Are books becoming a race to the bottom?

The recent lawsuit by the Feds against book publishers amounts to “c’mon, your e-book prices oughtn’t be that high.” Hand in hand with that complaint is the common-sense judgment that e-books don’t require the same production and distribution costs as as tree-books.

I’m supposed to have an opinion about this — if nothing else, the bulk of my royalty income for Q4/11 came from e-books — so I’ll try and articulate a train of thought more complex than “I want more money.”

The issues as I seem them are, in descending order of importance:

The ideal outcome is minimum opportunity cost. Authors — certainly this one! — want more royalty income. Publishers and retailers want their preferred combinations of increased volume and margins, in tandem with reduced production costs. Readers want cheaper books.

I recognize two questions that need to be answered to solve this puzzle without misguided litigation over rent-seeking behavior.

Amazon and Apple have already decided how they’re going to survive in the e-book jungle, while traditional publishers have settled for putting their proverbial fingers in their ears and going “lalalalalalalalala we can’t hear you!”

Finally there’s the question of where writers stand in the midst of this. Many if not most of them love what they do, to the point that they would work for food if the drive to acquire nice things (like, say, effective health insurance) wasn’t so strong.

What will stop writing from turning into a race to the bottom? I don’t know.

Finally, there are literary agents, whose role is critical to product quality. I don’t think there will be many of them left once Amazon’s achieved their goals, and that’s a very bad thing for everybody but Amazon.

If I was a full-time writer — which I am not, out of necessity and proclivity both — I would be working on building a small nucleus of fans of my work, from whom I can draw suitably talented people to fund the (usually necessary) advances on royalties and provide (at a fair wage) the technical assistance required to deliver good product in marketable form. Some of these fans will in fact be corporations other than Amazon and Apple that specialize in turning a given book into the Next Big Thing.

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