Thursday, December 08, 2011

E.B. White and Giving Away E-books

In his 1938 essay “Removal,” E.B. White wrote, “I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television of that I am quite sure.”

What would E.B. White have said last night, were he in my living room as my wife hunkered down with her Kindle Fire (Merry Christmas!), my 10-year-old read the latest Rick Riordan book on her Nook, and my 13-year-old curled up with my iPad (probably not actually reading but rather shopping for a new family smartphone contract that will, she tells me repeatedly, only benefit yours truly)? The visual is a far cry from Thoreau’s Walden (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…”).

The truth is, though, the essential facts of life have changed in the publishing industry and for book lovers. In May, Amazon reported that just four years after launching the Kindle (originally sold for $259; now starting at $79) the conglomerate online store’s e-book sales had surpassed print purchases. Moreover, according to a recent UK-based report, e-book sales worldwide are expected to triple by the year 2016 (generating nearly $10 billion a mere five years from now). Subsequently, the Kindle Fire seems to be the holiday-season rage. Amazon, as usual, isn't releasing specific Kindle sales figures, but Apple announced it's quarterly iPad sales are down as Kindle market-share figures rise.

My interest in e-books remains the same as any other writer: I’m trying to see where all of this leads. Yet I am also in a unique position, controlling all facets of my e-books. In college, I took too many English classes to even declare a minor, so I’m far from a marketing expert. But I’ve learned a couple things since making my five Jack Austin novels available in e-book formats. One is, the e-book reader is a sophisticated shopper. You can’t give these things away. I have gently and methodically raised the prices on my e-books (from free and $2.99 in June 2010, to $5.99 and $6.99 currently) and sales have improved with each price increase. Apparently, e-book readers figure if it’s free it can’t be good.

It’s an interesting online game. I don’t know where it’s headed or what E.B. White would think of it, but I know it’s far from virtual.

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