Wednesday, September 15, 2010

E-books a la carte

Posted on Wed, Sep 15, 2010 at 11:02 AM

The digital revolution will not be televised; it will be BitTorrented. This is the notion that keeps media company executives up late at night (well, that and all the drinking): If you make anything available on the Internet, people are going to steal it, your Mercedes and your children. Thus, new ideas in established media industries are something of a rarity, as they react to change a lot like children: They get frightened and wet themselves.

But the publishing industry, so terrified that e-books are going to cut into sales of their $30 hardcovers, is still willing to try something different now and again. The publishing house Scribner, in an attempt to ape the iTunes pricing model, is trying to repackage essays by Chuck Klosterman (right) into bite-sized form in an attempt to squeeze more money out of them.

Klosterman, pop-culture connoisseur and amateur hamartiologist, is beloved for his off-kilter perspective on various cultural ephemera*. Formerly a magazine writer, he now spends his time writing books, including four or five different collections of essays.

At the Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks, users can now download one of 69 essays for the low price of 99 cents, or small collections of essays grouped by subject for $7.99. The hope is that people will get all giddy about begin able to purchase these things piecemeal, and …

That's where I lose the thread. Klosterman's essays are liked by those who have already read him — i.e. the very people who have already purchased his books. These people are now being given the option to purchase… the same stuff they've already paid for once. All of the essays, whether sold or individually or packaged by content, have appeared in book form already — e-books which, I might add, cost $9.99. In other words, you could pay $69 individually for the essays they're offering, or $30 for the books they're included in — which, by the way, have more essays.

It's not the first time publishers have attempted to get people to buy short-form stories; Atlantic Monthly started publishing short pieces of fiction for $3.99 each, and writers such as Stephen King have published novellas electronically before their print date. But those efforts (referring here specifically to King's Blockade Billy) have been derided as overly expensive ($6.99 for a 144-page novella when it was released, since reduced to $4.99).

E-publishing is still trying to find a sweet spot for pricing (and win over the die-hard print fetishists who insist "the smell of paper" is somehow a literary aphrodisiac or claim to be unable to fathom how one can "curl up" up with an e-reader**), but I don't think reselling stuff to people who already bought it is going to be the way to go.

Anyway, I still heartily advise you to buy things written by Klosterman. Just, y'know, do it in a way that makes the most economic sense for you.

*For the purposes of this blog post, "cultural ephemera" is generally defined as those things that occur within a pop-culture context, but then take on an actual importance in the culture at large for reasons largely inexplicable. E.g., most reality shows, the stars thereof, things like "One millionaire interrupted another millionaire's acceptance speech for an award to compliment yet another millionaire," etc.

**Frequently, people who make this claim are confusing "e-reader" with "chimera."


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