Monday, May 27, 2013

The Future of Books

The long-awaited trial of Apple on price-fixing charges will begin next week. Apple and the major book publishers were sued by the Department of Justice and by various states for colluding to set the price of e-books. All of the publishers have settled now, agreeing to repay consumers substantial amounts of money.

We’ll know the results, presumably, in a few weeks, but things aren’t looking good for Apple. The judge said that her tentative opinion, based on what she has read of the documents, is that Apple is guilty:
In an unusual move before a trial, a federal judge expressed a tentative view that the U.S. Justice Department will be able to show evidence that Apple Inc engaged in a conspiracy with publishers to increase e-book prices. 
U.S. District Judge Denise Cote, who is set to oversee a trial on June 3, gave her view during a pretrial hearing on Thursday. 
While she stressed that the view was not final and that she had read only some of the evidence so far, her comments could add to pressure on Apple to settle the lawsuit, in which the Justice Department accuses the company and five publishers of conspiring to fix e-book prices. 
"I believe that the government will be able to show at trial direct evidence that Apple knowingly participated in and facilitated a conspiracy to raise prices of e-books, and that the circumstantial evidence in this case, including the terms of the agreements, will confirm that," Cote said.
One of the documents that might have influenced Judge Cote’s views is an email from Steve Jobs to one of the publishers, saying that the publishers should “throw in with Apple and see if we can all make a go of this to create a real mainstream e-books market at $12.99 and $14.99.”

Sounds like collusion to me.

But then, I’m not a lawyer, and certainly not the judge. While the legal aspects of the case are interesting to me, I’m really more interested in what the outcome of the case might mean to me as a frequent reader of e-books.

Assuming a defeat for Apple, the most obvious outcome would be a price decrease for e-books. This is a nice benefit for me and all consumers, of course, although at present I’m very heavily into public domain works (in the US, that means mostly things written before the early 1920s), which are free from a number of online sources. Since the price of free books is unlikely to drop, I won’t benefit that much.

There are newer books I would like to read as e-books, though, and it would be nice if the prices came down. I have a difficult time understanding how publishers can justify* pricing an e-book, in which all the printing, freight, and warehousing costs have been eliminated, at roughly the same level as a quality paperback.
*OK -- I know they don't need to justify it. They charge it because they can get it, and they can get it because they and Apple are (allegedly, of course) fixing the prices.
On the negative side, I am concerned that if profit margins for publishers and writers alike are greatly diminished, then there will be, simply, fewer books, because the writers will have less incentive to write and the publishers will have less incentive to publish.

But it’s not as simple as that. The advent of e-books means that the publishing industry is now open to everybody, which should mean many more books. A great many people are already publishing their own books. Vanity publishing has always been around, of course, but it was once expensive and unlikely to meet with much success, since distribution was limited; now anybody with some simple publishing software can make his or her works widely available (with Amazon offering support).

This might mean that publishers will not just see their profit margins slashed, they are likely to lose one of their principal roles – that of gatekeepers. For close to six hundred years, from the time of Gutenberg until now, he who owned the printing press decided what the public would be able to read.

Here again, there is both a positive and a negative. Certainly it is positive that consumers will have the opportunity to hear voices that were silenced before – I have little doubt that many editors at publishing houses were often influenced in their decisions on whether or not to publish a book by their political, social, or religious views. Probably many worthy books have never been printed because they expressed unpopular views.

However, I also have little doubt that most (a very big most) of the books that don’t get published are garbage. Losing the publisher-as-gatekeeper will mean that the reader will now have to pick through huge piles of this garbage in order to select the few gems hidden therein – a job formerly performed by those editors.

In any case, we will know a bit more in a few weeks, but it will probably be many years before the full results of this case are known. In the meantime, I’ll go back to reading my free copy of A Gentleman of Leisure (1909) on my tablet.

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