Why Buy Stephen Colbert's Book Once When You Can Buy It Three Times?

Here's what the book industry needs to do: bing back the mass market paperback for all titles and keep the price low.
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The publishing industry is suffering and an article in the New York Times on TV comic Stephen Colbert's new book explains why. The story focused on the audio version of his book I Am America (And So Can You!), which is already on sale at iTunes and Audible.com even before the hardcover hits bookstores on Tuesday, October 9.

One of the suits says the audio book is so creative and different that, "I would think that you would buy the book and the audio because they are really different." In other words, he expects fans of Colbert to buy the hardcover book for $27, then buy the audio book for about $16 and while you're at it, when a downloadable version becomes available for your Sony Reader or computer or Blackberry, maybe you'd be willing to pay another $25 or so for that version. He's not alone. Even when the audio book isn't somewhat different from the hardcover, they expect fans of a book to buy it twice.

Imagine if the music industry demanded you buy one copy of your album for playing on your home stereo, another for your car, another for your iPod and so on. You wouldn't do it, would you? But the book industry - which publishes more than 100,000 titles a year - thinks it's perfectly reasonable to expect you to do it for books. Except you're not even buying books in hardcover: specialty and independent bookstores are disappearing and sales are flat or down in most categories.

Every industry wants to mimic the success of the DVD, one of the most successful products in history. Books add in reader's guides and author interviews and think that is akin to the DVD extras. Some even include public domain DVDs with movie versions of classic novels like Jane Eyre and A Tale Of Two Cities and the like, as if people who read books really would rather be watching movies.

But the lessons of the DVD are simple. It offered far superior picture and sound to VHS, contained extras unavailable or impractical on tape (like commentary tracks) and it did it at a MUCH lower price.

But the book industry doesn't think prices are too high - it thinks prices aren't high enough. How else to explain why the book industry is turning its back on inexpensive mass market paperbacks, just like the music industry turned its back on the single until iTunes proved sales of singles could be a billion dollar industry.

But publishers are besotted with "trade paperbacks," the slightly larger version of mass market paperbacks (the "airport" books that are light and easy to carry and still around when it comes to names like Stephen King and genres like romance). Publishers tricked authors into thinking trade paperbacks are more "prestigious" than mass market books and now many books aren't published in mass market at all, while others don't come out for years. Trade paperbacks can easily cost $15 or more, even for books that are 20, 30, or 50 years old or more. Publishers insist people don't like mass market paperbacks and really want to spend twice as much on a trade paperback. Obviously, it's been a long time since they actually had to pay for a book.

And to top it off, when the book industry has new extras they can add to the value of a book like audio and downloadable versions, they want to charge you almost as much for that as the book itself. How excited would people be about commentary tracks or deleted scenes from Transformers if they had to pay $20 extra to get them after buying the DVD?

So here's what the book industry needs to do. Bring back the mass market paperback for all titles and keep the price low, say $7. Package them as attractively as you do the trade paperbacks and hardcover editions.

Now here's the tricky part. Audio books are a valid niche market, that brings in money. Downloadable books could be a revenue stream in the future. Tough. You need to make the book more attractive and that means offering more extras for the same (or lower) price. Everyone who buys a hardcover book should get free access to the audio version and the downloadable text. Imagine buying a book and being able to get the audio edition for listening in your car or iPod and an easily portable downloadable version for your Blackberry or laptop or electronic reader. Happily, with the Internet, making these available will cost very little. Once you've made a copy, it's easy to share with the world.

Suddenly, people might see the $25 or more they pay for a hardcover book as a decent value. With a lot more ways to catch up on the book they bought, people would be encouraged to read more books and more often. Finding cheap, attractive paperbacks always available would continue that trend. Stephen Colbert's fans will be laughing at his jokes on the subway, in the car, on a plane, at work on their lunch hour and at home - and without having to spend $65 for the pleasure of buying the same book again and again and again.

So have you ever bought a book in two different formats (ie hardcover and audio)? Would you be more likely to buy a book if it came with the extras of audio and downloadable text? Would you rather buy a trade paperback for $16 instead of a mass market paperback for $7? And have you ever been surprised by the price of a book and decided not to buy it?

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