Hey, Publishers: What about the reader?

by Holland-Mark | April 30, 2010

The New Yorker
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When I began working at Holland-Mark, my dear friend-turned-colleague Chris Colbert gifted me with a subscription to The New Yorker. An odd sort of gift, but if you know myself and Christopher, you can understand how the gift is appropriate. The combination of opinions, articles, art reviews, and fiction provides ample fodder for conversation, as well as insight into the world at large. Over the last two years I’ve experienced the much discussed “ANYA: Acute New Yorker Anxiety,” a product of lots of New Yorkers arriving more quickly than I could possibly read them, resulting in panic and taking stacks of the magazine on any flight over two hours. A true sign of the times, however, was my recent decision to transition my New Yorker subscription to my Kindle. Every week my issue sneaks silently onto the homepage and waits for me to notice. If I don’t get around to it, it politely archives itself so as not to bother me, or make me feel incompetent. Eventually I get around to reading back issues on the stair climber.

The transition has not been without its problems, though. If Chris wanders by my office to chat about an article, I can’t recall the issue by the cover picture. I have no visual cue as to which issues I have and have not read. If I love an article I can’t tear it out and share it with my mom, or bring it in and pass it around the office. The covers are no longer useful for collaging. The Kindle has taught me to be a true reader. With little to no distractions from the content, I must truly love the content. Moreover, I must believe that the content, and nothing else, is worth the price tag. I pay $2.99 a month to have my New Yorker delivered to me. There are no ads. There is no printing. There is no shipping, hauling, sorting, organizing. Nothing. I pay for a file — the same file as everyone else — to be wirelessly delivered to my Kindle while I sleep.

At the recommendation of Chris, I went into my archive to read an article in last week’s New Yorker titled Publish or Perish: Can the iPad topple the Kindle and save the book business? Written (well) by Ken Auletta, the article explored the burgeoning relationships between Apple and the various publishing giants, desperate to be saved from their current state of existence. Amazon is vilified for its efforts to offer content to consumers for the low price of $9.99. Maniacally, or perhaps egomaniacally, Jobs stands at the front of the proverbial masses, assuring them that Apple will not allow this to continue. Amazon will be beaten into submission or be abandoned by publishers. The iPad is here. Content can now cost more.

As I’m reading the article, on my Kindle, I’m getting angry. If a hardcover book costs $25, a 50% markup, and a paperback $10-$15, how does it stand to reason that an invisible book would cost equal to either? Production has been all but eliminated. There is a litany of explanations about the math and the reasoning, but it’s a thin veil, under which lies a very simple truth: in the absence of a need for a physical vehicle for content, publishers are even more irrelevant. These inflated price tags are nothing more than conspiratorial handshakes among friends desperate to band together to save their waning equity.

The content, and only the content, is now the only value. I cannot share my books. I cannot write in them. I cannot pass them on to a friend or put them on my shelf. No longer will my books act as functional decor. When I’m done reading my book it is archived. Out into space it goes, where I will likely never see it again. I won’t be selling it on Amazon or Half.com. The book was worth its content and the impact it had on my life. And that is all.

So what is the value of the content? And what value does the publisher hold for me now? The value of a marketer?

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