Amazon: we will convert couch potatoes to readers, trust us! (#SFWApro)

Yep, another installment in the ongoing Amazon-Hechette battle. As John Scalzi recounts, Amazon has issued a letter to readers repeating many of the same arguments it’s already made. It also adds some, comparing the fight against affordable (as Amazon defines it) ebooks to George Orwell declaring years earlier that publishers should crush the paperback industry to keep profits high (Amazon gets Orwell wrong) and that lower prices are vital in the 21st century because “books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more.”
Scalzi responds well (and mentions in the comments that he’s not siding with Hachette, it’s just that Amazon’s talking so much more and adopting a pose of noble self-sacrifice for the good of all humanity) but one point he didn’t touch on is the idea of lower costs as an edge for books against other forms of entertainment. It’s not totally absurd, but it does hover somewhere in the netherworld between “speculative” and “total bullshit.”
It’s a variation of the point Scalzi has made about assuming $9.99 ebooks will automatically boost sales. For some authors it could lead to greater profits; for others, the added sales won’t make up for the lower price; for the A-listers such as Rowling, King and Martin, it’s probably a money loser. A new Rowling book is going to go best-seller at a higher price so there’s no incentive to cut.
Back when ebooks were borderline SF, I saw lots of predictions ebooks would be so cheap they’d lead to a rebirth of reading (of course, these also assumed readers would be little more than the price of a paperback). But it hinges on the dubious assumption that people who play videogames or veg out watching TV would read instead if only books were cheaper.
If that were all it took, libraries or used-book stores would fill the gap handily. I can find plenty of books at better-than-ebook prices; for years, I lived almost entirely on what was available at the used-book stores in my neighborhood.
If book prices dropped by half, some people would buy twice as many books. Some people wouldn’t buy any more books and would keep playing Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto or Lego Star Wars. Or keep watching Arrow and Modern Families on TV. Or spend their days hiking, or doing community theater or taking ballroom-dancing classes. Even readers may, as Orwell said, buy the same number of books as they do now, and put their savings into something else. I’d probably fit in that category: Even if books cost half as much, I couldn’t read twice what I do now, so I’m not going to buy them.
So yeah, not a strong argument on Amazon’s part.

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Filed under economics, Reading, Writing

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