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.

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14 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    I don’t know. One of the main reasons that I went to law school was that I like the way that the books looked. The mystique of all the calf-skin bound volumes captured my sense of tradition, lore, and esoteric wisdom. There is something real that is lost by the utter Westlaw-ificiation of the world, and much as I enjoy not having to use decennials I mourn its passing.

  2. Katie says:

    I have a kindle, love it, but I’m still sympathetic to the worry about books disappearing.

    That said, while publishers may be partly responsible for the problems of epic fantasy series multipliying, part of it is authors never finishing their damn books (see, George R. R. Martin). Not actually having to take the book to print may even remove some of the time pressure from authors.

    Plus, they can just change “This book was too long to print all at once” to “You would have had to wait too long if we hadn’t split this book up.”

  3. A.W. says:

    Okay, explain this to me.

    Um, why read it on a kindle when you can, you know, download it to your computer and read it there?

    I mean i already spent $1000 on this laptop. why spend something like $300 more to read. oh, and if you want to read a word document, pay an extra charge to convert it because there is no SD slot.

    sure its a little clunkier than the kindle, etc. but i really don’t get it. i am not saying there is no value in the kindle, but its marginal value is so slight… Nope, don’t get it.

  4. Katie says:

    Um, why read it on a kindle when you can, you know, download it to your computer and read it there?

    Based on conversations I’ve had about this, the value-added seems to vary greatly between individuals. For me, the Kindle isn’t a little less clunky than my laptop; it’s a lot less clunky. (It would be a litte less clunky than a netbook, but I like having a bigger screen for other things i use my laptop for.) More importantly, however, computer screens strain my eyes; I can’t read on them for long periods of time without suffering as a result. The e-ink the Kindle uses, and its lack of backlight, completely eliminate that problem for me and make it as comfortable as reading a book. YMMV.

  5. MVJ says:

    Regarding Kindle, is it really more cost-efficient to the reader? $300+ for the Kindle and $9.99 for each book. Mass market paperbacks are cheaper. Trade paperbacks are almost as cheap with Amazon’s discount. And you can share your paper books with friends.

    With research, I like both print and electronic forms. I love being able to quickly call up a pdf of a gov’t report or NYT article when I realize I need to find a quick cite. On the other hand, I can’t permanently highlight or otherwise mark those things up. I also have a lot of success going to the library with a list of books and then flipping through other books shelved near those on the list.

    For fun reading, I prefer books. They’re easy to handle, easy to throw around, no electricity needed, can get wet, ripped, dropped etc. It’s also really satisfying when you finally finish a book to close it and put it back on the shelf.

    That said, moving sucks if you have a lot of books.

  6. Katie says:

    Not to be the Kindle apologist here, but while I doubt it’s a money saver for almost anyone, many (maybe most?) books are under $9.99. Books that are out in trade paperback tend to be more like $6-$7, or less for older books. Anything in the public domain is free and has been nicely formatted by various websites on-line. And publishers are giving a lot of free e-books away, particularly if you read genre fiction at all.

  7. And what happens to the public library if the Kindle kills the book?

  8. Kaimi says:

    I don’t know about this application, Dave.

    I mean, part of the problem is that the incentives for writing large-scale epic fantasy just aren’t there. Compare A Storm of Swords to other books. ASOS was 400k words. It’s a big book. An incredible amount of action takes place in it. And yet it sells for $7.99, just like His Majesty’s Dragon or The Scar or American Gods, each of which are half its length.

    Sometimes writing gets too long and out of hand. (In my opinion, Tad Williams). But ASOS really needed all 1200 pages, IMO.

    In an efficient world, Martin’s books would sell for $20 apiece rather than price the same as Neil Gaiman. The market punishes authors who write long, complicated epic fantasy.

  9. nbpundit says:

    As always, put all eggs into one basket.

    Never consider the scenario there may come a

    day of there is no electricity. Books are and

    can be a wonderous thing.

    Plus there are plenty of places on earth

    where a kindle wouldh’t have the worth of

    a roll of toilet paper, or a drink of water.

  10. Dan says:

    Books are not going anywhere. However, there will be a much lower percentage sold as “trash” books in Barnes and Noble and the like because these are the books people will be downloading to their phone, PDA or PC.

    There will always be a market for important books to go on bookshelves.

  11. Bruce Boyden says:

    Dave, interesting post. I’m intrigued by the “rent” comment — is the Jordan-surrogate really “extracting rent” if he has to write 2 more books to get it? This isn’t my area, but I’m not sure I see where the “rent” is coming from. Ur-Jordan is either giving you 3 books in place of the 1 to which his current manuscript would have to be condensed to make publishable, or he’s bulking a manuscript that isn’t actually as long as he says — but you’re getting 2 extra books in the process.

    And why would e-books change any of this? E.g., take downloads of video games. Valve switched Half-Life 2’s sequel from the one-big-game every 5 years or so model, to three smaller installments every 1 or 2 years. It’s the same idea. E-books might detach price from size, which is an interesting issue I hadn’t really considered before — but I don’t see why it would counteract any incentive to split a longer work into smaller bits and sell those. Indeed, it might make it easier to do that, not harder.

  12. ohwilleke says:

    To date, the most widely adopted print to e-media conversions have involved periodicals aimed at specialized audiences that aren’t designed to be read cover to cover by the typical reader (e.g. scholarship journals and legal case reporters).

    I recently visited an office of a law firm with about seventy on site lawyers and probably another thirty paralegals on site, with enough active legal work that it has escaped the recent round of big firm layoffs. Its comprehensive library of printed materials did not have a single soul in it. It has probably been a decade since I regularly (i.e. at least once a year) did case law research from printed books. Documents where formatting is important (like statutes and regulations) don’t translate as well into e-media, but for plain text it works fine. More and more scientific and academic journals are following suit for the same reason.

    Print is good at random access use (browsing), for highly formatted text, for multi-tractate analysis, and for situations when it is convenient and useful to include everything one needs in one place and read it cover to cover.

    Also, in answer to Michael Froomkin at April 6, 2009 05:18 PM, public libraries like the Denver Public Library, already do a robust business in electronic downloads, and it is growing fast. In one common arrangement, the library pays a royalty based upon the number of users who are allowed to have unexpired downloads at any one time, replicated the status quo book model despite the fact that these restrictions aren’t intuitively appropriate in an electronic format.

  13. Ray Campbell says:

    The Kindle may not be worth the extra money, depending on how you value things, but it delivers a very different reading experience from a computer. You can read it in bright daylight. The contrast is sharper. The battery runs longer. It’s thinner and lighter. You don’t have to scroll down the page. It’s more “bookish” in its feel.

    I like that it reads things to you. I live in a rural area with lousy radio options, and on my somewhat lengthy commute to work I can have the Kindle read me anything from pot boiler fiction to law review articles. It has a computer accent, but it’s not too bad.

    In terms of buying books, there is a convenience factor in being able to download a book where you are, when you are ready to read it. If you are at the beach or the mountain cabin, or just living not so close to a good bookstore, having the next book appear within ten minutes or so of purchase is a nice thing. If you live in area without New York Times home delivery, for example, you can awake to the new day’s edition already on your Kindle (although you can’t pass the sections around the breakfast table, which kind of stinks.)

    The materials you read need not be limited to what Amazon sells. You can email (at a cost of 15 cents per email) or transfer by USB cable (for free) any document that is in Word, RTF, Text or PDF format (although it won’t read the PDFs out loud for you). That opens up the whole Project Gutenberg corpus, for free, which at last count was more than 30,000 books, plus anything you want to cut and paste from the web.

    There are insidious aspects to the Kindle, mostly related to copy protection. So far as I can tell, books you purchase can’t be passed along. I can give my wife a paperback I enjoyed; I can’t do that with the Kindle, without handing over my Kindle and separating myself from my other reading materials. There’s no used book market. Unlike computer files, you can’t cut and paste or move the file to another machine. You can make notes and highlight readings, but so far as I can tell you can’t transfer the marked up file back to your computer.