I used this as a blog post title because after reading Marion Maneker’s Slate post “Why Big Books Still Matter,” you’d be right in feeling condescended toward. I won’t nitpick the basic typos (“by” instead of “buy”) and instead address the misinformation and flawed assumptions at work.
First, the Lost Symbol “fact.” I’m not sure if Maneker is privy to Random House’s internal ebook sales data, but I’m guessing not. When she says the book sold more digital copies on its first day than physical ones, she’s inferring this from Amazon sales ranking. (Every nervous debut author in America knows that this system is itself easily gamed and prone to specious reasoning.) What she may have missed is that readers were allowed to pre-order the book 150 days before pub date; for the ebook, three. All the pub date ranking revealed is that at the specific hour Maneker checked, ebook readers outnumbered print book readers even though their markets and readers were drastically different. Or to use an analogy: I could argue that since McDonald’s sells more Egg McMuffins at 8am than Big Macs, obviously Egg McMuffins are outselling Big Macs; the breakfast sandwich is cannibalizing legacy sandwich sales!
But even more problematic is the notion that people buy books for homogenous reasons. I.e., the only purchase behavior for such a big personality title is to support the author. Thus ebook editions don’t make a damn bit of sense since you can’t advertise your endorsement to others. “Velocity comes from ubiquity, and ubiquity is what the modern publishing business is best at,” Menaker writes. I believe she means “ubiquity minus 3-5%”, since that’s about what she can expect her ebook losses in sales to be.
It isn’t even addressed that ebook readers may constitute an incremental market for the book. I would never pay hardcover price for Going Rogue, even with WalMart’s deep discount. I don’t want it on my coffee table. But for a reasonable ebook price, I’m curious enough to read a book by a politician I don’t support (gasp! shock!).
“No one got together with their book group to discuss [Living History]’s contents. Having read it was beside the point.” This is perhaps the most offensive comment. Why should the act of reading and the practice of conspicious consumption be mutually exclusive? Implicit is the notion that books are commodities, period. We’re just about moving units, and if you happen to read the book, nobody really cares.
I’ll end with a note tying to the NYT‘s “Will Books Be Napsterized?” piece from Saturday. Don’t look at ebook day-and-date releases as cannibalizing print sales, look at it as shutting out readers from getting your content in the way they would like it. If I can’t get the Palin book electronically, I’ll just take my money and spend it at, say, iTunes.