Wagging the Tail

Seth Godin recently wrote a post in response to my Huffington Post interview on the Future of the Book.  In it, he claimed that the long tail has hit the book business hard, and e-books will exceed a million new titles in 2012.  Because of this, all of the ideas I discuss (which he calls “breathtaking visions of the future” like embedded video and audio, plot twists, or alternative endings) he characterizes as “economically ridiculous.”  The reason is because the explosion of titles will force production costs down and, therefore, there will be no room for any enhancements for the book.

I agree with many of Seth’s assertions, especially as they relate to the long tail.  Most books cannot justify significant investments and that is why I said, “There’s no limit to what can be done, but there is a limit to what consumers will pay for.”  But the long tail is also attached to a head, and this is where authors as brands, communities of interest, and much of the frontier of enhanced books will live—and where there’s still money to be made.  Additionally, some of the ideas, like alternative endings require only an author’s imagination.

All of us need to be careful not to make sweeping generalizations because all books – even broad categories of books – are not the same.  Take education.  Our Vital Source unit powers two million registered users who now have textbooks with embedded video, audio, and the ability to share notes and highlights with other students around the world.

Seth also says that the “typical e-book costs about $10 in out of pocket expenses to write (more if you count coffee and not just pencils).”  I’ll leave the $10 argument to the side, but let’s talk about that coffee.  With the introduction of the coffee pot, coffee became a commodity.  But then Starbucks entered the scene, pushing up the price of a cup of coffee as an experience.  The long tail reminds me of all of that commoditized coffee, and Starbucks is a good reminder that there is always an opportunity to find a niche where consumers will pay more.  The key challenge for the book industry seems to be differentiating between the two.

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