Wired has a number of articles on the new Apple iPad. Most tech sites do. In “The iPad Arrives: The Wait is Over (And Wasn’t Bad),” the author, John C Abell, writes:
Time Magazine, one of the first periodicals on the iPad, is asking $5.00 — the same at the newsstand price — and not offering a subscription yet. It’s hard to imagine that is a sustainable model, since even booksellers realize that e‑books should be cheaper than their print analogs.
This is messed up and illustrates a major reason why e‑books (e‑mags?) are still a non-starter for me. I simply can’t stomach paying the same price as for the paper version. They don’t have to buy the paper, print the magazine, ship it to the retailer, and absorb the cost of the copies that are not sold. Apple takes 30% of the sale price and for this percentage, they maintain the entire distribution infrastructure. The publisher need only hand over the files, and Apple sends them their revenue. Since the price of creating the content is the same, their cost would drop if everything involving production of the physical portion of the magazine is more than 30% of the total cost.
Is the cost of the physical portion of a magazine more than 30% of the total? I don’t know. You can bet the cost of a hardcover book is at least 30% the total cost of a hardcover book. It must be if a hard cover costs $30 or $40 when a book released, and then they sell the same novel as a mass-market paperback a year later for $10. And don’t believe for a second that they’re not making a profit on that paperback as well. Then again, the profit margin on hardcover books may be far larger than I suspected.
Regardless, publishers make more profit on hardcover books. They’ve enjoyed this two-tier pricing for decades. The only difference is the physical component. What will they do when there is no physical component? I can imagine that they’ll be very reluctant to forgo a year of higher profits on every book. Will they simply charge more for the first year of release? That won’t go over well with the reading public.
What I do know is that there are positive and negative aspects to e‑books as compared to paper books. Among the positives is that they take up no space. A reader with one e‑book loaded is the same size and weight as a reader with 100 e‑books loaded. You can search for text in e‑books. You can make notes in e‑books without permanently marking up the pages. I can probably simplify the advantages by just listing convenience.
The biggest down-side is that you have to buy some sort of reader. These cost hundreds of dollars so you’re already behind, money-wise. You can’t lend an e‑book to a friend, unless you lend them your reader as well. You can’t recoup some of the purchase price by selling the e‑book after you’re done with it. Today, e‑books are new and there are many different formats. The market will certainly settle down, and in doing so, the number of popular e‑book formats will decrease. The e‑books you buy now may be in a format that eventually falls out of favour. This is just one way in which e‑books lack the ‘permanence’ that paper books have. Damage to paper books is less costly in that if you drop one in the lake, you’ve wrecked one book. If you drop your reader in the lake, you’re going to have to buy a new one even if all your e‑books files are safely backed up. If your files are not backed up, you’ve just dropped your entire library in the lake.
How the advantages and disadvantages stack up depends on your habits, choice of books, and preferences. For me, the disadvantages are winning by a small margin. I’m just not comfortable making the switch to e‑books because I have little faith that I can use the purchases I make today in a decade, for example. Perhaps I need to stop viewing the book/e‑book decision as all or nothing. The other issue I have is that I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not getting as much when the content is exactly the same and there’s no physical component.
I also wonder about libraries. Files can be copied so the concept of ‘returning’ an e‑book makes no sense. Will publishers figure out a way to make e‑book files with a life-span? It doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable problem until you take into account the multitude of e‑book file formats. Some standardization is required before libraries can begin to embrace e‑books.
One thing we’ll certainly see in the near future is that electronic books and magazines will begin to diverge from their paper brethren. Information printed on paper is fixed, but there’s no reason e‑books can’t be dynamic. There’s no reason an electronic book or magazine can’t include video. There’s no reason an electronic newspaper can’t learn your habits over time and sort the stories by your interest in the topics. The possibilities are endless. I expect this will be largely positive, but negative aspects are already appearing.
Back to the Wired article, the author continues describing his experience with the electronic Time Magazine:
The second page of Time is an ad. An ad which will not swipe away for several seconds. Hmmm … in a paper magazine — I paper magazine I paid five bucks for — I could tear the damn thing out if I wanted.
This kind of crap will not please readers.
The traditional print media, whether book, magazine, or newspaper publishers, are bemoaning their current financial straits. They were slow to embrace the changes around them and suffered as a result. Now that they finally seeing the writing on the wall, they’re taking their first steps into the world of electronic publishing. The publishing, distribution, and financial models of the past don’t exist there, and the structure to replace them will be built by trial and error in the coming years. This forced ad-view is just one such trial.
I’m bitterly disappointed to read of the tactics with which Time is experimenting. They certainly have the right to require that their readers pay the same price for the electronic magazine as for the paper version. They can also require that the reader view the ads for whatever period they require, which may be determined by how much the advertiser pays. But they can not require that I purchase their product, and they’d be wise to remember this.