In The News

So in case you missed it, President Obama has launched a new plan to bring eBooks to low incomes students in an effort to expand their access to digital learning products.

Most to the major publishers are involved. Sounds like a great plan.

EXCEPT…

Having been a low income student, and working with homeless children, I have to wonder about this. It is a great idea, I am not questioning that. But from my own childhood, we didn’t have money for expensive electronics.  And the kids I work with don’t have the money. I applaud the idea of getting these kids access  to library cards, but what do you do with these free eBooks when you don’t have the means with which to read it?

The ConnectED Program does help with getting the technology into the school and having the students interacting with it, but how does that translate to being out of school? When reading 20 minutes a day, outside of school, is critical for a child’s literacy development?

Am I just so out of touch with the modern poor? Are Kindles, iPads, and smart phones everywhere that even the poorest among us have one?

If so, great! I will go shut up in the corner. But if it is how I remember it, then offering eBooks to people without the access to use them is like giving me a tank full of gasoline and saying, “Okay, now you can drive.”

Maybe I am just missing something.

Books For Cheap

So bear with me as I dive off the cliff of sanity. I have an idea I want to explore. You may have heard about Oyster. It is the “Netflix for eBooks”, basically “means you pay a small monthly fee for unlimited access to the company’s e-book collection.

There are a lot of sites like this. Part of me is really drawn to this idea of book consumption. The books are licensed and your membership helps pay for that license. You then have access to all kinds of books without the wait of the library. As a reader, this is very appealing. Books are expensive and just one YA book now (in the US) is the cost of a nice work lunch. This is why I still shop at Amazon.

As a working publishing professional, I have to wonder how much things like Oyster and Scribd hurt the industry, the publisher’s bottom line, and ultimately jeopardize my job (I know Amazon is not good since it uses books as a loss leader). As publishers lose money (and trust me, publishing is not a super profitable business to be in), they cut back. That means cutting back on buying some books, and more importantly, on work personnel. This means less people to work on projects, and the ones who are there have to do more work with half the resources. It is not pretty.

But how do we balance the consumer desire for cheap books without de-valuing the art (and books are art)? Some people say digital books are cheaper to produce, but that is not true. Yes, you are not having the cost of paper, printer, shipping, and storing, but you have traded for the cost of digital work. And the people who still would be needed for a print book are still important for an eBook.

I don’t think books will ever disappear, but I do wonder about the changing nature of publishing. Consumers want cheaper books. Publishers want to make money.  How will these two desires balance out over the long run?

Side note: I found this cool document that explores new business models in publishing.

How Barnes & Noble Could Rival Amazon

The best days of my childhood were at the bookstore. My mom and I would go into town on a Saturday or Sunday, usually not on the day I played soccer, and spend several hours at the Borders Bookstore (Rest in Peace). I would browse the children’s books, she the romance. But here is the thing: in the music section there were 4 very big, very comfy couches. There were chairs through the store, and a café. But the couches…

Me defending the couches, while my mother went for books.

We would spend hours at the store reading books (I usually had at least 10 I was trying to convince my mom to buy). And then the bookstore closed. Fast forward a few years and I moved to New York.

The first day I went to a Barnes & Noble, I was shocked at the lack of seating. I get it, these are smaller buildings and all that, but REALLY? When I watched young teens try to sit and read, they were promptly told to get up, it is a fire hazard. I get it, I do. But I watched those kids put back the books they were reading, grab the latest bestseller, and leave. And I was so frustrated!

When publishers sell to bookstores, they sell the books at a reduced price: wholesale price. To turn a profit, the bookstore sells the book for the list price. This is one of the reasons Amazon is hated: they buy the books from publishers, and then mark the book down to get customers to come (it is called a loss leader; i.e. sell something for a loss in the hopes that customers will return for something else).

But Barnes & Noble could rival Amazon. Stay with me: Starbucks is in the environment of coffee. They don’t just sell coffee; they have created an atmosphere of coffee.  Barnes & Nobles is currently in the business of selling books, but they need to be in the environment of books.

Imagine if Barnes & Noble encouraged spending the day there. Some of you might argue that people would just read the books and leave without buying. There are people like that now. Heck, I have been that person. But when you create the environment of reading, people want to linger.

Children will look past the new bestseller and stumble on some middle list authors. Amazon is not a good tool to stumble upon new books. People go there when they know what they want. And the recommendation tool sometimes gurgles out the same books I bought elsewhere.

One of the problems with Barnes & Noble is price. So to play devil’s advocate: drop the price a bit. Don’t be like Amazon and use it as a loss leader, if the prices are lowered by a dollar or so, then you can pull people in and have them linger over your environment.

A lot of indie bookstores do this exact thing. It’s why they are loved.

Be in the business of books, not just selling them.