The Magazinist
Critical Thinking for Publishers

Artifacts and e-Books

January, 2012

In a 1959 essay, literary historian William S. Charvat referred to old books as artifacts.  Charvat chose the word purposely.  His point was that the object of a book can tell us a lot about the culture in which it was written, published, and purchased… separately from its contents.  Thinking of books as artifacts was a new and interesting exercise in 1959, and it’s an exercise that still has interesting implications a half century later.

We associate artifacts with museums and archeologists.  But as Charvat suggested, used bookstores are also full of artifacts.  Books are designed, printed, bound, and marketed at particular points in time, and the physical differences in books from one era to another are meaningful indications of how times, tastes, and society change.

 Charvat pointed out that authors don’t produce content in a vacuum:  they write in a literary ecosystem of publishers, retailers, customers, and other players.  Important historical changes in American literature are reflected in tangible attributes such as type, bindings, paper, and format, and are measured by tangible numbers, such as sales, publishers’ profits, and author payments.  In their own humble way, cheap paperbacks from the 1840s and dime novels from the 1870s say as much about the American literary landscape as first editions of Melville, regardless of the relative merit of their contents. 

 In some ways, magazines make even better artifacts than books, since they’re tied so closely to their times.  Put a copy of Harper’s Magazine from 1862 next to the latest issue, and the course of American culture and history is on display.  You don’t need to read the articles to see obvious changes in style, leisure habits, values, fashion, class structure, technology, prejudices, and many other aspects of society.  The ads tell much of the story.

 Something else that literary artifacts demonstrate is the effect of cost on reading habits.  It’s interesting to examine how (or whether) readers value the object when they buy a book or a magazine.  Take, for instance, two hypothetical literary artifacts from different times: a leather-bound volume of poetry bought in 1795 and a cheaply-produced paperback bought in 1845. To a reader in 1795, who paid $2.00 for the leather-bound poetry, reading was a perquisite of patricians. To a reader in 1845, who paid 25 cents for the paperback, reading was a perquisite of egalitarian democracy. 

 The leather-bound artifact from 1795 reflects a longstanding social status quo, while the paperback artifact from 1845 reflects a revolution: America was transformed when both reading material and the ability to read came within everyone’s grasp.  It took large-scale change in technology to produce books that could sell for a quarter.  It took large-scale change in society to create a highly literate population to buy them.

 Back here in the present, it’s interesting to wonder what sort of transformation the literary artifacts of our time will reveal to future historians.  Trends in digital publishing are surely a reflection of our society. 

 It would seem that a person who buys an e-book places no value on the printed version’s physical characteristics, since the point is to get the content without the object.  Sometimes that has appeal—there’s a lot to be said for carrying one device instead of many books.  But is convenience worth a premium over the cost of the physical book?  That’s a different matter.

 Some book publishers believe that readers are willing to pay extra for the privilege of getting nothing… that is, receiving the content but losing the bulk and weight of a physical book.  We’re told that Ken Follett’s historical novel Fall of Giants (published in the U. S. by E. P. Dutton) costs $18.99 as an e-book, $16.50 in paperback.  The rationale is that e-books are more portable, searchable, and so on, and therefore worth more.  Whether customers agree is unclear—at least one market researcher says that overall e-book sales have declined as prices have risen.

 Publishers are employing a similarly counterintuitive strategy in the library market.  Simon & Schuster and Penguin, for example, simply won’t sell e-books to libraries.  HarperCollins sells e-books to libraries on the condition that each copy can be borrowed a maximum of 26 times.  The logic behind these decisions is tortuous.  The publishers seem to think that the convenience of borrowing a book in digital form might reduce sales.  But for anyone who has wrestled with software like Overdrive in order to go on a waiting list to borrow an e-book, convenience is not the word that springs to mind. 

 The paperback revolution of the 1840s was one of several historical occasions when a dramatic decline in price resulted in a dramatic expansion of audience.  Other examples are the emergence of the Penny Press in the 1830s, the dime novels that flooded the market after the Civil War, and the 10-cent magazines that sprouted like weeds around 1900.  In each case, the number of people who became paying customers when cost dropped turned out to be much larger than anyone had expected, publishers included.  And in each case the phenomenon was made possible by two interacting forces:  increased public education and innovation in printing technology.

 Simple as it may sound, this phenomenon of falling cost creating larger audiences is one of the most important developments in American media.  One of its consequences (for better or worse) was the growth of advertising as a means of leveraging larger audiences and lower prices.  History’s an imperfect guide to the future, but if we were forced to make a prediction, we’d bet that pricing e-books aggressively and restricting their access through libraries is a bad business decision. 

 In the long term, the greatest possible benefit to publishers is the expansion of reading.  Today, when school budgets are being slashed, libraries are reducing hours and acquisitions, and video screens are popping up everywhere, growth in the time Americans spend reading looks anything but inevitable.  Raising the cost of reading material will not improve the outlook… especially when the cost increase seems to defy common sense.  We can hardly blame customers for wondering why the digital version of a book should cost more than the physical version.

 We don’t expect book publishers to do the right thing because society will benefit; we expect them to behave like rational business people.  And that said, we can’t help but think that a good  rule of thumb in publishing, as in most businesses, is to reduce cost whenever possible.  Hey… it works for Wal-Mart.

 Among the “artifacts” of today’s media will be our Kindles, Nooks, and iPads.  What will it say about today’s publishers if future historians describe them as devices used to accelerate the decline of reading?

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More on the subject...

It's war!

Giga-Om on e-books pricing

New York Times: libraries and e-books

Market research on e-book sales

WSJ on e-books