It Doesn’t Matter If You Prefer Print Or Ebook

It’s Thursday.  And lately, on Thursdays, I inevitably find myself thinking, “It’s Thursday.  I wonder what Kris wrote about this week?”  And so I have to rush over to The Business Rusch to find out.  Today’s a special treat, because Dean has a new post too.  Holy cow, it’s like Christmas in July!  Well, maybe it’s not that awesome, but it does seem I’ve become a fan of the KKR and DWS shows.  Imagine that.

As usual, Kris makes a number of good points.  Also as usual, reading what she has to say makes me question the utility or wisdom of even bothering to submit anything I write in the next couple years to a publisher when I can just indie pub it and avoid all the upheavals going on.  I’ve been thinking to at least try the scifi thriller piece with publishing houses though, once it’s finished.  But geez, it’s looking pretty grim out there.

All that said, I think she’s missing something.  She rightly bemoans the death of Borders and the drawdown of B&N’s book inventory.  But she then makes mention, again, that it’s all well and good that ebooks are on the rise, but 70% of the reading public want physics books, and it’s going to be a lot harder to get those to them with these two chains shutting down and reducing their stock, respectively.  And that’s where I think she misses the boat a bit.

Ok, fine, lots of people currently prefer physical books to ebooks.  Fair enough.  I can respect that, though my inclinations go the other way.  In fact, my wife and I recently agreed that we were going to perform a full inventory of our book collection, replace all but our absolute favorites with ebooks, and get rid of the rest.  We decided that for a few reasons, but mainly because of space and weight.  We move every two to three years with the Navy, and there’s a maximum weight of household goods that the Navy will pay to ship.  With the arrival of three kids over the last few years, along with all their crap…er, I mean stuff…we’ve got a LOT more household goods than we used to.  Time to start losing some weight, and books add up to a lot of weight, quickly.  And then, of course, we’ve got so many books that we’re overflowing out bookshelves.  Definitely an indication that it’s time to eliminate some.

But here’s the thing.  It doesn’t matter if I prefer ebooks over print.  It doesn’t matter if a lot of others prefer print over ebooks.  It only matters what the laws of economics, just as real and immutable as the laws of physics, will allow.  I’ve not seen any studies on it, but I’ll wager that the price elasticity of demand for books is pretty significant, especially in these tough times.  As shelf space lowers, and print runs go down as a result, book prices must inevitably rise to meet the increased cost per unit printed.  As prices rise, fewer people will buy books, thus necessitating lower print runs and higher prices.  And on and on.

Maybe.

But if it goes that way, sooner or later the economics will dictate that paper be replaced by digital entirely.  And when that happens, it won’t matter that some people prefer an actual printed book, any more than it mattered that some people preferred Betamax over VHS or HD DVD over Bluray.  They’ll have no choice but to go the ebook route, whether they like it or not.  Unless they’ve got the cash to shell out for expensive special editions.

I’m sure Kris knows all this.  And she’s right that, in the interim, people will still want print and businesses better figure out how to supply them with it.  But at the same time, readers aren’t going to stop reading just because the format changes.  If they can’t find what they want in print, but they can in digital, sooner or later they’ll either choose to, or be forced to, go digital.

Evolution, baby.  Watch it in action.