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The Supersizing of Book Buyers

Yesterday I visited the local Borders’ books to do research about video production. Someone had recommended the book, Freakonomics to me, I took a few minutes to flip through a chapter or two. I think I read the entire book is 15-20 minutes.

It is a good book and has excellent buzz, although the treatment is more journalistic than scientific. This book, like Blink and Steven Berlin Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, have highbrow intellectual pretensions and yet the substance of their argument is simplistic, reductionistic and anecdotal. No, I don’t mean to knock these books or the authors. They are interesting, but unsatisfying. And yet, major publishers wolve these kinds of books down with gusto. Most of these books started out as magazine or newspaper pieces (which only goes to show that magazine writing is not to be so easily dismissed by writers), and most of these publications have New York inbreeding (New Yorker/New York Times/ etc) and rapid publication schedules.

But the Freakonomics book is 256 pages look, and believe me, these were the skimpiest 256 pages I’d seen. Lots of white space, blank pages and filler that was interesting but hardly added to the book. Upon leaving I noticed Bob Woodward’s Secret Man, which was a rush job if I ever heard of one (with 256 pages and a similar amount of white space). These are examples of big publishers doing what they do best: rapid schedule publishing to exploit topical issues which –we almost forgot–are repeated ad infinitum by the same media outlets that publish the books. One day it’s terrorism, another day it’s the pope’s death, another day it’s Brooke Sheilds or the star of the next Warner Brothers film or the latest reality show winner.

I have no objection to shorter books (150 pages would be perfectly adequate for many topics), and yet someone in publishing must have concluded that consumers –surprise surprise–are more likely to pay $25 for 250 page books than 150 page books. They are trying to supersize consumers, and consumers are filling up with these empty calories. I have already ranted on several occasions about Big Media’s ghostwritten celebrity books, so I will not repeat myself here. At least with J.K. Rowling, her books run a minimum of 400 pages–publishers must absolutely love that.

With net publishing (where real estate is no longer in limited supply), we started to realize that we still prefer writing that is meaty and concise. Of course, free content changes the equation, but we no longer spend time figuring out whether we are getting our money’s worth. The market demand for video shorts, for example, is something Big Media companies have no interest in fullfilling (because the only thing they want to package is DVDs). Similiarly, any distribution method that offers the prospect of plentiful content (such as legal torrents) is also unlikely to interest Big Media.

Now let’s look at ebooks. They can be any size (and free ebooks don’t have to be a minimum size). Once content creators have more control over the marketing of ebooks, they will have much more control over how much they want to charge (and they don’t have to charge anything). Actually, I predict that the rise of ebooks will also make books smaller and more audio- or cellphone-friendly. Ebooks have much more flexibility than what’s published today.

I don’t despise mass-produced books, nor do I really hate brick and mortar bookstores. Some are fun and relaxing places. But these places are geared to promoting and selling books of a certain type–those easy to browse, with flashy covers, geared to topical events and hitting the price point of $15-20.

Online bookstores like amazon.com favors different book packages: award winners, books with samples, and blurbs from webloggers. Amazon.com (and bn) books tend to favor the esoteric, the hard-t0-find, the vintage (after all, amazon.com’s online inventory is much more vast than anything in your neighborhood). Amazon.com also tends to favor the cost-conscious and those books which are mass-produced and (3 months later) available for sale aftermarket for a fraction of the cost.

Used bookstores offer some of the same thrills. They are more about browsing, stumbling upon something random, taking a chance on something you’ve never heard of before. I never know what I’m going to find when I step into a used bookstore. And I don’t care.

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