Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

"Final Jeopardy" Question: Would You Buy an E-Book Without an Ending?

Stephen Baker has a great story to tell you. He just won’t tell you how it ends, yet.

It’s about IBM’s years-long effort to build a computer smart enough to beat the world’s best “Jeopardy” players. And we’ll know how it turns out next month, when the quiz show airs a series of pretaped matches between Watson–IBM’s machine–Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, “Jeopardy”’s most successful champions.

But Baker and publisher Houghton Mifflin aren’t waiting for the end of the show to start selling the tale.

You can buy an e-book version of “Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything” via Amazon or Barnes & Noble today, and start reading immediately–you just won’t get the last chapter, about the climactic battle.

Then in mid-February, immediately after the face-off has aired, the booksellers will send readers the end of the book, either beamed directly into their e-readers or shipped to their PCs.

(And if you’re into delayed gratification, or paper and ink, you could also just wait till mid-February to buy the complete edition in hardcover.)

Novel, right? Sort of. For e-books, the serial approach is a new one, and both booksellers had to be coaxed into doing it.

But selling books on an installment basis is a really old idea, dating back at least to the 1800s, when greats like Balzac and Dickens used to serialize their stories. New Yorkers supposedly gathered at the docks to ask incoming passengers for updates on Dickens’s characters.

And perhaps we’re headed back that way, since digital media allows creators to put out work in as long, or short, a format as they’d like, at whatever pace they want.

Amazon is already playing around with this with its clever “Kindle Singles” format, which sells mini e-books (i.e., novellas or long magazine articles) at mini prices.

And in Baker’s case, the strategy theoretically allows him to piggyback on a wave of publicity that IBM and “Jeopardy” are generating in advance of the shows. If you watched the NFL playoffs this weekend, there’s a good chance you saw, or at least fast-forwarded past, this spot:

Now the trick is to figure out how to turn that kind of media into book sales, which isn’t a given.

But Baker’s a clever guy–prior to writing this book, he was a longtime BusinessWeek writer and editor, and spent the last several years of his tenure covering technology–so I give him decent odds. He was able to get me to write this piece, for starters….


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work