LitHub has published a piece by Robert Frank entitled On the Behavioral Economy of the Book World, originally published in The Author.

Mr Frank’s focus on the ebook is perhaps understandable. Of course it is possible that the physical book will disappear and all books become digital objects. Personally I doubt this, but I have to recognize that I won’t be around to find out the final verdict — because I do think that printed books will continue to be sold for the rest of my life. The proportion of print to digital sales seems settled at around 80%:20% even in the face of the pandemic, and any impending big change in the ratio would seem to me to have demanded an increase in the ebook proportion over recent years.

Now in a world consisting only of tradey ebooks Mr Frank’s analysis makes some sense. The article starts with an analysis of what makes a bestseller — the answer is “the winner-take-all-market” something about which Mr Frank has published a book, and actually just seems but one analytical layer away from the usual explanation of success in publishing, which is — pure luck.

Mr Frank, a “senior special writer” at The Wall Street Journal, where he writes a weekly column and daily blog called “The Wealth Report”, goes into a riff on economic theory. “In the markets described in economics textbooks, producers expand output until the additional cost of the last unit produced is equal to what the last buyer is willing to pay for it. . . . That description doesn’t apply at all to publishing in the digital age. Once a text has been created, the marginal cost of distributing it to an additional reader is essentially zero. To allocate it efficiently, its price should therefore also be zero. But although the marginal cost of distributing existing text is zero, there are likely to have been substantial fixed costs of producing that text in the first place. And since a commercial publisher’s first goal is to remain solvent, books and other texts cannot be given away.” He then alludes to the economist-style belief that competition among publishers of similar ebooks might/should bring down prices. Even now, fourteen years after the introduction of the Kindle, there are vanishingly few (if any) books from traditional publishers which are available only as ebooks, and thus all this discussion ignores the existence of the vast majority of a publisher’s stock-in-trade, the printed book. Further trouble with this anaylsis (leaving aside one’s dyspeptic views on economic theory’s inability to describe anything not equally theoretical) is that books are not commodities — every book is unique, so price cutting ends up being the business equivalent of self-cutting. Sure, maybe such price-lowering effects might theoretically begin to be seen in genre publishing, the nearest books get to commodity status, and that this is indeed the case might be a large part of the explanation of why self-published ebooks are less expensive than ebooks from traditional publishers.

Mr Frank speculates that books are being pushed towards a subscription pricing model. You get into these sorts of waters by a category mistake over what publishing is. Now one might perfectly logically argue that the genre fiction market is ripe for a switch-over to subscriptions, but beware of overlooking the vast majority of books published: all those non-genre-fiction volumes. Subscription pricing can, and has for years worked in its book club manifestation, but this can really only happen at the trade end of the business. Can you really imagine an individual signing up with say Cambridge University Press to receive a copy of every book they publish in linguistics? Lots of libraries do still do this sort of thing, (we call them standing order plans) but individuals are unlikely to want everything — unless, to complete the circle, everything is of a consistent quality such as say romance novels. Perhaps Mr Frank envisages a subscription of the sort that would allow you to select any six books a year: nice, but in what meaningful way is this better than the status quo where you notice one at a time the six books in your academic subject area which you want when they are announced or reviewed, and respond by going out and buying them individually?

Let us bear in mind the rather important fact that not all publishing is trade publishing, and that not all trade publishing is genre publishing: in all respects except for media attention the branches of publishing Mr Frank focusses on are minority pursuits: many more books are published that are not trade books than those that are. And consider that not all books are written in order to make money for their authors. The poet in the garret may be a cliché, but it’s not a fantasy. Many (most?) books are written for reasons having nothing to do with bank accounts. I dare say the authors of Leucocyte Typing VII had no expectation of earning actual money when they wrote their contributions. Of course every now and then an academic author will find their book selling well, and as academic books tend to be quite expensive, the royalty income they realize may be larger than you might think — after all 10% of a lot is more than 10% of a little — but by and large the academic who goes in for book making in order to become rich is a disappointed academic. The winner-take-all economy may have some application in this market, but winning will be measured in reputation, maybe tenure, but not bucks.