Books vs Apps

I just read (actually the computer read it to me) a Business Insider interview with Jeff Bezos in which he talks about book pricing. Specifically, the conversation seems to be about eBooks, but the conversation seems to cover books in general—as a medium.

The most important thing to observe is that books don’t just compete against books. Books compete against people reading blogs and news articles and playing video games and watching TV and going to see movies. Books are the competitive set for leisure time. It takes many hours to read a book. It’s a big commitment. If you narrow your field of view and only think about books competing against books, you make really bad decisions. What we really have to do, if we want a healthy culture of long-form reading, is to make books more accessible.

Part of that is making them less expensive. Books, in my view, are too expensive. Thirty dollars for a book is too expensive. If I’m only competing against other $30 books, then you don’t get there. If you realize that you’re really competing against Candy Crush and everything else, then you start to say, “Gosh, maybe we should really work on reducing friction on long-form reading.” –J.B.

Good point. I never thought of it this way. Books, taken down from their high-horse position as the vehicle of intellectual thought, are forced to deliver the same entertainment-per-dollar value to the consumer.

But that’s a very mechanistic and anti-intellectual way of looking at things, don’t you think? Who said books are for entertainment? Who said delivering the feeling of “information buzz,” commonly associated with news articles and feed-based apps, is the universal goal of all media?

Aren’t books valuable precisely because they are different from the torrent of superficial-level information that is the Internet. Isn’t the main point of a book to summarize and distill information (which is plentiful and free) into a high-value package that earns the reader’s attention, not for it’s entertainment value, but for its quality of insight?

If you ask me, we should optimize for value-per-page (or value-per-unit-of-attention if you prefer) not compete on price with other media. The price of a book should be proportional to the value it brings to the reader. The Internet is an amazing tool that allows anyone to access gigabytes of information on any subject in the click of a button. This abundance of information is actually a problem for readers, as they have to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is where knowledgeable authors come in, whose curation and distillation of ideas brings order to the chaos. When we buy books, we don’t buy ideas, we buy the synthesis of ideas.

In the internet era, almost all of the tools for reading have been reducing the friction of short-form reading. The internet is perfect for delivering three paragraphs to your smartphone. The Kindle is trying to reduce friction for reading a whole book. It’s working. […] We’re making books easier to get, more affordable, more accessible. You are getting more reading. Mostly things have gotten better, and we live in a world where I hope things continue to get better. Surely making reading more affordable is not going to make authors less money. Making reading more affordable is going to make authors more money. –J.B.

Hm. That’s a big step in terms of logic. Bezos’ claim is that lower prices will lead to more readers, which in turn will lead to more revenue for authors. It’s a question of two rates: if the authors’ margins decrease at a rate higher than the rate at which their readership increases, the new publishing paradigm will be a net loss for authors’ bottom line.

Overall, I will qualify the Interview as an advanced-level PR effort to dismiss this summer’s battle between Amazon and Hachette over contol of book pricing, which in turn is tied to the existence of non-amazon sales channels. Amazon’s CEO used this interview as a platform to reiterate the same talking points—that Amazon is out, fighting for better prices on behalf of readers. This is a convenient position when you’re in the business of competing on distribution through economies of scale, and your business model is based on offering the lowest price based on the distributor discount offered by manufacturers and publishers. It’s a neat business model, which attracts customers in troves. It works. Good job. But pretending amazon is doing all this on behalf of the customer is a bit intellectually dishonest. The price on amazon is 10–15% cheaper than anywhere else so that Amazon can maintain and increase its market share, and not some sort of act of robynhoodism.