Notes on American Salvage

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cheryl Reed, our managing editor, wrote an essay about the experience of reading on a Kindle, specifically Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story collection, American Salvage. She says she thinks of e-books as the new paperbacks, i.e. the version that might entice a reader to take a chance on an unknown author because of the lower price: 

What is missing in this big publishers’ debate is what electronic books can offer midlist authors, small presses, and even readers who might not be willing to gamble $24 for a hardcover or $14 for a paperback by an unknown author but who might risk $10 to read an electronic version.

Before the argument about charging $15 for electronic books by big publishers, I had started to think of electronic books as the next paperbacks. When I downloaded American Salvage, I knew that if I really liked the book, I’d buy the print original. People who read a lot often wait to buy the paperback version. If they discover a writer they really like, then they acquire the hardcover for their home libraries.

Mark Athitakis points out that this may not be the case for all readers:

I’m not convinced even avid readers behave the way Reed suggests. Special-edition hardcovers of books exist to siphon money off of people who first fell in love with a book in paperback, true, and it may be that people who admire certain classics want to own more durable hardcovers of them ... But, lacking any hard data on the matter, I don’t think people do this with contemporary books they just happen to like well enough—at least not in big enough numbers to compel publishers to alter their pricing models in response. 

The point Cheryl makes is about the social signaling function of a book.  Books serve an important purpose by displaying our reading tastes to others.  It's hard to show off how smart you are reading Being and Nothingness on the bus if it's on a Kindle.  Buying that paper version after you've read the e-book lends it a trophy status.  Personally, a paperback version is usually good enough for me though; I don't purchase a more permanent hardcover like Cheryl suggests either.

I haven't read enough e-books yet to get a feel for whether I'm satisfied with merely filing them away or not, but I have discovered one situation in which I'd be willing to fork over extra cash to buy an additional print copy.  Recently I read Rebecca Skloot's hit, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, with the Kindle app on my iPhone.  As I was reading it I told my wife how fabulous it was, and she said, "Great.  I'd like to read it after you."

You can share Kindle books with people you trust well enough to share the same purchasing account, but they either need their own Kindle, or you need to be willing to lend them yours.  This is the way Amazon wants it, of course, but since I was reading it on my phone, neither option was possible.

In that case, the inherent limits of the e-book did spur another purchase. But sharing restrictions aren't going to exert more downward pressure on pricing; rather, e-book sellers are more likely to ease the DRM on e-books, much as music companies have finally started offering unrestricted songs. Judging by how long this took, I'm not holding my breath.  Instead I'm getting more familiar with my local library.