More than 30 million people in the US have some kind of dedicated MP3 listening device including the almost 10 million iPods that have been sold since the product came on the market just three years ago.
Apple's iTunes online record store sold 100 million individual tunes in just over a year and has 70 percent market share.
Dozens of other online music stores have popped up allowing legal downloads of music for subscription fee and there are dozens more that are on the line of legal where people swap music.
Wal-Mart is offering songs at 88 cents.
E-bay is planning a site
Napster is no longer illegal.
Microsoft is opening it's own music store.
And then there are audio books.
There's very little out there other than the tried and true digital download of a book which is damn expensive with prices in the hardcover range.
Even with the deepest discounts, you don't get below trade paperback prices.
For a digital download.
Sites like Jiggerbug are trying different models that look promising indeed but they don't offer files for all devices and Librivox is interesting -- individual readers posting free chapters of books online for free downloads -- but will never become Napster.
It's all very reminiscent of 2000 when we were talking e-books 24/7.
Back then some of us were saying that as long as the industry kept the cost of those digital files in the hardcovers range, ebooks were going to remain marginalized. You just can't ask someone to pay as much for a digital file as you can for an object they can put on a shelf, save, reread, and pass around.
The e-text center at UVA offered ebooks for free and there were more than 10 million downloads in three or four years. People were willing -- even wanted to read online when the price was right. And indeed, if you look at the list of bestselling ebooks of 2005, only four are $14.99 or more. The majority are mass market prices or below.
Which brings me to Christmas and what I found under the tree -- a new iPod. The one with the spiffy video feature. (And in black no less.)
My new iPod has 60 gigs of space. That means I can load this baby with 2000 songs and 40 audio books and still have lots of room left over.
ME AND AUDIO BOOKS
I’m not thrilled with the state of my reading. I used to read three books a week before I was published. And before I was connected to the internet. And before I had a cell phone. And before I had a laptop. And before my television had 122 movie channels. And before there was Netflix.
But the competition ate into my reading time.
And then about five years ago I started listening to audio books with increasing frequency. I take them out for free from my library.
I listen on the treadmill, walking the dog, on the train into NYC, pretty much anytime anywhere.
I listen to one book a week and read one book every two weeks.
If not for audio I would be even less well read than I am.
Over the last few years, I've been introduced to dozens of writers including Greg Isles, Daniel Silva, Sarah Dunant, John Dunning, Zadie Smith, Sophie Kinsella, and revisited everyone from Henry James, Daphne DuMaurier, Philip Roth and Edith Wharton.
And so I was thrilled to get my spiffy iPod from Santa Baby. Until I went online to start downloading books but all I found were prices in the stratosphere, complicated websites, unimaginative presentations.
Nothing to write home about.
It reminded me of the early ebook days but worse.
The device to read a book on line still does not exist that equals a paper book. Sony's gonna try again and I hope they succeed. And yes, the ebook market is growing but it's still an alternative delivery system that has yet to be perfected.
But audio books have been perfected. They already work. And there is a huge audience who already own devices who could be listening.
Our industry could use this medium to introduce more authors to more readers. Our industry could be proactive and innovative about audio.
So why is my iPod still bookless two weeks post Christmas?
I won't pay the price that's being asked. I won't pay hardcover prices for a digital file. I won't even pay trade paperback prices. I believe that a digital book should cost about the same as a paperback.
Tomorrow I'm going to go to the library, take out three or four audio books for free and downloaded them myself onto my iPod.
So publishers will be out three or four potential sales.
Wouldn't getting $4.99 a download have been better than a no dollar download?
THE AUDIENCE IS THERE
30 million people have dedicated MP3 players.
75% of the country is connected to the internet.
Over 50% of that number is on high speed.
The number of people currently listening to audio books are grains of sand compared to the potential sales the industry is losing by sticking it to the reader, keeping the prices in the stratosphere and not being creative.
There are tens of thousands of audio books in print that are in the public domain and have already more than paid for themselves.
But there they sit, on library shelves, earning nothing.
Put them online for 99cents.
Or better yet, put them online for free.
No one will lose anything.
And we might just start to get more people listening.
Then there are tens of thousands of audio books in print that are not in the public domain but still have already more than paid for themselves with library and club sales. But there they sit in libraries earning no one nothing.
Put them online for $2.99.
As an author I know the value of the library. Someone can discover my work there for nothing - take me for a test drive - and perhaps the next time around they'll actually buy a copy of my next book. Or they'll keep taking me out of the library for free but they'll talk about me to their friends.
No one is worried about those free books in the library.
So why is everyone so worried about lowering the prices for digital books?
Is it better than five people buying the $18/$22 audio book and 100 people taking it out of the library for nothing?
Or is it better if 50 people buy that audio book for $5 and 50 people take it out of the library for nothing?
What about coming up with special deals to entice the book listener?
How about enabling authors to offer their readers an older backlist book chapter by chapter as a podcast serial to get readers excited about the author's work?
What about offering free back list titles when a new title is released?
What about bundling four authors for the price of one to introduce new authors to new readers. It doesn't cost the same as a printed book - no shipping, no handling, no printing, no returns.
If the industry keeps holding on so tight to their old ways, if the industry keeps protecting the royalty system that was created for paper books, if the industry keeps ignoring new media and new opportunities the industry won't be the only one to suffer.
And ultimately readers will.
And that doesn't sound all that terrific to me.