This week Apple passed 10 billion songs sold on its iTunes Store. The sale of individual songs made it possible for you and me to buy the one song we really want from an album without having to buy the entire album.

Sales of individual songs precipitated the demise of the audio CD as a music publishing medium. Sure, we can still buy entire albums (for a little less than the cost of a physical CD), but a single song is now the de facto unit of currency in the music industry. The music/CD industry was atomized because consumers prefer to buy music in singles rather than as a package.

Some in the print publishing industry find it hard to imagine how the same thing could happen to them. After all, who would want to buy just one or two chapters of a best-selling book for instance. (An article titled “The iPad, the Kindle, and the Future of Books” by Ken Auletta in this week’s New Yorker makes this point.)

"Oceans of Light" ebook on iPad

"Oceans of Light"
ebook on iPad

Publishers are focused on “the book” as the fundamental unit of currency for the written word, and are hoping that ebooks on ebook readers like iPad and Kindle will help authors and publishers make more sales while maintaining their control over pricing.

This perspective is flawed. Why? Because books are made of words, and ultimately words are what consumers will prefer to buy. The ebook marketplace is about to become a democratized, atomized bazaar of written ideas, and then length – how many words – is what will drive pricing.

Book publishers would like to set the price of a 400-page book at $16.99 and price little less for the ebook version. But what happens when a whole world full of entrepreneurial self-publishers with 100- or 50-page ebooks selling for $3.99 or $2.99 comes along and positions next to those $14.99 books in an ebook store? Consumers with limited time and money will focus their dollars on shorter pieces of writing that cost less. As long as consumers perceive value (“I get a lot more than I paid for”), their choices will drive the cost of shorter works lower.

Don’t be surprised if, within two years, the average cost of an ebook in the Apple iBook store is 99¢! So maybe a shopper skips Kennedy’s expensive $14.99 biography and instead buys a dozen short works by other talented authors — a dozen ebooks on their iPad bookshelves – on topics that matter to them – in place of one best-seller. You begin to see the value proposition?

Think it won’t happen? Look what happened to software sales when Apple opened the App store for iPhone software. Typical quality apps in every genre now sell for $0.99 to $3.99 where just a few years ago equivalent shrink-wrapped software started at $19.99 and went up from there.

As long as consumers are satisfied that they are getting value for their dollars, they will be happy to make more separate purchases of lower-priced items. It’s happened with music, it’s happened with software… why would anyone think it won’t happen with the written word?

And then how long will it take before big-name authors begin to understand this and start writing shorter works for the lower-priced end of the market?

They will be getting their writing out to a broader audience. If they get good reviews, they may be able to make more money than before on sales volume. They’ll likely realize they don’t need a publishing intermediary sitting between them and the ebook store either.

The publishing industry is about to see a shakeup in how writing is packaged and sold, the likes of which they could not have imagined just a year ago. And for most publishers, it does not look good.

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1 Comment on The Atomization of Publishing

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