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The Distribution Question

Current eBook readers are too expensive. Many printed books are badly treated, and people are used to not worrying too much if their books are lost or damaged. Something that costs as much as a decent laptop isn’t an ideal replacement. Eventually prices will drop, but they need to fall a long way before they come close to existing printed book prices. One interesting historical artifact that will make this proposition difficult in the UK is that books are exempt from VAT, but eBooks (and eBook readers) are not, and European Union rules don’t allow for creating new exemptions.

Figuring out how to make money from digital media is a problem for a lot of industries. The distribution costs are close to zero. When the printing press was invented, monasteries were up in arms because with only a small investment anyone could create books. Printing a book was impossible for most people, but copies of the Bible (an international bestseller) could be produced relatively easily, and without paying the church anything.

Some parts of the industry have focused on DRM as a solution to the problem, ignoring the fact that a flawless DRM system is not even theoretically possible, and conveniently forgetting that as long as one DRM-free copy of a work exists, it can be distributed for no cost.

A better solution is to realize that a creative work is worth less than the act of creating it. Some parts of the film industry have realized this fact. I now pay a flat rate for DVD rentals. I’m not paying for films, I’m paying for access to new films. This is a crucial distinction. When I buy a book, I typically want the same thing—access to a book I haven’t read yet. For technical eBooks, the Safari Books Online service already provides this kind of service; although, as yet, there’s no equivalent with a wide selection of fiction.

Moving to this kind of model eliminates one of the big problems with electronic media; namely, that it’s almost impossible to lend it. A large part of the enjoyment of owning a book comes from the fact that you can lend it to friends who might share your taste. Lending works well with physical media, but is intrinsically unsupported by nonphysical distributions. You can emulate the process by copying and deleting, but that’s cumbersome and doesn’t have quite the same appeal as handing over a paperback.

Lending a book to someone else using the same all-you-can-read kind of service is simply a matter of sending the link, much like sharing an interesting website with someone now. When the recipient downloads the book via the link, the download may increment a counter, which means that the author gets paid some fraction of the monthly subscription, but this wouldn’t be directly visible to the user.

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