03/04/2009 12:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Publishers: Go to the Eyeballs

The real challenge for the book business is a simple, difficult fact: people are reading fewer print books, and this trend will continue.

By most standards I am an relatively avid reader, and I always have been. I finish probably 25-35 books a year. But I can see in myself a marked decline in book-reading, which I definitely attribute to ubiquity of other entertainment/information options. After a day on the web, it's often hard to get my brain to switch back to the slowness needed to read a novel or deeper text. I know I am not alone, even among book lovers. The next generation is another matter altogether.

This is why I think that ebooks & mobile devices are so important to the publishing business: ebooks allow me to read at times & in areas when I wouldn't otherwise be reading. So they provide, in a sense a whole new market for reading time. Which means, if you look at me as a "buyer of books" ... there is more margin you can get out of me, if you play this right.

I've got an ipod touch, and on it I have recently:
  • read a novel at 4:30 am while suffering from insomnia; previously i would not have been able to do so because I would not have wanted to wake up my wife with the light.
  • read a novel in a dark bar waiting for someone (too dark to read a print book)
  • read on a crowded bus (too crowded to manipulate a novel)
All these are moments of reading that previously were not available to me.

This is important because the reading time that is available to me is increasingly taken up with other things.

On the one hand, I am a breathing example of a shrinking market for print books; while at the same time I am an example of an expanding market for ebooks.

What's important here is that the time/space point where I am reading ebooks is *not the same* as the time/space points when I read hardbacks & paperbacks. And so this is a NEW market that isn't the same as the market for print books.

One way to look at this is: rather than asking:

How do we keep profit margins on ebooks high enough to maintain our business model?

Ask instead:

How can we use ebooks to get more margin out of individual readers? Or, how can we get more reading out of readers, and how do we manage our business models with that in mind?

So ebooks become less units of sale, and more "added service provided to readers that we charge for" ...

The worry I have with high prices/abusive DRM terms etc for ebooks is that the business will price itself out of a new market space while watching (in horror) as the traditional market shrinks in the face of the gazillions of other things people can do these days to pass their time. The reason digital and ebooks are going to become more important is that's where the eyeballs are going to be. And if you can't find more ways to get eyeballs on digital books, then I do fear for the future of (traditional) book publishing.

The job of the publishing business is going to be to find more ways to make it easier for people like me to read. And it seems with ebook pricing & DRM, the publishing biz just want to make it harder for me to do so.

And that can't be a winning strategy.