Saturday, December 23, 2006

They'll Screw It Up, Part 2

Sometimes "tomorrow" can mean "two or three days from now." I got sick. Just a cold, but you put that with the Chronic Fatigue garbage and time stretches out into an unpleasant, time wasting, consumptive void. So blech to the world.

To wind up the discussion on how the publishing industry will/would undoubtedly screw up a print on demand (POD) delivery model, I think we just have to look at what they're doing now and extrapolate. In other words, new technologies won't translate to new problems; the publishers will bring the old ones along into the new world. While I'd like to believe they could throw out the old and create something new, I somehow just can't.

Here's an example. Go into a bookstore and compare the price of a public domain book, say anything by Charles Dickens, and the current offering of a John Grisham or Michael Crichton. With books of the same binding type, the prices are the same. I don't get that. With no royalties to pay or marketing costs to cover (the classics sell themselves) you'd think the books would cost less. But they don't.

So if a POD model would allow a publisher to generate a book without a potential return, and with freight paid for by the consumer, the books should cost much less. I'm sure the transition costs along with the new ways of marketing and advertising would prohibit the price actually coming down. (Yes, that's sarcasm.) I think books have been at the point where casual book buyers have been mostly priced out of the market. A POD model could bring them back (and used book buyers like me) in a big way.

The other thing that would really scare me would be the quality of the books. Currently books are published in varying degrees of quality, from the paper to the binding to boards. There's one publisher I can think of that sells hardcover first editions for the same price as anyone else's hardcover first editions but that are created to the lowered standards of book club editions. The paper is thin and transparent, the binding is glued and not sewn, and the boards are of a low quality paper covered cardboard. I actually have skipped their hardcover offerings and bought the paperback versions. I don't feel so ripped off and the paperbacks may actually last longer.

Without the tactile impressions a well crafted book makes on the consumer in the store, what are they willing to produce through POD? I've bought a few books that are essentially replicas of long out of print historical accounts available from POD publishers. They're similar to the Peter Rabe revivals I wrote about a few posts ago: the books are trade paperbacks, with thin paper covers that seem to permanently curl as soon as the ambient humidity reaches ten percent, and weak or non-existent cover art.

In short, they take away all the features of a book that excite the senses of a bibliophile, a collector, or anyone who appreciates quality. And no, I don't want them to offer a premium edition for fifty bucks and a POD version for fifteen. Books should always be for the masses, not for a moneyed elite, and there shouldn't have to be a trade off in obvious quality.

Would a POD model work? If the publishing industry could partner with the bookstores as alternatives to online only shopping, if they could produce a book with quality on par with most of today's hardcovers, and if they would apply the savings of the new system toward the cover prices of the new books, sure.

Maybe it could happen that way, but I doubt it if only because it would require the kind of thinking that's seemingly absent from the way they do business today. But if Richard Curtis is correct and POD is inevitable, than I fear they'll screw it up. Fewer books will be sold and they'll go on blaming it on video games and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Sure. Tell that to the crowds at B&N and Borders next Friday night.


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