Forbes recently published this series of articles on the current state of book publishing as well as forecasts for the future. I found the ones by Cory Doctorow ("Giving It Away") and Ben Vershbow ("The Networked Book") to be the most interesting. Some thoughts on both:
Giving It Away
Most people who download the book don't end up buying it, but they wouldn't have bought it in any event, so I haven't lost any sales, I've just won an audience.
Excellent point, but one not many publishers are ready to accept just yet. We've experimented a bit with this in our own group at Wiley. For example, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel's Naked Conversations was written and commented about on a public blog. The book has done and continues to do quite well. Would we have sold more copies if something less than 100% of the content was available on the blog? I seriously doubt it. The blog was the primary publicity vehicle for the project and served us well. The reality is that we're all learning as we go on this front, but I definitely see the value of free content online; I'm not saying I'd do it for every project, but I see where it makes sense in many situations.
What is certain is that every writer who's tried giving away e-books to sell books has come away satisfied and ready to do it some more.
Another very good point. The only negative stories seem to come from all those rogue websites that somehow managed to post books without permission. Any project that I've been involved with where we deliberately provided full free access has always deemed a success.
I don't think it's practical to charge for copies of electronic works.
OK, here's where I disagree! Most folks know the paper, binding and other costs associated with making the physical book aren't the primary expense; it's everything else involved in authoring, editing, laying out, indexing, promoting, selling, etc., that cost the most. While I generally feel the price of an e-book should be less than the price of the the same printed book, there's no way that price needs to drop all the way down to zero. Further, although consumers have a wealth of free information at their disposal, that doesn't mean they'll never pay for e-content now or in the future. Prices have to adjust and publishers need to present a solid value proposition.
...but you can't force a reader to pay for access to information anymore.
Again, I disagree. But I'm not looking to force a reader to do anything! My goal is to offer them a product they find irresistible and want to spend money on!
The Networked Book
The individual author will be needed more than ever as a guide through the info-glutted landscape.
This excerpt got me thinking about the new role of the editor. Considering all the content available on any given topic today, an e-content editor should serve as more of a travel guide, flagging all the best reading stops along the way. That's also what many bloggers do today. For example, I read a lot of articles, blogs, etc., related to publishing and generally try to refer to only the best when I point to them from my blog; I greatly appreciate it when other bloggers do the same since it saves me a lot of time.