Rates of Obsolescence

Lesley Ellen Harris’s Licensing digital content : a practical guide for librarians is available only in softcover. (Despite this, it is not a cheap book: this 161-page guide retails for $57.) The fact that there’s no hardcover edition for the book makes me wonder why it’s in paperback.

The most common reason for releasing a book in paperback is to price discriminate: publishers capitalize on the greater willingness to pay of readers who want to digest a book upon its initial release by selling them the expensive hardbacks. Only after the hardcover sales have flagged do publishers then put out the book in the cheaper softcover version to capture the  not-so-eager and more price-sensitive readers. However, this motivation is not at play when a book is available only in softcover.

There are other reasons to release a book only in softcover. For example, single-read books like mystery and romance novels are usually issued only in (mass-market) paperbacks. Harris’s book does not fall into this category. It is a how-to reference guide, and as such, can be expected to be consulted more than once by its readers. Books that must be sold for very cheaply, e.g. “airport novels”, are also produced as paperbacks. As mentioned before, Licensing Digital Content is not cheap, so absolute minimal production costs is not a constraint on the book’s publisher, American Library Association Publishing.

So why is Harris’s book only issued in softcover? The most plausible explanation that strikes me is the book’s expected fast obsolescence. As Harris writes in the introduction, “while reading this book, keep in mind that digital technology is rapidly changing and this may affect the way we license works in the digital environment”. Perhaps a fair translation for this statement is: “This book is a valuable guide but only a relatively short time. Please don’t expect an enduring classic“. As such, although the reader of the book may consult it multiple times, these consultations will be confined to a short number of years. Implication? No need to issue the book in a hardy hardcover.

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