Picard's Syndrome

You probably suffer from an affliction. Millions of Americans share this affliction. I am doing my best to deliver you from it, but I am having only minimal success.

There may be a book inside you. There may be two. Because of the Internet revolution, it is now possible for you to publish your book online for almost no money. But if you do, you will come up against a major resistance factor. I call it Picard’s Syndrome.

Fans of the second generation of "Star Trek" aware that only two adults on the Enterprise ever read books: Commander Data and Captain Picard.

Data reads digital books online that flash past his eyes at lightening speed. He shifts his eyes back and forth rapidly across the pages. Why he doesn’t simply download the data directly into his positronic brain remains a mystery, rather like another major mystery, i.e., why the crew never wears seat belts when going into battle. (“Click it or ticket!”)

Captain Picard can occasionally be seen, sitting in his lounge chair in his stateroom, reading a book. The book is made of paper. It has a binding.

Captain Picard is an amateur archeologist. He collects ancient tools and implements of various kinds. He loves nothing more on his vacation than to spend a few days on some planet that was noted for its ruins.

As far as Star Trek was concerned, "books = ruins."

Picard, an eccentric, still reads books.

Today, millions of people still insist on reading physical books. They have a bias against e-books. This is Picard’s Syndrome.


Barnes & Noble recently announced that it is getting out of the e-book business. E-books don’t sell.

Why not? Think of an e-book’s advantages. It can be printed out for a penny a page. You can underline the printout, make notes in the margins, or file chapters in filing cabinets. You can use a three-hole punch to create a permanent book on your shelf — tall, but functional.

You can search the e-text for key words electronically. You can use your cursor and CTRL-C to extract sentences or paragraphs that can then be inserted into reports or term papers, word for word, without the necessity of proofreading the citation. You can use a free-form database to store pages or extracts. You can add keywords to this database for easy future searching. You can’t do any of this with a printed book.

Yet there is no well-known free-form database, over two decades into the microcomputer revolution. College students still buy 3×5 cards for note taking. The cost advantages of electronic reading, filing, and printing out are passed over in favor of books with bindings.

Book readers suffer from Picard’s Syndrome. If a book doesn’t have a binding — if it isn’t suitable for reading in bed — well, it just isn’t a real book. That’s what most book buyers believe.

Why isn’t an e-book a real book?

We are operating in terms of our youth. Books came in bound form. Publishers had to order 5,000 copies to get a good price — 5,000 copies in inventory. Five years ago, I had over 100,000 books in inventory. Then I gave up. I gave away all of them to a non-profit publishing firm. It took three semis, and the outfit now wishes it had never accepted the deal. I had at least $400,000 tied up in those books.

There is now print-on-demand technology: one book order at a time. The machine prints it, collates it, and binds it. Then the printing company mails it. The technology is great for sufferers of Picard’s Syndrome, but it still has not taken off commercially.


At the same time, I can sell an e-manual for over $100. Such a manual is typeset to look like a report: 13-point type, unjustified right-hand margins, and no binding. If it looks like a high-priced business report, I can charge what a physical business manual used to cost. It costs me virtually nothing to deliver it to the reader. The buyer downloads it, prints it out, and reads it. No problem.

It’s all in packaging. You can charge 5 to 10 times what a physical book would cost, deliver it free of charge, and avoid inventory. Sufferers from Picard’s Syndrome get instant emotional relief when they read the words, "special report." These words calm the sufferer. He types in his credit card number and downloads the document.

The document is not called a book, let alone an e-book. If it were an e-book, you would have to give it away.

An example is my manual on how to create a Yellow Pages ad that triples any existing ad’s response. Five to one is possible. The local Yellow Pages directory is the primary means of advertising for 95% of businesses. Yet only a handful of businessmen know how to design an effective Yellow Pages ad. This market is a small fraction of 1%. I face what economists call an inelastic demand curve. Revenues do not rise proportionally to a fall in price.

I sell my 88-page manual for $176 — $2/page. For a businessman who wants to make his Yellow Pages ad work, $176 is not much money. He pays that much every month, or even every week, to run his ad. As for everyone else, they would not pay me $17.60 for such a report. Most would not pay $1.76. They are not interested in writing Yellow Pages ads. So, I sell my manual to a tiny market at a high price — high in relation to what paperback books at Barnes & Noble cost.

Only a few people truly understand that the value of a book is the information it contains. Their buying habits prove this. They refuse to buy e-books. They think, "I’m paying for paper. So, the e-book ought to sell for $1." When it sells for $20, they refuse to buy. Ideas in digital form are not worth what the same ideas are worth in a bound book. Yet the seller’s cost of production ought to be irrelevant for the buyer. What matters is the value of the information. Similarly, his major cost is the time it takes him to read it.

They understand this with respect to computer software or music CDs or DVDs. They know that the cost of physical storage of digits is low: a 50-cent piece of plastic in a $1 plastic box. But they refuse to make the same mental transition when it comes to books. They suffer from Picard’s Syndrome.

This also applies to newsletters. Subscribers to paper-printed newsletters will pay $200 a year to be sent a monthly report by second-class mail, yet they will not pay $200 (or even $100) to receive the same information by e-mail within 10 minutes after publication.

Why? No one knows. Picard’s Syndrome produces irrational behavior.

There is one area where Picard’s Syndrome has been defeated: standard encyclopedias. The day of the $2,000, printed, years out-of-date, 20-volume encyclopedia is gone. It is now on a disk, updated yearly, for $89 or less. But the mental transition from encyclopedias to books, magazines, and newsletters has not taken place.


You can learn something about book-publishing from my experience.

In 1999, I paid a professional typesetter to typeset my magnum opus, a 1,300-page economic commentary on the book of Deuteronomy. Her bill was $13,000. To publish it in one hardback volume would have cost about $10 per copy if I ordered 5,000 copies, or $50,000. So, not counting shipping or inventory expenses, I would have had to pay $63,000 up front. That up-front expense is what keeps authors from publishing books.

I decided not to do this. I made the right decision. Earlier this year, I used a copy of WordPerfect 8, which I bought on eBay for $25, to retypeset my book. I used a larger type face, so it’s now 1,500 pages. I decided to publish it in three volumes.

I then used a $97 program, pdfFactory Pro, to convert my Word Perfect files to PDF format, which can be posted on the Web. This took me under six minutes, total, for all three volumes.

I then posted all three volumes/files on a Web site. This took a few minutes: under 10. Then I sent an e-mail to 3,000 subscribers telling of its existence. I offered all three volumes for free. People started downloading it.

I mentioned in my e-letter that sometime next year, I plan to publish all three volumes in hardback. I will use new technology: print on demand. It allows book sales, one copy at a time: printing, collating, and binding. Then the publisher mails out the physical book. The author gets a standard 15% royalty.

I immediately received a letter from someone saying that he was not going to download the books in PDF, which are typeset to look just like books. He would wait for the hardbacks.

Consider what he is saying. My ideas are worth reading only in a bound book. Apart from a bound book, he is unwilling to read what I have to say. He will wait for months, then pay a lot of money. Here is another case of Picard’s Syndrome.

I will charge at least $30 per hardback volume. I may charge $50. I will therefore get some buyers to spend $90 to $150 for the set. They could download the same books for free and print them out for $15, total. But they prefer to pay me 10 times as much in a year. Why? Picard’s Syndrome.

Are my ideas worth more in a bound book? For sufferers from Picard’s Syndrome, yes. These ideas are worth far more in dollars and sense. But they are the same ideas, bound or not bound. This does not matter in the slightest to some readers.


I offer this thesis. It is a holdover from pre-Internet times. Generations of book buyers for over 500 years have become accustomed to the idea that what makes a book valuable is the pre-publication screening, especially by censors.

This may sound crazy. Lovers of ideas joyfully paying for pre-publication censorship? Yet this is exactly what they did, and still do.


From the year 1450 until today, people have associated wisdom with printed books that have bindings. A book with a binding implied the following: (1) an editor, (2) a costly printing press, (3) a distribution system, (4) a publisher’s risk. A book required a lot of front-end costs. The reader assumed that a book had value because a publisher concluded, "this will make me money."

In a very real sense, the reader accepted the false idea of the labor theory of value. He paid money in order to compensate the publisher for his cost and risk. But then the equation got turned around: the value of the book was thought to be in its cost of production. This confusion was universal among economists until the 1870s, when a few of them finally figured out that the value of every item comes from people’s willingness to pay for the item, not from the item’s cost of production.

People suffering from Picard’s Syndrome have not abandoned the older view: economic value based on physical costs of production.

Then there was the issue of editors, i.e. screeners of ideas. A bound book was a surrogate for the reader’s input of prior intellectual evaluation. Someone else had done his screening work for him. Now all he had to do was pay for the book and read it.

The problem was, and still is, this system of publication requires intellectual gatekeepers. It is a system of censorship. It allows the State and other groups to control what the public reads. This means that the gatekeepers can control what people think, merely by cutting off access to politically incorrect material.

Picard’s Syndrome creates in its victims a longing for layers of hirelings, none of whom has ever written a book, each of whom declares "yes" or "no" with respect to the content of a book. These censors stand in between the author and his audience. They tell the author that "this book won’t sell unless you allow us to modify it." They tell readers, "we will screen out the useless, the ugly, and the politically offensive." To both, they say, "trust us."

Picard’s Syndrome is an affliction that is left over from the era of censors, i.e., pre-Internet. The Internet has created, for the first time in human history, an international society with almost no intellectual gatekeepers. An author can reach his readers without going through the labyrinth of printers and distributors. With Google, they can reach him.

Picard’s Syndrome is visible evidence that we readers not only trusted them, but we are also still unwilling to read a book that does not show signs of the censorship system. Print-on-demand publishing has not fared well because it offers no censorship.

In volume 3 of my book on Deuteronomy, I include a highly controversial essay, Appendix D. I prefer not to discuss its contents here. Let us say that an editor at any major book publishing firm probably would have asked me to drop it or modify it. Yet the essay is important for the overall thesis of my book. The only way for me to get the information into the hands of readers was by self-publishing. The cost of self-publishing is vastly lower this way.

In contrast, for specialized manuals, which imply inside information, readers will pay a bundle and download them. A special report is special. It isn’t supposed to go through layers of readers, editors, and all the rest of the censorship apparatus. No, it’s a direct link between the author and the reader. For this, readers will pay big bucks.

It’s all in the packaging.


Why do book readers want to hold a book in their laps? Because they want to touch and be touched. They want the intimacy of holding a book.

At some point, there will be book-sized electronic reading machines with screens that have the equivalent of a printed book’s 1,200 dots per inch. We will then insert a card or download a book. The book will be there for us to read any place or any time, page by page. We will be able to extract passages, mark them with keywords, and in other ways file them for future reference. But until the electronic reader looks like a book and feels like a book in our laps, Picard’s Syndrome will keep the product from selling well. It will be a gadget, unlike a printed book, which is a necessity.

At some point, public schools will require books on a disk. This will cut the costs of delivery and maintaining lists of students and books. Textbook production costs will fall. Then anyone can get into the field. The world of textbook publishing will cease to be a government-funded, textbook publisher oligopoly. We will then have a free market in textbook production. Well, not a free market, exactly, but something that some University of Chicago economist will call a free market: tax coercion coupled with lower costs of book production.

Okay, so I’m wrong. Public school textbooks won’t be on disk until long after the public has gone to digital lapbooks. But it sounded good, briefly.

There is a case for screening, of course: letting experts judge quality. But this is a service that publishing companies can charge for, based on productive services actually rendered. This screening will not be a function of printing and distribution technology. It will be part of editorial expertise. Those who want this can buy it. Those who prefer to get their books straight from the authors with no middlemen will be able to do so.

Basically, it’s a war between Matt Drudge and Jean-Luc Picard. When the editors at Newsweek spiked the story of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the editors relied on Picard’s Syndrome to shield the president. Matt Drudge within hours blew away that shield.

I am betting on Drudge and his imitators, but not before the death in the wilderness of the generation of Picard.

When newsletter readers think, "I’ll pay more for a newsletter because it’s delivered electronically in seconds," Drudge’s Syndrome will have replaced Picard’s Syndrome.

What about you? Which syndrome do you prefer, Drudge’s or Picard’s?


I like to go to Barnes & Noble. I like to buy books on a shelf. I especially like to buy steeply discounted books that did not survive the stiff competition of the market. I buy other people’s mistakes.

But if I had a book reading device that looks like a book, feels like a book, and lets me store (say) 500 books that are searchable by text or (at my discretion) keywords, Barnes & Noble can kiss me goodbye.

As for my 3,000 square foot library building and my 13,000 books, make me an offer. But not yet.

November 19, 2003

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com. For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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