A Close Shave

By Tom Peters |

When personal computers first hit the mainstream, they presented an interesting opportunity for libraries.  All of the sudden, it was possible to easily separate the content from the content-bearing device.  Unlike printed books, microfilm, LP records, and other content-bearing devices, with computers it is easy to move content onto and off of the device.  A few earlier devices, such as the wax tablet and stylus, along with the Etch-a-Sketch, had pointed the way to the future, but the computer really made it take off.  Now libraries had the opportunity to get out of the device business.  Just as hockey has been described as a good fight marred by skating, libraries may have been good information services marred by the need to shelve (and reshelve) content-bearing devices. 

Desktop computers were good, but they just sat there on the desktop.  Portable computing devices, such as the PDA and MP3 player, ran with this concept of separating the content from the content-bearing device.  The apotheosis to date may be the portable eReading device, which allows you to purchase and download a book in less than a minute from most places. 

The separation of content from content-bearing devices has created a few problems.  When the making and shunting of digital copies happens at the speed of light, copyright holders get nervous.  A nascent shift in the economics of delivering content to portable ereading devices is causing concerns, too.

Let's consider an analogy.  In the good old days, when men wanted a shave, they often went to a barber shop.  As far as I can tell, it was a bundled, one-price service.  The barber charged one price for the complete process of shaving the customer.  With that one price, the barber had to cover all his costs: straightedge razor, strop, cream, hot water, towel, rent, chair, lights, heat, his time, etc.

Then along came the safety razor and the social shift to shaving at home.  (Reference question:  Did female shaving experience a similar social shift from the beauty parlor to the home, or has it always been a home-based activity?)  This probably was a considerable convenience to most men, and it may have been more economical, but notice that it also unbundled the components of shaving.  Now men had to purchase the shaving handle, the disposable razor blades, and shaving cream...usually separately.  The towels, hot water, light, and heat were separate purchases too.  Over time, electric razors (advertized heavily during gift-giving seasons – ah, I remember vividly that 3-headed electric razor gliding effortlessly over snowy hills and dales – d’oh, it’s on YouTube now http://bit.ly/32Ex3r) and disposable razors (handle and blade combined) added to the growing list of unbundled face-shaving options.

Buying a printed book was like getting a shave in a barber shop.  Paying one price delivered almost the complete experience.  The content and content-bearing device were bundled.  Sure, you may have to pay for the external light source, and the cost of learning to read is not factored into the price of a printed book, but natural light is still free. 

The rise of portable eReading systems seems to be doing for reading what the safety razor did for shaving.  The costs of the content and the content-bearing device have become unbundled.  The cost of delivery over a wireless network has been unbundled too.  Most early portable eReading vendors have elected to absorb that cost, but who knows how long that will last.

This unbundling may end up being a good deal or a bad deal for readers.  With home shaving, unbundling has resulted in some cost craziness.  A reasonably good can of shaving cream costs less than $2, but it's hard to find a 5-pack of disposable blades for less than $15 these days.

With portable eReading, the prices of the devices seem to be trending downward, while the cost of the content seems to be trending upward.

Many other people have commented on other problems and opportunities arising from the portable eReading revolution.  What will happen to the library lending model?  What is the fate of the right of first sale?  Publishers are trying to regain control over the pricing of the content by adopting the agency model, where the publisher sets the price and the vendor (Amazon, Apple, etc.) merely serves as the sales agent.  (http://www.idealog.com/blog/agency-seems-to-me-to-be-working-i-hope-its-legalPublishers don't like the idea of Amazon selling Kindle editions as a loss leader, even though that is common practice in other sectors of the economy.  Ever wonder why you have to walk the gauntlet down the candy, pop, and snack aisles in the grocery store to get to the meat, milk, and bread?  The Texas Attorney General has raised concerns about the legality of the agency model for selling ebook content.

Beneath all this, however, lies the fundamental fact that the costs of reading have become unbundled.  Anyone seeking a good, complete reading experience – or a close shave – should be wary.