Will e-books go the way of the mp3?

An insightful article on Slate by Jack Shafer about the state of the e-book market I reckon is spot on. The gist of it is that publishers want to keep prices on e-books high, maintain control of the market, push physical books more than electronic books... any of this sounding familiar? It's almost step-for-step what the music industry did, and continues to do.

And look where they are now. Still trying to fend off the growing push for real value in electronic goods, rather than moving with the market and taking advantage of the great new avenues for promotion and revenue that independents (and some trend-setting exceptions from NIN) are developing.

As the article says, the e-book industry is on the brink. They can take the conservative way, and keep pushing for control, staying in denial of the changes in the market place... or they can embrace the new technologies, and put them to use as promotion; promotion that seems to be virtually free, as long as the content is desired. They don't have long before the choice will be made for them by consumers.

"If a nicely produced Kindle version of The Telephone Booth Indian that doesn't have to be monkeyed around with can be easily nabbed for $9.99, which it can, why bother breaking the law to obtain an inferior edition for display on a rotten device?

[...] the music industry goofed by waiting until 2003 to agree to sell individual tracks for the reasonable price of 99 cents. Its absence from the electronic-music market in those early years allowed illegal file-sharing to take root and spread, and it helped shape the perception, especially among younger consumers, that music 'should' be free."

I'm not a fan of the Forrester Research quote, tho. It's not that "consumers are not willing to pay as much for content that is separated from its physical medium". It's much simpler than that. Economics take hold. The cost to distribute electronic books is so marginal (just copy a file...) that the price is naturally driven towards zero due to the infinite supply. What people will pay for are services and scarcities. For example, an easy, convenient, trouble-free e-book reader will get many paying fans. A publisher that provides e-book versions with physical books or makes it their goal to provide books in any and every desirable format, will get many paying fans.

The thing that really frustrates me about all this is that it should be so easy! Simple business skills - respond to the market, using a well thought-out business plan. Customers want books. How they access them, the medium, doesn't matter. Mobile devices are at the point now where in the next year or two, there will be some excellent e-book readers (or devices which have that as part of their functionality). Electronic books will take off at some point.

Rather than trying to stop the inevitable rising tide, why not be there to feast on the opportunity?