Why buy the cow when you can read the milk for free?

E-books have been the story for 2010 so far — who’s reading them, who’s not, how much they should sell for, and what you should read them on.

Publishers have objected to lowering the cost of e-books, and in a much-publicized dispute between Amazon and MacMillan, so far the publishers are winning. On one hand, I, too, agree that we shouldn’t devalue books, that artificially low costs give the impression that books are cheap and not worth spending money on. On the other hand, as a consumer, I’m still saying that if you want me to boy an e-book instead of a paper book, you’ve got to give me big incentives — especially a lower price. Why would I pay $15 dollars for a book I’ll be able to buy in paperback for that much in a few months? And I’m not the only reader who feels that way. Those of us who “value” books the most are the same people who consume more of them than anyone else, and we can’t afford not to be price-conscious. At the same time, we’re well aware of our options for reading. There is, after all, always the library. 🙂

Then there are all the free e-books out there, which is the big story, really, as to what’s driving the rise in e-book popularity this year, in my opinion. It’s not just books in the public domain — new authors and old have found that giving away books can actually help their sales in the long run. More than half of the “best-selling” e-books on the Kindle, Amazon.com’s e-reader, are available at no charge. Sometimes it’s a new author with a new series: they’ll give away the first book for free in hopes you’ll get hooked and buy the second. And sometimes it’s an older author with a new release, hoping to cash in on the same ploy. Whatever it is, it seems to be working. Publishers, of course, are less than thrilled.

Similarly, a spokesman for Penguin Group USA said: “Penguin has not and does not give away books for free. We feel that the value of the book is too important to do that.”

Of course, that’s not at all true. Penguin gives review copies for free, I’m sure, and one might argue that this new e-book business model isn’t completely different from that.

I can’t help but feel that publishing companies are going to have to come to grips with that new model whether they want to or not. More and more people are cottoning on to the idea of e-readers; even I plan on buying an iPad this spring and giving it a whirl, in addition to already reading on my phone, from time to time. I don’t think bookstores are going to go away, not entirely (though I’m a little more worried about the traditional public library). But just as the music industry has had to adapt to digital music and find a way to make it profitable (and they have), publishers are going to have to do the same to incorporate digital reading into their framework.

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