My coffee is pleasantly warm in my hand as I run my finger down the bindings of hardbound books in the Science and Nature section. I sigh contently as coffee aroma and wood pulp intertwine. I pull out a book by Carl Sagan and his tinny voice grates as he whines about the uneducated youth of today and I re-shelve his book muffling his voice. I finger a Richard Dawkins book, curious about his genius, but put off by his everybody-but-me-is-stupid tone, and I re-shelve him too. Richard Feynman, the physics genius slash ladies man, yep, you’re coming home with me. I briefly browse the sale books and head to the front to pay for my date—I mean book. The cashier rings me up then asks if I would like a free e-book version with this purchase. Why yes, I would thanks. I present my email address and it is automatically added to my account library.
When will the above fantasy become reality? Whenever a new medium arrives it is greeted with enthusiasm by consumers and fear by publishing houses. Why not embrace it and leverage the opportunity to adapt a tired system? For years, downloading music was something a person did in fear of having their kneecaps crushed by RIAA thugs. It took Apple to make it mainstream, and it is currently the way music is distributed. When was the last time you bought a CD?
Likewise, it is time to phase out the paperback, bequeathing the e-book its affordable price. Paperbacks are a disposable medium, whose binding is good for one or two readings before pages start falling out and it loses it’s shape. They are an environmental disaster: the wood pulp needed, chemicals used during production, trucks blowing smoke to deliver them to the stores and warehouses, all so they can be read a few times and tossed. The e-reader is a much better solution. (Or would be if their production was greener and they lasted longer than a couple years. Perhaps I should say they will be a better solution, someday...) For now tiny e-ink Kobo & Nook readers are available for about $80 with their prices falling. If you are thrift minded, use the Library2Go system until the cost is recouped. Also there are many 99¢ classics to be read.
However, hardbound books still have a place in today’s world. When I really like a book, I want something more than just 1s and 0s. I want a backup—something I can read without charging it first. I want it in the library of my life’s composition. However, I’m not willing to buy a hardbound and pay another $10 for an e-book. When novels are new, like Ken Follett's Fall of Giants, the e-books run $20 or more; if you want to see what people think of that pricing strategy read the customer reviews. Publishers are never going to undercut the hardbound book prices and lose out on those rabid new-release sales. However, if the e-book were free with the purchase of a hardbound, the perceived value to the consumer would be restored and perhaps enhanced. Easy. Then after the initial sales die down, then offer a stand alone e-book for the paperback price. (Although, it would be nice if they passed some of the cost savings on us.)
Even independent booksellers are on their way to figuring out how to work with the e-book revolution. Used books stores also prefer hardbound books; bring a pile of genre based paperbacks to Powell's book buyer and watch his face.
When my mother-in-law was gifted her Kindle, my curiosity ignited. Like a monkey investigating a plastic banana, I took it warily, turned it, gave it a sniff, then set it aside, certain I would always prefer real bananas and their familiar textures and smell. A year or two later the Nook Color launched. From this nifty little banana, I could read in a dark room, check my email, sling cartoon birds, as well as tuck a thousand page GRRM tome in my purse. Now, I have my own plastic banana. I still love books—real ones, and believe they have a place in the world, but paperbacks have overstayed their welcome. Publishers need to accept that people, (I loathe the word consumer) attach value to something physical, and since they can’t touch and feel intellectual property delivered in 1s and 0s they’re not going to pay a bloated price for it.