The mystery of owning e-books

I’ve only purchased two e-books in my life, so I’ll start by saying that this post comes from a somewhat limited perspective and is largely based on assumptions.

So… books. Historically, books sold at vastly different prices… for purposes of this post, let’s say: $25 hardcover, $15 trade paperback, $10 mass market, $7 or less second hand.  The key differences, it would seem, are based on type/quality of the book, and to some extent date of purchase (i.e. hardcover books are released first).

Adding in e-books completely destroys this whole model. You are no longer paying for the quality of the book, and the second hand market is completely eradicated. However, the book world isn’t really acting that way… still relying on antiquated business models. I can’t really think of another medium that offers the exact same content in so many different formats, without gradually phasing out the older formats.  Unless of course you are still buying cassette and VHS tapes… Sure, vinyl is still out there, but it’s filled a niche. Hardcover, the book equivalent of vinyl is still paraded around like it is somehow every consumers first choice. It isn’t. e-books tell us that. People aren’t paying for format, they are paying for content.

Aside from the shift to paying for content over format, there’s another shift happening at the same time: to the end user, books become nearly valueless the minute they are read. Sure, some people re-read books, but that’s likely the smallest value that a book that has been read has in the physical world. In the physical world, books that have been read derive value from: 1) sharing 2) displaying 3) reselling and 4) re-reading.

Reselling is the most obvious and quantitative dollar value that a read book has.  e-books have made this impossible. Sharing books that you’ve read offers social value, by allowing you to connect with someone based on shared interests in reading and common knowledge gained from a shared book. There’s also just an intrinsic benefit of giving / exchanging that helps tighten bonds. That benefit is gone from e-books. Displaying provides an aesthetic and often egotistical benefit. Books on a shelf are a nice decoration, and also say something about the person displaying the books. The more leather bound books you have, the less it’s a message that I would want to send, but that’s just me. This value, again, gone. So, now the remaining value is, re-reading. This one is still possible! I’m sure for some people that’s great… but, if you’re like me, that’s irrelevant. I really don’t re-read many books, and I have to assume that many are in the same boat.

What this all means, is that once an e-book is read, its value nearly 0. Maybe that’s why they are priced somewhat cheaper than other formats, but I have a question: Why do we have to own e-books?

Think of DVDs… is anyone still buying them? Sure, some people are. But not as many as were pre-Netflix. What about services like Pandora and Spotify… think those have helped sales of songs and CDs?  Probably not.  So, why, when the format is irrelevant and the content loses its value upon consumption, does anyone own an e-book?  What I really want, is to be able to subscribe to e-books. I want to pay a flat monthly fee and have all e-books (or at least some tiered set) at my disposal, without actually owning any of them.  I’d gladly pay $10-$15 a month for that, or whatever the right pricing model works out to. Whatever it is, it probably ends up as more than many people spend on books…

This isn’t what Barnes & Noble or Amazon could do… it’s what they should do, especially Barnes & Noble. It’s seems that BN and Amazon have lost their way. They went from selling e-readers, which made sense, to trying to compete with Apple by selling tablets… yeah, that’s what I think of when I think Barnes & Noble.  So, stop. Stop trying to compete in an unfamiliar business and rewrite the rules of your business: selling books.

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