Nearly everyone in the media world in some form or another is grappling with one huge, massive, essential question: what should content cost in the digital era?
On one side you have the freevangelists (TRADEMARKED MUST CREIDT NATHAN BRANSFORD OMG) like Cory Doctorow who see the benefits of free and shared content in terms of building audiences, and believe that the only way forward is to follow what consumers want: online content (sometimes, if not always) for free, and definitely without DRM. Best be brushing up on your ancillary revenue streams. (more on DRM here)
On the other side you have the publishing establishment, who is looking at their P&Ls and concluding that e-books aren’t really that much cheaper to produce than a book when you consider overhead like editing, copyediting, production (cover, typesetting, etc.), marketing, sales, rent, etc. HarperStudio asserts that an e-book is only about $2.00 cheaper to produce than a paper book, and thus, any drastic price cutting for e-books will be eating away at already-slim margins.
I don’t doubt that free is great for the freevangelists like Cory Doctorow and Chris Anderson. They’ve done quite well by building their ancillaries (such as huge blogs) and benefit from the fact that they’ve been able to build a gratified audience base by giving away content. I also am sympathetic to concerns that DRM is completely annoying for the majority of consumers who want to use their content legitimately. And if publishers can make a mass market paperback original profitable when it’s priced at $6.99, surely they can make e-books work under $10.00.
But are we really comfortable with a publishing world where authors and publishers are expected to, essentially, give content away and build revenue instead through ancillary streams?
And in defense of DRM, are you (as writers, not consumers) really comfortable with a theoretical world where a book can be downloaded (cheaply no doubt) and instantly e-mailed to 1,000 of the purchaser’s closest friends? Sure, someone who has too much time on their hands can pirate a book and do precisely the same thing. But particularly when e-books become the main game in town (which is coming), should we really make sharing e-books as easy as 1 2 3? It’s not the same thing as passing around a tattered paperback to one friend at a time.
Count me as someone with my feet firmly stuck in the muck of skepticism about a brave new world of overly cheap and unencrypted books. Maybe it’s coming anyway and at 28-years-old I’m already a dinosaur. Maybe all the free blogs and content out there will make people reluctant to part with $24.95 or even $14.95 for a new book and the model is broken. Maybe DRM needs to be eased, even if it’s not done away with entirely. Better yet, maybe e-book providers can use Peter Olson’s suggestion of demand-based e-book pricing and create a pricing algorithm where a book that’s downloaded 1,000 times a week costs $14.95 and a book that’s downloaded 2 times a week costs $2.95.
I don’t think free (or close to free) works for everyone. But is free inevitable?