netflix-house-of-cardsA huge question arises when we think about the prices of books vs. those of, say, subscription video services, movies, games, music and other entertainment. Just how much competition exists between media? In particular, how about books and social media like Facebook? And what about another area of competition, the time consumers spend on different media?

The issues here aren’t just academic. One reason why publishers at Big Five Houses jacked up the price of e-books is that they assured themselves that consumers would shift the money to paper books. Long term, I myself fear a different outcome. People instead may simply spend less on books of all kinds—and more on other media, from Netflix to games. Statistics show that Americans were reading less than they used to, even before the price hikes. Despite legacy investments, the Big Five and other publishers should worry not so much against the protection of paper books but about protection of all books.

Meanwhile, in a somewhat related vein, here are some thoughts from reading analytics expert Andrew Rhomberg of Jelly Books, a speaker at next month’s Digital Book World Conference—observations he offered on inter-media competition during a DBW post on fast-reads vs. less exciting books:

”One of the memes that has made the rounds at publishing conferences recently is the notion that books are competing with Facebook, YouTube and Angry Birds for readers’ mindshare. Personally, I find the idea that I will not buy a certain book when browsing Daunts Books on Marylebone High Street in London, Green Books in San Francisco, or on Amazon’s website ludicrous. A typical shopper does not think, ‘I am not going to buy this book, because I am going to spend those six hours on Facebook instead.’ He or she might pick Girl on the Train (the girl at the office kept talking about it) instead of another title, but shoppers are not consciously choosing between books and social media as a form of entertainment, and especially not at the point of purchase.

“However, what are readers doing subconsciously? How are they actually spending their free time? How much time do they devote to reading compared to other activities? Reading a tweet, for example, is a form of reading—a very social one and a guilty indulgence for many who work in publishing. So are people reading for hours at a time, similar to sitting down for a three-course dinner (slow food), or are they consuming books like snacks (fast food, in other words)?”

My own thoughts on the above:

1. Andrew is right that readers don’t ponder at length how much money to spend on books vs. the competition.

2. At the same time, he is also correct in asking about readers’ subconscious thinking, which, at least in my opinion (not necessarily his), will be the real determinant here.

3. With the advent of a multimedia rental service like Playster, which is rationally based on the idea that many people follow their interest and passions from medium to medium, as opposed to staying just within one, those questions will be brought into sharper focus than ever. Books on Playster are in direct competition with, say, movies (even though there may also be synergies between the two—depending on individuals’ consumption habits).

It would be folly, folly, folly to think that House of Cards and other shows requiring massive time commitments do not compete with books. What’s more, given that an entire month’s subscription to Netflix here in the U.S., will cost less than many digital titles from the Big Five, why would we dare think that price isn’t a factor? Especially if we want more than just the elite to be booklovers?

My own passion for well-stocked national digital libraries arises out of social concerns, but along the way, an amply financed national digital library endowment would help boost the bottom lines of book publishers of all sizes—by making reading more of an activity for the masses than it is now. Such an approach would not just send money to publishers and writers by way of libraries buying or renting titles. Free e-books also would encourage even the poorer among us to give book buying a try as long as we simultaneously promoted books and libraries through mass media campaigns and innovations such as cell phone book clubs, played up recreational reading more in schools than we do now, enabled libraries to offer tech support when required, and of course addressed such details as the availability of wi-fi.

While this would be a tall order, the results would be worth it for both society in general and the book industry in particular. Instead of focusing on jacking up the unit prices of books, electronic or paper, publishers should concentrate instead on increasing the number of units sold, both through their own marketing efforts and by pushing for national digital libraries (with, of course, provisions for fair compensation—I don’t expect publishers to give away their books, even if the titles end up free at public libraries).

I hope the book industry listens. The bright side is that there is a lot of room for improvement. The typical U.S. household spends several thousand on various forms of entertainment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only around $100 of that goes for recreational reading and other kinds of reading. We can only go up from here, and I’ll be delighted if publishers of all sizes, from self-publishers to Penguin Random House, benefit.

Details: (1) I have no idea how Andrew Rhomberg himself would stand on the pricing issue. (2) While Hollywood and games are threats to books in terms of money and time spent, I don’t think the reverse is true—not when you compare book dollars and time spent to the same for movies and videos. The gap is just too wide. (3) I’d love to see the proposed digital library endowment promote inter-media synergies that would encourage reading—for example, library book promos pegged to films. Also, I can see the endowment helping libraries nurture local independent film makers, among many other activities.

Related: Chris Meadows on Playster.

5 COMMENTS

  1. In the long run I don’t think price is the major issue. Popular culture is geared towards film. A book hits the big time when it’s made into a movie with stars du jour in the lead roles. Many authors even write their books with eyes gazing towards Hollywood. In essence, books are becoming a substitute for movies. How many times have you read a comment like “this novel would be a great movie.”

    In the old days when I was a kid the only place to see movies was the theater or the edited for television version at home. So books filled a big gap where there was nothing else. Then along came cable, VCRs, and home computers. The book gap shrank. It isn’t that books are in competition with film – most people prefer film and other media to books – and now that technology allows them to consume at will, books aren’t going to be the first choice.

    I think prices for books could be cut in half or thirds and there would be only a modest uptake in book readership.

    Now I personally don’t care much for the typical Hollywood movie and rarely watch them; I never watch TV or cable drama shows; I strongly prefer the written word to other forms of media, so I’m always going to go for the books. But I’m the odd man out. Even people who claim to enjoy books and movies equally, probably have an unrecognized preference for film.

  2. Funny that you mention House of Cards in conjunction with media subscription services, but don’t touch on the post where I talked about how the success of House of Cards was changing media subscription services overall.

    I may not have noted this explicitly in that post (but I think I might have in this sequel), but looking back, it seems fairly noteworthy to me that, as Kevin Spacey discusses in the linked video, subscription services like Netflix are starting to produce original content, bypassing the staid old way that the TV networks have always done things, and electrifying the audience with the success of their new shows. This really ought to be a wake-up call to traditional publishers, who are seeing effectively the same thing happen as self-publishing bypasses their own staid older ways—but so far, they largely aren’t taking notice.

    Of course, it’s too early to know yet whether the cross-media subscription service Playster will itself be successful enough to be able to fund its own franchises, like Netflix, Amazon, and all those others, but can you imagine the opportunities that will open to it if it is? It wouldn’t have to limits its franchise to just a TV series. It could also do tie-in novels, video games, soundtracks, audiobooks and audio dramas—and offer all those to its subscribers as a unified solution.

    Of course, Amazon has a similar advantage for its own media franchises, but apparently has yet to take advantage of it. It will be interesting to see whether Playster can leverage its own cross-media synergies.

  3. What happens is that someone buys a book and then either loses interest or is distracted into doing other things. Then, when the next book-buying opportunity presents itself, that same person remembers that they still have a book (or books) that they haven’t even finished reading yet, and they don’t purchase. The choice between book and game or TV isn’t made at purchase time, but the choice IS made, and it’s effect is felt at purchase time.

  4. @GregM: Thanks very much for starting the discussion here in the comments area. Of course I’d disagree with you about the extent of inter-media competition in the context of prices. I doubt books will ever be as popular as films, to which, yes, popcult is far more geared. But we can work to make books more popular than they are at the moment (consider the small fraction of entertainment dollars they claim!), and well-funded libraries and lower pricing of B5 bestsellers would help. Look how sales of B5 e-books have slipped since the price increases. Furthermore, among poor and lower-middle-class people, prices will matter more than you might think. “Free” and “lower cost” are not the only solutions needed. But they would help immensely.

    @Chris: I emphatically agree! Playster, if sufficiently profitable, could plan complete multimedia franchises from the very start after it acquired individual properties. Sorry I didn’t point to your earlier piece. I was focused on the main point as I saw it–the degree of inter-media competition. House of Cards just seemed a handy example. I’m of course glad that you yourself pointed people to your well-done essay on bypasses. At the same time, in fairness to legacy media, we need to remember that some large publishers do work hard to get their books made as films—perhaps even at very early stages. House of Cards itself originated as a UK novel, by the way. What’s more, B5 houses are probably much faster these days in picking up the best self-published works.

    @Latecomers: I am still on the lookout for Big Five people who would like to present their views on issues such as pricing and DRM, with the understanding the TeleRead Community members will treat them with respect and stick to the “civil and thoughtful.” I’m publisher of TeleRead, and prospective contributors from the B5 and elsewhere can reach Chris and me via the contact information on our About page.

  5. Here’s an interesting blog post by Davis Wiley: http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/2348
    He compares the costs of textbooks to other media and suggests that there’s a huge gap between them. Were students to have a choice in the mater, one might reasonably assume that they would choose differently but they are a captive audience.
    Other consumers are freer to choose how they spend their information and entertainment dollars.
    Right now, movie production isn’t making the most of the medium so books can be a more compelling experience. That, of course, is subject to change.