Squeezing the E-Turnip

By Tom Peters | Tom Peters Head Shot

Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal reported that Google and an unnamed publisher were having discussions about leasing access to e-books. The general idea is that users would pay approximately ten percent of the list price for the printed book to be able to read the e-book for one week. In other words, they're talking about a pay-per-circ digital lending library.

When it comes to new (and recycled) schemes for pricing e-books, November has been a "Katy-bar-the-door" month. Amazon and Random House announced separate plans to sell e-books in less-than-complete chunks, such as chapters. If we manage to get through the remainder of the month without any more turkey announcements like this, we'll have another cause for thanksgiving.

During my daily pre-dawn walk with Max my dog, I pondered all of these related developments. Max, as usual, had devoted his entire attention to the ambient olfactory sensations.

I decided to conduct a little thought experiment. Here's the question I posed to myself: If I were one of the big six publishers with lots of e-books and other e-content to lease or sell, what would be the most comprehensive pricing model I could construct to squeeze the most juice from my crop of e-turnips?

Here's my progress report: I would set up my pricing scheme as a multi-dimensional spreadsheet. The x-axis would be a continuum of sizes of content chunks, starting with a letter and progressing through words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, entire books, and series until we arrived at everything that had ever been written. In my thought experiment, my mental publishing firm suddenly had gained control over all written content, and the public domain had ceased to exist.

Please note that I did not attempt to place "snippet" on the x-axis. I may be an early-rising thought experimenter, but I'm not stupid.

The y-axis represented time, moving through the seconds, hours, days, weeks, years, decades, centuries, and millennia until reaching eternity, or as we like to say, "access in perpetuity." I suppose the subliminal advertisers would lobby for the nanosecond as a viable unit of time-sharing for e-content, but you get my point.

So far, so good. Each cell in this two-dimensional spreadsheet would contain a price. If you want to lease access to an entire e-book for a week, it will cost so much. If you want to own a copy of everything that has ever been written (with continuous updates, of course), we'll offer you easy payment terms at reasonable interest rates.

Then I remembered that in the reports of the report of the rumored discussions between Google and an unnamed publisher, other terms of use were being added to the stew, such as terms that prohibit downloading and copying of the e-book on loan. In my mental model that would require a z-axis to cover all the ways a reader can interact with a text. The continuum is not as neat as the continua for the x and y axes, but at one end would be "mere reading" and it would branch out to include downloading, transferring to one or more of the hundreds of portable devices, copying and pasting chunks, highlighting, underlining, glossing, etc.

But clustering of purchasers also requires another axis. Now we are beyond the easily comprehended three-dimensions. At one end of this axis sits the individual, the common reader. But my über-publisher also is willing to sell and lease e-content to immediate families, extended families, work groups, friends, all the registered users of a library, library consortia, all the citizens of a state, nations, continents, and the world. There may even be some squeezable revenue through sales and leases to other species. I glance at Max and detect a slight nod of approval for that last thought.

I probably would need yet another axis to cover all the other types of content that could be bundled with the "core" content I would be leasing or selling. I'm thinking about translations, audio versions, raw data sets, earlier editions, drafts, and the like.

By the time I reached the corner of 20th Street and Morningside Drive, my head was spinning. When the thought experimenters who had focused on the digital music industry had heard the music of the spheres, the result had been the beautifully pristine vision of the celestial jukebox. Why had my thought experiment about the e-book industry resulted in the spreadsheet from hell?

There is an old saying that you cannot squeeze blood from a turnip, which, according to the 3rd edition (2002) of The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy means that you cannot get out of people more than what they are willing or able to give. Perhaps my ultimate pricing scheme for e-books won't generate much revenue after all. Come to think of it, I don't even like turnips.