Virtual books, virtual ownership, real profits

Would you seriously pay £252 for an electronic version, when the printed book costs only another £14 more?

Every so often, the press marvel that physical, printed books are still being sold. Not just being sold, but often they seem to be enjoying increased sales figures. Then they return to ignoring the recurring scandals surrounding electronic publication, such as the recent withdrawal of NOOK® from the UK, and repeating idiotic predictions of the imminent end of printed books.

If you were lucky enough not to have ‘bought’ any NOOK eBooks, you may be unaware that Barnes & Noble has ceased “selling digital content in the UK”, and shut down the NOOK Store on all NOOK devices sold in the UK, the UK NOOK Reading App for Android, and the UK version of the website.

I own many physical books which were published by companies that have long since vanished. Remarkably, when a publisher goes to the wall, all the physical books which it has sold remain unaffected. They do not suddenly lock themselves, erase their pages, or crumble into dust.

NOOK has not – yet – vanished off the face of the earth, but has transferred its UK business to Sainsbury’s Entertainment on Demand. As a UK NOOK owner, the only way to retain access to your NOOK books is to transfer your library to Sainsbury’s. If you don’t do that, from 1 June you will lose access to all the virtual books which you thought you had purchased with your real money. And if you don’t complete your transfer by the end of June, your virtual library will vanish forever.

There is something seriously wrong here, isn’t there?

A company can take your money for virtual books, then when it ceases to be convenient (profitable enough) to provide the books for which you paid them, they can pack up and walk away with the proceeds, leaving you with the option of switching to another service provider (who can do exactly the same thing, whenever they like), or of losing the books which you thought you bought.

By applying the same processes, I could set up an electronic publishers, sell £10 million of virtual books in an opening splurge, then liquidate the company, and walk away leaving the customers with nothing, and no form of redress. Perhaps we should be more surprised that this is not done more frequently.

So, let’s just list some of the benefits of printed books over virtual ones:

  • So long as you look after them, they last for centuries,
  • You can borrow and lend them without paying anything more,
  • You can resell them when you wish, sometimes at a profit, give them to charities to sell, or leave them to your heirs,
  • They never need recharging,
  • They can be read in almost all lighting conditions,
  • They don’t interrupt you with other distractions,
  • Their pages are designed to look good and read well in an appropriate format,
  • Any illustrations are of high quality and often in full colour,
  • Their content is permanently accessible, whatever happens to Internet connections, remote servers, or publishers.
Would you seriously pay £252 for an electronic version, when the printed book costs only another £14 more?

Given that virtual books are sold without the costs of the supply chain and retailer, but their prices are usually only slightly less than printed versions, it is amazing that anyone buys virtual books at all – except as the electronic equivalent of charity paperback fiction, as a quick once-only read.

The real benefit of virtual books seems to be their greatly increased profit to the vendor. And those vendors seem too greedy still to be interested in making virtual books any more competitive with real ones.