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Four Really Bad Ideas About Electronic Publishing That Are Finally Going Away

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Four Really Bad Ideas About Electronic Publishing That Are Finally Going Away

by Curt Matthews

1.  Information Wants to Be Free.

Not being a person, information cannot want anything at all.

Consumers would like valuable things to be free, but they have not been and will never be. The boy geniuses used to say that we “just didn’t get it.” The dot-com bust may have taught them some humility. Now the best sources for businesses information—the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times—charge online readers a fee, and the New York Times has announced that it will soon join them.

Will making a book available for nothing somehow sell more copies because more potential customers will find out about it? This is the argument made by people who want your content for nothing so they can make money by surrounding it with advertising.

2.  An E-Book Is a New Thing Under the Sun Because It Is Electronic.

No, an e-book is just another edition of a book like the clothbound version, or the trade paperback, or the mass market edition.

A book is essentially a collection of words, and perhaps images, of a certain length, put together by an author or authors who have spent a great deal of time trying to tell a compelling story or make a compelling argument, and enhanced by a publisher through editorial attention and interior and exterior design.

It is about content, not a delivery mechanism or method. Is an e-book like a movie made from a book? No. Is it like a video game made from a book? No. It is a book.

3.  E-Book Rights to a Work Remain with the Author Unless the Contract Says Otherwise.

If this is the case, authors are free to produce their own e-book editions or to sell rights to such editions to third parties, and this would surely apply to the tens of thousands of titles still in print but published under agreements that could not have dealt with today’s electronic rights specifically because the technology had not yet been invented.

This, however, is nonsense, for two reasons. First, author/publisher agreements for new Works have almost always specified that the publisher has the right to produce the Work in multiple editions. Second, almost every agreement specifies that the author cannot publish or allow publication of any competing product that might injure the sales of the book contemplated by the agreement.

Conceivably, authors could argue that they should be allowed to put crude word-processed unedited manuscripts into an e-book format, and then offer these things for sale. But no publishers in their right minds would do the hard editorial, design, and marketing work that goes into a book and then allow the author to exploit all that effort and expense without sharing the profit. (Authors too are attracted by the idea of something for nothing.)

Random House has taken a firm stand on this issue, and so should we.

4.  Print Books and E-Books Do Not Compete with Each Other.

This is another half-truth, like the idea that an e-book is a new thing, employed by those who want your content for free. There was perhaps a time—when electronic devices were available to only a small group of early adopters—that e-books did not compete with print editions. But now, according to Amazon, there are more than a million Kindles in the hands of book readers, and e-books are in circulation via a widening variety of other devices.

Can it really be true that the $9.99 Kindle edition will have no effect at all on the sales of your $24.95 clothbound edition? Either the price of e-books must be higher, or their publication must be delayed so they do not undermine the sale of more expensive print editions, just as the sale of 25-cent softcover editions was routinely delayed when paperbacks began to circulate much more widely than hardcovers.

Trusting Ourselves Again

These very bad ideas about electronic publishing all have one feature in common: They fly in the face of basic common sense.

Why have they been taken so seriously? In part, the reason is the old, sad one that we are all too likely to believe something if we would like it to be true. Free music, free movies, free books. A free lunch.

A deeper reason is that some very accomplished snake-oil sellers have been espousing these ideas in order to “monetize,” as they put it, our content without paying us anything. And we have been less skeptical than we should have been, because there indeed have been huge changes in the way information is gathered, stored, and disseminated.

These changes have undermined our confidence in our good judgment.

But how much has the act of reading a book changed? It still takes hours, real concentration, and an active imagination. I sometimes read on my Kindle in bed, just as though it were a real book.

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group, the first independent press distributor and now the third largest. He has served on the IBPA board and also as the association’s president.



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