It’s time to take a new look at an essay we mentioned in 2003 and again in 2006. I will start out by looking at the essay in-depth, which we did not do either time we mentioned it before—and at the end I will talk about its applicability in the present day.
Back in 2003, economic commentator Gary North wrote about his observation that millions of people had a bias against e-books and preferred to read physical books.
Noting that, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Picard was considered “eccentric” for preferring to read paper books, North called this phenomenon “Picard’s Syndrome”.
The essay is interesting to read, and still mostly relevant even now that e-book readers are increasing the popular demand for e-books.
North starts out by talking about the advantages of e-books in terms of searching, copying and pasting, and annotating. But, North writes, most people prefer printed books. “If a book doesn’t have a binding – if it isn’t suitable for reading in bed – well, it just isn’t a real book.”
North then talks about how he is able to sell technical e-books he writes, on topics such as how to design an effective Yellow Pages ad, for three-digit-sums per copy because he targets them at very specific audiences and—more importantly—calls them “manuals.” He writes, “The document is not called a book, let alone an e-book. If it were an e-book, you would have to give it away.”
I sell my 88-page manual for $176 – $2/page. For a businessman who wants to make his Yellow Pages ad work, $176 is not much money. He pays that much every month, or even every week, to run his ad. As for everyone else, they would not pay me $17.60 for such a report. Most would not pay $1.76. They are not interested in writing Yellow Pages ads. So, I sell my manual to a tiny market at a high price – high in relation to what paperback books at Barnes & Noble cost.
North suggests that one reason e-books don’t sell well (or at least didn’t at the time the report was written) is that people are fixated on the idea of paying for a physical object. If it doesn’t have physical presence, why should it cost anything?
Using a 1,500 page 3-volume book he self-published as an example, North suggests that “Picard’s Syndrome” sufferers have learned to associate the cost of physical books with editorial quality: i.e. if someone spent the time and money on editing and printing it, it must be good or they would not have gone to all that trouble and expense.
(This theory is, of course, somewhat undermined by the new ease of inexpensive self-publishing.)
Publishing as Censorship?
North equates the “intellectual gatekeepers” associated with the traditional publishing industry with censorship:
Picard’s Syndrome creates in its victims a longing for layers of hirelings, none of whom has ever written a book, each of whom declares "yes" or "no" with respect to the content of a book. These censors stand in between the author and his audience. They tell the author that "this book won’t sell unless you allow us to modify it." They tell readers, "we will screen out the useless, the ugly, and the politically offensive." To both, they say, "trust us."
But the great thing about the Internet, North states, is that now writers can reach their audience directly, without having to worry about getting possibly controversial ideas past publishing house editorial boards.
And there is something to this. When I interviewed Lawrence Lee Rowe Jr., the author of the speculative fiction novel Tempus Fugit, on my podcast The Biblio File, Rowe said that all the traditional publishers to whom he submitted the work wanted him to make major changes that would have gutted the theme of the story. Thus he chose to self-publish instead, getting his work out the way he originally intended it.
On the other hand, by some lights North’s “censorship” theory is a trifle optimistic. As I pointed out in an article a few days ago, without such gatekeepers we are left adrift in a sea of slush without a compass.
Though to be fair, further down in the essay North himself admits that “There is a case for screening, of course: letting experts judge quality.” But here he adds that this is a service which can be offered independently of the printing process. “Those who want this can buy it. Those who prefer to get their books straight from the authors with no middlemen will be able to do so.”
Picard’s Syndrome: The Last Generation?
One point North does not consider in his essay is the effect of generational change. We are seeing younger generations now growing up with computers and digital media simply as a part of their life.
As I pointed out in my piece earlier today about the study on using a Kindle DX to replace newspaper reading, there was a pronounced generational gap between older and younger readers in the study—the older ones praised the Kindle for its more book-like experience, but the younger ones thought the Kindle felt “old” and wanted something smaller and multifunctional like their smartphones.
It may be that Picard’s Syndrome is largely limited to the older generations, and will die out when they do.
Picard’s Syndrome Here and Now
While preparing to write this article, I corresponded with North and asked him if Picard’s Syndrome was still prevalent, or whether e-book platforms such as the Kindle promised a “cure”.
Mises.org finds that the free digital books create demand for printed books.
Picard sufferers are still afflicted. But the readers will provide some relief.
North is referring to an article he wrote about how libertarian think-tank site The Ludwig von Mises Institute discovered that giving e-books away increased the sales of printed-on-demand copies of those books.
Like Jean-Luc, they want to hold a book in their laps. They don’t like to read a book in a 3-ring binder. They can read a chapter on-line. Then they say, "Nuts to this. I’ll click a link and buy it."
This is, of course, not a new observation. Baen found it out as well, ten years ago (though North does not say when Mises started giving away its books so I do not know which one was first to do so). But apparently as long as this remains true, it will be because Picard’s Syndrome is still in effect.
Looking to the Future
This preference for books is something that e-book reader manufacturers are going to have to take into account if they want their devices to appeal to Picard Syndrome sufferers. Amazon seems to have done a fairly good job so far with the Kindle, at least in terms of the older, non-smartphone-preferring generation.
And if we look at Kindle users as a population in and of themselves, we might get a sense of where things will go post-Picard. As we reported Saturday, some publishers have taken to giving away the first books in series as free Kindle titles to entice Kindle users to buy the rest.
In this way, the free e-book serves as a promotion not strictly for the printed book (though users of Kindle reading software on other, less book-like platforms might still treat it that way), but for all the e-books that follow.
Perhaps this is the way e-books will be sold in the future. It’s just up to the e-book industry to “make it so.”