QUESTION: The new Sony e-book reader is getting a lot of publicity, and I'm concerned that it may kill the market for selling used books online. It can hold thousands of book-sized files like an Ipod.
ANSWER: I've always been a skeptic about e-books for a simple reason: Most people hate them, and so do I.
For example, I've looked at some of the most popular e-books available on Amazon for download (and not available as a hard-copy book) and a lot of the reader reviews, even when they are positive reviews, mention something like “I was very hesitant about buying an e-book . . . "
That tells me that your average consumer is not interested. Based on my own experience, I've bought a couple of e-books and in each case I've been extremely disappointed with the quality of the writing and content. And what happens then? You're stuck. There's no way to get your money back. Lots of people have already been through this experience, generating even more more hatred of e-books.
Nobody talks about how these Sony readers have already flopped in Japan. And I predict they'll be an even bigger flop in the United States. They'd flop even if Sony gave them away.
People keep saying the paper book is dead, but regular books are more popular than ever. Every year, the number of titles authored, printed, and purchased goes up. Plain old books can't be improved that much because they're already a great deal - they're cheap, portable, nonfragile, and require no batteries.
Nevertheless, technology could have a big negative impact on used bookselling in the next 10 years, but the scenario I see has nothing to do with e-books. The potential nightmare I see for used booksellers is “print-on-demand. "
One reason it's fairly easy to sell used books profitably is the publishing industry (and book retailing) is terribly inefficient. Publishers never print anywhere near the right number of a title. Either they print way too many, or not nearly enough. Either way, it's an opportunity big enough for online sellers to drive a bookmobile through. We create value by organizing and handling the publishers’ mistakes, whether it's selling (overprinted) leftover books at low prices, or (underprinted) scarce books at high prices.
Print-on-demand could throw a money wrench into our gravy train by allowing publishers to get a lot more efficient. Printing machines are already available that can print a single paperback for a few dollars. In the past, publishers were locked into printing huge quantities of books on traditional printing presses. If they start using print-on-demand, they can efficiently print a the right number of copies - even if there's only one buyer for the book.
Will this nightmare come true in our lifetimes? I'm not losing any sleep yet. The “experts" have been predicting the death of the paper book for more than a decade now, and they've been predicting the “paperless office" for a couple of decades now, and they've been dead wrong on both.
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Steve Weber is author of “The Home-Based Bookstore: Start Your Own Business Selling Used Books on Amazon, eBay or Your Own Web Site" (ISBN 0977240606). Got a question for Steve? Send to: email@example.com