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David Quigg

David Quigg

Posted: April 25, 2010 08:00 PM

Why Doesn't Ken Auletta Want My Money? (the Case for Selling Books by the Chapter)

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There came a time last night when I stopped hearing the magic voice inside my Kindle. The Kindle was fine. The volume was fine. The magic text-to-speech voice kept droning. But I couldn't hear. I couldn't hear because I was distracted. I was distracted because Ken Auletta had stopped making sense.

Auletta wrote a piece subtitled "Can the iPad topple the Kindle, and save the book business?" for the April 26 edition of The New Yorker. About halfway through, Auletta wrote this:

What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.

Those aren't exactly fighting words. But they grated on me. If I had to summarize in 140 characters or less why Auletta's words grated on me, I would just copy what I posted on Twitter on January 26, the day before Apple unveiled the iPad. Here, complete with the distracting pound-sign hashtags which serve a useful function on Twitter, is what I posted back then and what I still believe now:

HOW could #Apple #Tablet fail to be iPod for #publishing? Imagine an album-only iTunes. Sell me a $10 cookbook OR a 25¢ recipe.

Given more space than Twitter allows, I would have invoked the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth chapters of one of the best books I've ever come across, Robert A. Caro's Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Those three chapters tell the story of economist Leland Olds. In the days before America banned child labor, Olds wrote a fierce series of articles decrying the brutality of unrestrained capitalism. By the time LBJ joined the Senate, Olds was a respected federal appointee. Caro documents LBJ's raw cynicism as he used Olds' long-ago writings to smear him as a communist. Repugnant stuff. But it's essential knowledge for any bloggers or commenters who imagine they'll never have to answer for the words they post on the Web.

Here's the trouble. I can't post a link to a site where you can pay money to read the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth chapters of Master of the Senate. You can buy the whole book. I hope you will. It is so damn good. But, just as I was initially, you may be scared away by the book being 1,232 pages. You may balk at paying Amazon $13.57 for 1,232 pages of LBJ when all you really want is the 71 pages about how LBJ twisted long-forgotten writings to ruin Leland Olds. By my calculation, those 71 pages are 5.8 percent of the book. So you might wish you could pay the publisher 5.8 percent of the book's full price and get those 71 pages on your Kindle or your iPad or your cellphone. That would come to 78 cents. It's only 78 cents. But it's 78 cents more than the publisher is going to get if you don't buy the book at all.

Instead of offering 78 cents, you might offer $7.80. No deal. What's truly crazy is that you can offer $78 and there's still no way to purchase only those 71 pages you want. The book is 1,232 pages and it costs $13.57. The book is 1,232 pages and it costs $13.57. The book is 1,232 pages and it costs $13.57 and Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

But who cares, right? I can praise those 71 pages all I want, but you don't want to read them any more than you'd want to pay 25 cents for a single recipe when you can pay a bunch of money for an entire cookbook. Why? Simple. You're not a student. And, as Auletta noted without any apparent evidence to support his claim, "no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books."

Let's take that at face value. Let's pretend for a second that "no one, with the possible exception of students" wants a 25-cent recipe, that "no one, with the possible exception of students" wants those 71 pages of Caro's book, that "no one, with the possible exception of students" saw this scene from "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and wanted to own the Auden poem that John Hannah's grief-wrecked character recites.

Yes, let's assume all that.

Let's assume only students would want this.

How many students do you suppose there are in the United States alone? The answer — and I'm rounding down here — is a whole hell of a lot of students. Clearly, clearly, clearly, those students represent a big potential market. The money to be made in the student market alone — even if it's only in increments of dollars or dimes — would surely add up to something nontrivial. Why, if Auletta had a nickel for every time a college professor handed out a photocopy from one of Auletta's books ...

Do I have facts, studies? No. Not one. My enthusiasm for this idea is every bit as blithe as Auletta's dismissal of it. But I feel confident in predicting that the winners in publishing — if there are to be any — will be the companies that get over themselves and find ways to stop saying no to eager readers who want to give them money.

Huffington Post blogger David Quigg lives in Seattle. This piece originally appeared on his personal blog, where recent posts include one about what Milan Kundera wrote in the early 1980s about Kindles and iPads (sort of), several about the Nicholson Baker audiobook he can't stop listening to, and one about an English suet pudding with an astonishing, giggle-inducing name that has apparently been sitting on supermarket shelves for years.