Economists and others talk about the free rider problem:
"free riders" are those who consume a resource without paying for it, or pay less than the full cost of its production. Free riding is usually considered to be an economic "problem" only when it leads to the non-production or under-production of a public good (and thus to Pareto inefficiency), or when it leads to the excessive use of a common property resource. The free rider problem is the question of how to limit free riding (or its negative effects) in these situations.
I take free rides on many, many conveyances. For example, I listen regularly to public radio but have never given them money and in fact am philosophically opposed to doing so. I am not opposed to the existence of public radio, and in fact am glad to benefit from it while it is there. But I am also careful not to become attached to it in any way. As long as it is there I am happy to partake, but if it disappeared tomorrow I would find something else to listen to, or simply occupy myself with my own thoughts.
For many years I have ridden for free on the excesses of publishing companies, simply by haunting remaindered book tables. No publisher makes money on a remaindered book; those books are their mistakes, although they are calculated mistakes—publishers expect a certain percentage of their titles will fail to sell. Once upon a time booksellers did not have to count unsold books as taxable inventory, and so they could keep them in stock indefinitely. Then the tax laws changed, and suddenly it cost taxes year to year to keep an unsold book, and so reasonably enough bookstores started clearing books from their shelves the moment they stopped selling in quantity.
Thus began the golden age of remaindered books, when I could expect to buy just about any hardcover book for a few dollars six months or a year after it was released. I always waited, and now I own many of those books. Neither the publisher nor the author saw a penny of what I paid for them. But again, I am not attached to remaindered books. If the situation changed tomorrow, I would find another way to stock my library.
For those of you who treasure a well-stocked library as much as I do, I’d like to suggest that we’ve all been riding for free on a historical trend that isn’t all that old and looks like it may be about to end. Up until the middle of the 19th century a book was a rare and expensive thing. Thomas Jefferson stocked his library in large part by not paying his bills. Subscription libraries provided important access to books for well-read people, and the cost of belonging was prohibitive. Only a select few owned books in any quantity.
Books only became readily available when (1) high-speed machines were invented that could print them in huge quantities, and (2) publishers figured out what sorts of writing could be sold in great enough quantities to keep the presses running efficiently. Mass production makes the individual product affordable, but only sales of mass quantities can cover the cost of mass production. In 2003 I had 2000 copies of a 160 page paperback book printed for roughly 50 cents apiece (plus a $2000 initial change just to get them to turn on the printing press!).
But the printer was not catering to me; I was simply a blip on their screen, a way for them to make a few extra bucks by giving me a tiny sliver of their capacity. Their plant was filled with very expensive, highly specialized machines designed to efficiently produce copies of one title by the hundreds of thousands. It existed because there were many titles which hundreds of thousands of people would buy. If there were not a market for multi-hundred-thousand press runs, that plant would not have been there to give me a tiny sliver of its capacity. Printing would be more like it was in Ben Franklin’s day, and he would have charged me much more than 50 cents per copy to print my book.
Just as I was riding for free on the machinery set up to publish books for the mass market, my readers were riding for free. If my only option were to have Ben Franklin print my book, I could not have afforded 2000 copies, and my customers would not have been able to buy the book for $15. I can’t even guess what the price would have been in 2003 dollars; you’ll need to pick a number which would be so high that people would have to join together and form an expensive subscription library just to buy a copy to share around. The person who paid $7.95 for the latest James Patterson thriller was making it possible for me to have the book printed at all, and for you to put a copy on a shelf of your own personal, well-stocked library.
Curiously enough, as the need for large quantity high-speed printing comes to an end (being replaced by digital text), another technology may come into play just soon enough to serve the people who still want printed books, namely print-on-demand. It is now possible to submit your book to a service such as Amazon CreateSpace who will print copies as they are purchased, one at a time. The quality is very good. The cost is higher than with large-quantity traditional printing, about $8 per copy compared to 50 cents. But since a traditional publisher is not taking their very large cut, the price to the reader can be competitive.
And then there is the Espresso print-on-demand book machine, which can print a 300-page book in 7 minutes at a cost of 1 cent per page. Imagine one of these installed at your local independent bookstore, able to print you a copy of an ebook for just a few dollars.
Inexpensive printed books were an accidental luxury, and the technology which created them is about to disappear. And just because we’ve come to view this particular luxury as an entitlement is no guarantee that social and technological trends would continue to cater to it. So let’s be grateful that someone has found a way to serve the much smaller niche market that the print book market is about to become.