Rent-seeking in Fantasy World
Last week, Josh Marshall at TPM had a great post about the future of books in the post-Kindle world. After a generally positive review of the gadget, Josh wrote:
[L]ast night, sitting in front of [my books], I had this dark epiphany. How much longer are these things going to be around? . . . The few hundred or so I was looking at suddenly seemed like they were taking up an awful lot of space, like the whole business could dealt with a lot more cleanly and efficiently, if at some moral loss.
Don’t get me wrong. Book books still have some clear advantages. Kindle is a disaster with pictures and maps. But I didn’t realize the book might move so rapidly into the realm of endangered modes of distributing the written word. I was thinking maybe decades more. The book is so tactile and personal and much less ephemeral than the sort of stuff we read online.
I hope it’s clear that I don’t view this as a good thing or something I welcome. When I had the realization I described above it felt like a sock in the gut, if perhaps a fillip on the interior decorating front. All the business model and joblessnes stuff aside, that’s how I feel about physical newspapers too. There’s a lot I miss about print newspapers, particularly the serendipitous magic of finding stories adjacent to the one you’re reading, articles you’re deeply interested in but never would have known you were if it weren’t plopped down in front of you to pull you in through your peripheral vision. Yet at this point I probably read a print newspaper only a handful of times a year.
I don’t have a Kindle, but I’ve been thinking about this passage over the last week. It’s certainly true that there’s something reassuring about having lots of books in a room, but I suspect Josh is right that their day is ending. And this is probably for the best. My books weigh me down: they make me less flexible about traveling, they take up space in the house, they are hugely expensive, and they are inefficient.
Consider as an illustrative example Tor Book’s decision to split the final volume of Robert Jordan’s fantasy series into three books, to be released over time, presumably in hard- and soft-covers, followed by a definitive volume reintegrating them. Tor’s stated reason is that the final book has become too big to bind. (And the author of the book, who took over when Jordan died, offers his own self-serving justification here.) But it’s obvious (to me, at least) that Tor is simply seeking to extract more rent from fans of the series, who, having waited for years for the final installment of the series, and invested the time reading the eleven books to date, are now as captive an audience as you’re likely to see. Thankfully, his kind of behavior would be much more difficult to justify in a world of digital books. Bring on the revolution.