Just make repeated announcements that your back catalog has gone digital and -- this is the key bit -- devoted readers will find you. Let me repeat that: Devoted readers will seek out your old books, and Amazon (and even iTunes) will lead them right to your bank vault. Er, right to your doorstep.
Yes, yes -- Apple is trying to reinvent the book with the iPad and all its full-color, multimedia glory. And Amazon is trying to reinvent the bestseller with their tiny Kindle and its oh-so-readable e-ink screen.
Those margins, however, are going to be slim. Amazon's will be slim, because new-book readers will be more price-conscience than ever for digital copies. And Apple because they're going to have to offer lots of pricey multimedia content to offset their higher prices -- and Apple's iTunes (or the new iBookstore) cut is only 30% of the selling price.
But you -- you're in bed with your iPad or your Kindle or your laptop and you suddenly get a yen to read that one book you just read to death the first semester of your sophomore year in college. And you find it -- brand-new digital or worn-out paperback. Which do you buy?
And as a publisher -- who never makes a dime off of resales -- which do you provide?
There's a market out there. A big one. We just need a widget-maker, and publishers, smart enough to tap it.
PS I love my local funky used bookstore. But, dude, you're hosed. Totally. Maybe you can borrow some Kleenex from the guy who used to own the local used record store.
UPDATE: Will Collier is a published author and, naturally, has a few thoughts to share on the money end of it.
AND ANOTHER ONE: Lein Shory says that size matters not.