Comfort Reads on the 21st Century

June 23rd, 2009 · 14 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

One of the worst-kept secrets in my household is the fact that I buy multiple copies of the same book. For myself. I am not alone in this habit, but I’ve noticed a new twist on an old concept. Last week, I observed a discussion among readers: the importance of purchasing comfort reads to store on digital readers.

Make the reader happy, and that reader will buy more books.

These readers weren’t looking for free digital copies of books they’d already purchased. No, they were discussing second or third purchases of favorite books. This time, the discussion focused on the quest to build a digital library of old favorites. To paraphrase: “I can have all my comfort reads with me all the time.”

If I understand industry parlance, these are “additive sales”.

And for authors and publishers, they are very good indeed.

So a couple things. First, of course, is availability. Authors and publishers surely know what books fall into the comfort read/multiple purchase category. They know what catalog titles continue to sell, year after year, decade after decade. They know what books readers love so much, they take the time to write and gush. They know (I hope!) what books are being discussed on blogs, forums, and listservs (hint: this would be a lovely book to have with me as I wander the world…alas, it is not available).

Here’s another indicator, though it falls into the unscientific category. A few weeks ago, the New York Times did an article on digital piracy, opening with the fact that author Ursula LeGuin had discovered that a book of hers, published in 1969, had been pirated. Rather than noting that this indicated a level of reader demand. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know how often this book was downloaded and why? Were the “pirates” fans of the book, owners of another copy? Or were they just random scavengers on the Internet, grabbing all the free stuff they can…with no intent to read?

My guess is there’s a mix of reasons, but the first, the fans who had no ability to purchase a legal copy of the book, is the most compelling to me. There is much anecdotal evidence of readers doing this. It’s a book from 1969. Weeks later, there is still no Kindle edition of The Left Hand of Darkness (but if you look even a little, oh, those pirated versions are there!).

Nothing is more frustrating for a reader than making the effort to buy a book, only to discover the book is not available. It’s frustrating when you go to a physical bookstore, it’s frustrating when you discover the book you want is out-of-print (or “temporarily unavailable”), it’s frustrating when you go to buy the book, but a digital edition doesn’t exist. Especially when you just want to get your hands on a comfort read.

A second thought. Just as we move our physical libraries from home to home (to garage!) over the course of our lifetimes, maybe moving once, twice, five, a dozen times, we are moving our digital libraries from device to device. It is not inconceivable to estimate at least a dozen device moves for some people.

As with paper books, some books will be archived or even deleted (the digital equivalent of donating a book to charity — since we have no other way to pass on ebooks when we’re done with them). But those comfort reads? They will shift from reader to reader, taking up a relatively small amount of space. They will be there during waits in the emergency room. When a plane is stuck on the tarmac. In the middle of the night when a baby decides sleep is optional. When days are just too much and that old favorite read is what gets you through.

Of course, this means the consumer must be capable of porting her books from device to device without hassle. It means that publishers need to be proactive about ensuring readers know any and all limitations imposed on their purchases (Amazon says these limitations rest squarely on the shoulders of publishers; if these limitations are imposed, the consumer needs to know what they are). It doesn’t preclude the idea that this consumer, over time, will purchase additional copies of the same ebook, for many reasons. Unlimited portability of a legal purchase and additive purchases are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Or, it’s about the reader. It’s all about the reader. Make the reader happy, and that reader will buy more books. Make the reader unhappy…

File Under: The Future of Publishing

14 responses so far ↓

  • nicola griffith // Jun 23, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    I haven’t bought any comfort reads for my Kindle. ‘Comfort’ to me means permanence. I’ve already got that in paper. I won’t bother with d versions until I can get DRM-free and know I can access it forever.

  • Pauline Baird Jones // Jun 24, 2009 at 11:22 am

    I absolutely will buy comfort reads for my ereader. Some books I have in print and e. I hate toting print books anymore and buy them less and less, but if I really love a book, will buy print later.

    But if the publisher prices it too high? They totally lose me, for print and e.

  • Karl Lamb // Jun 24, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Reading comfort books while eating comfort food: a happy retirement. But I don’t have Kindle yet, and it doesn’t seem essential. My pocketbooks of Nevil Shute fill the bill.

  • ReacherFan // Jun 24, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I have both electronic and print versions of the same book. In some cases, the print version was unavailable but I could buy the ebook. Eventually, the books were reprinted and I bought them as well. This is the way it went for me with Shelly Laurenston. With Christine Warren, I started reading her in ebook but could not find any print versions or ebooks versions of her first two books, so hunted down a used copy of her first book on Alibris and paid a fairly hefty price for it. Now I am just missing one book. Warren has moved to a new publisher and mainstream paranormal/urban fantasy romance, and ‘spiffed up’ her first book and republished it under a new title. I have that version too. Her ‘spiffed up’ version of the second book will be out soon and I’ll likely buy iy, but I continue to look for that the first two as ebooks and the original version of her second in print.

    I have several Jack Reacher books in multiple formats as well and I’m trying to find his first three books as hardcovers. I’m also looking for two of Barry Eisler’s John Rain books in hard cover. I recently got a copy of Plum Isand, my favorite DeMille in hardcover again, having ‘misplaced’ my own copy. I own many favorite reads, especially ‘comfort reads’ in hardcover and paperback. Now I find I sometimes add ebook, or do ebook and one print copy.

    I spent a lot of time and some money to get Clayton Rawson’s 4 Merlini mysteries in print. I managed to find them, though one books is so fragile that I don’t read it. I need a different edition. I would LOVE to get these books in PDF format!

    So many books I look for are just unavailable in any format and used copies are so freaking expensive I can’t buy them. They are collector books and I want to READ the book, not collect it.

    As a reader I can understand the frustration that brings people to pirated copies of books. There are too many good books out of print and not available in any ebook format! And no, I won’t touch DRM either. I bought 1, a Jack Reacher book, that’s it. I hate that many ebooks are in formats that means you don’t own them, you just pay to read them for awhile. Phooey on that.

    I do wish authors and publishers listened to those who READ.

  • TerryS // Jun 24, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    After a lifetime of physically moving boxes of my keepers, more and more I find myself replacing my favorite paper copies with digital. For those which aren’t available yet in e, I continue to schlep around the paper as I have no time for piracy. My buy rate has dr opped to around 5% for paper. If it is available in e, that is how I buy … except if the e price is higher than the paper…then I don’t buy it al all. My own one person crusade.

  • Alia Yunis // Jul 8, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    What do have our comfort reads for–just so their handy when a passage needs to be found to requote or to take us into that world that we loved in the book or to share with a friend. Your Kindle is always with you for that. Your books might be any of the scores of places you’ve lived or given away as they were two hard move or hidden away in boxes because you have no space in 700 square foot apartment. And then kindle doesn’t and its binding doesn’t come undone. Sure, books are more romantic, but sometimes, if you take a look at your moving bills, you just have to be practical.

  • BookClover // Jul 11, 2009 at 12:39 am

    Wow, so glad to know I’m not the only one…but where do you put all the books? I am having storage problems…my house looks like a bookshop, more or less. Only differecence is that we don’t sell books, we breathe them ;-)

  • Abbeville // Jul 16, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Kassia – We agree that publishers who face a demand for e-versions of their titles should be prompt in making them available and reasonable in pricing them. That’s just good business sense. We disagree, though, with any implication that publishers might somehow be at fault for digital piracy of their products. We know that’s not literally what you’re arguing, but we’d caution against a “blame the victim” mentality whereby well-intentioned citizens are thought to be “driven,” out of frustration, to steal.

    The truth is that online retail has made nearly every book on earth 10 times more available than it would have been 15 years ago. Rarely does a consumer have “no ability to purchase a legal copy of [a] book”; you mean a legal copy in the exact format he or she prefers, at the exact instant he or she wants it. There’s a big difference, although the latter is still a demand publishers should strive to fulfill. Regardless, piracy is never a valid option; consumers should have every right to vote with their wallets, but not with their sticky fingers.

    Ultimately, the rise of digital piracy has far more to do with the ease and low risk of the crime than with the stodginess of evil media companies. We’d like to believe that the majority of pirates are frustrated, law-abiding consumers who would leap at the chance to pay money instead of getting stuff for free if given a chance to do so, but the persistence of music theft in spite of iTunes suggests otherwise. Editorials like yours, then, raise many valid points but would ultimately be better directed toward calls for smarter anti-piracy law enforcement. See our post at the Abbeville Manual of Style today: http://www.abbeville.com/blog/?p=4077. As always, we welcome further comments and debate.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 16, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    Austin — I’m certainly not arguing that publishers are responsible for piracy, and if I created that impression, I apologize. I’m probably going to say it badly again, but let me try. When a consumer — a reader — goes online searching for a legal digital version of a book and finds nothing, that consumer will not always react in a textbook manner. That reader might assume there’s no digital and move on. That reader will not always shrug and say, “Well, I guess I need to think about something else.” That reader may not, necessarily, be able to distinguish between legal and illegal downloads. That reader may say, “Screw you, publisher!”…and go ahead and acquire a pirated version.

    While we all agree piracy is bad, I think it’s really critical that we listen to the reasons behind piracy. It is not a simple, black and white concept. It is not always someone bent on doing bad. There is, I think, an uncomfortableness in discussing this topic, but if we do not acknowledge that piracy exists and there are layers of reasons, how do we seriously engage in combatting it? What are you fighting when you fight piracy?

    I ask this question in all seriousness. I mean, how can you (not you personally, but the greater you) quantify lost sales versus increased awareness or actual sales? How much money are you really losing? Does every pirated copy actually equal a lost sale or does that pirated copy represent something else? What makes normally honest people think it’s okay to steal content? Are we asking these questions, talking to “pirates”, gaining insight into their thinking? What are you fighting?

    One thing iTunes has taught us is that consumers will pay for entertainment content if basic criteria are met. One key factor is availability (others are, of course, price and usability). While there are indeed people who will, for reasons that seem unfathomable to most of us, pirate content, there are more who will pay. It is the job of publishers to make the pay option the most attractive choice. That was the failure of the music industry — they tried every possible scheme but the one that utilized the technology and access preferred by consumers.

    I would love smarter anti-piracy enforcement. I encourage it, and I thank you for your piece and the link. But I am also a bit tired of publishing people not hearing what readers are saying (and I’m not including Sourcebooks here because I know they’re listening and absorbing and making the best possible decisions for their business) . It’s always the consumer who is bad, wrong, not getting it. But is that true? I don’t think so. Over the course of the past few posts, a lot of readers have voiced strong opinions. Are they being considered?

    I mean, if you’re not listening to the people who buy your books, who are you listening to?

  • Helen E. H. Madden // Jul 18, 2009 at 9:26 am

    I’m the kind of person that sweeps through the house on a regular basis and gets rid of what I really don’t need. I hate clutter. E-books to me represent a way to still have plenty to read without having to worry about where I’m going to put all those books. BUT I still buy certain books in print because I have such an attachment to them. I can’t see reading Tolkien in anything but an actual paper book. But lots of other things I’ve always wanted to read, but never had room for? Those have been loaded onto my netbook in digital format.

    I do wish Amazon, Sony, and other producers of e-readers, as well as publishers, would realize that the person buying and reading the books matter. They need to make it easier to buy, download, and store books, and to move books from one device to another. I won’t always have my netbook. In five years, I’ll probably need to replace it, and reload all those books on a new device. And what if technology changes so quickly that by the time five years has passed, those formats are no longer good?

    That’s what worries me the most. That’s probably why I still buy some books in hardback or paperback, so I know I’ll have them no matter what.

  • The Abbeville Manual of Style | Abbeville Press Blog » Blog Archive » E-Book Piracy, Continued // Jul 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    […] digital book piracy, we refer our readers to a pair of recent comment threads at TeleRead and Booksquare, where we mixed ourselves into some further debate on the subject. In the case of […]

  • Abbeville // Jul 20, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Kassia – the reasons behind piracy are worth investigating, and smart publishers will see a good business opportunity in them. But we’re not sure they’re as “layered” or “unfathomable” as you suggest. Crimes that are easy, low-risk, and apparently victimless (that is, the victim is hard to see or define) always get committed in high numbers by “normally honest” people. Our understanding is that fare-jumping, for example, was orders of magnitude more common in NYC before the police began seriously enforcing it.

    I think we need to meet you halfway and suggest that if the piracy problem indeed becomes a major one for publishers, finger-wagging alone will do them no good in solving it–but that, at the same time, the onus won’t be entirely on publishers to reform their business model. More effective anti-piracy enforcement is sorely needed across all branches of the arts. Since the latter point often gets lost, we emphasized it in our piece, but this compromise stance is really what we’ve adopted from the beginning.

  • Abbeville // Jul 20, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    (Whoops…we meant “cracking down” on fare-jumping, not “enforcing” it!)

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 21, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Austin — I don’t think we disagree. Of course, something funny happened on the way to my responding to your comment. 1984. It appears the copy uploaded to the Amazon server was unauthorized. However, the consumers purchasing the book had no way of knowing this was an illegal edition. Funnily enough (or sadly, I suppose), this was (if the ebook was truly illegitimate) a case of true piracy. Money changed hands, though not for long.

    Yeah, it just reinforces our (agreed) belief that conversation needs to happen to slow the tide of piracy.

    (I did enjoy the idea of police enforcing fare-jumping — nothing deters bad behavior like authority figures approving it!)