If I Were A Gatekeeper

March 23rd, 2009 · 27 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Looking back, the worst part about the New Think panel at South by Southwest was not the lack of new thinking. It was the sense that the panelists didn’t have a plan for executing on the audience comments. There was no discussion, no follow-up questions, no suggestion that something would come from the audience-as-focus-group approach.

So with a bit of my eternal “once more with feeling” optimism, I’m going to lay out some of the issues and my thoughts on them. This is in no way an all-encompassing list, so feel free to add your own ideas. You may be helping to build the publishing company of the future.

  • Think Customer Service: From this moment forward, make every business decision with your end customers in mind. Every decision. Pricing. Format. DRM. Release strategy. Windows. Ask yourselves if what you’re doing is going to make it harder on people who buy and read books. When we talk about the competition, one thing you’ll note is that they are always innovating with the end customer in mind.

  • Understand the Competition: In this instance, I am going to focus narrowly on your online competition. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that the companies giving you the biggest headaches are not your fellow publishers. No, you’re grinding your teeth over businesses like Google and Amazon and Apple. Heck, probably even Twitter.

    These technology companies understand something basic: it’s all about the end user. They do crazy little things like open up their APIs to allow other businesses to add their own innovations, create better ways to use data, combine efforts rather than zealously guarding doors that would be better left wide open.

  • Stop Making It So Hard to Help You: You want my theory about why Apple didn’t move into the book business? Because they didn’t want the hassle of working with publishers. Trying to provide services that benefit the publishing business is hard work. You create enough hoops, and you’ll be bypassed in favor of companies and industries that embrace new ideas. Companies and industries that understand the importance of working with smart technologies. Companies and industries that see the benefit of working together rather than in silos.

  • Online Marketing Strategy: There are some great minds in publishing houses big and small, and those minds understand how marketing works in today’s media. Let that staff lead the way when it comes to interacting online. Banish anyone with the title of VP or above from room (unless three people can vouch for that person’s savvy). Kick out anyone who says “No”, “But that’s not how we do things”, or “That sounds like a lot of work.”

    Make bold moves. Instead of sending press releases, create actionable information. Embrace digital ARCs and make them portable enough that reviewers can actually read the things (one of those lovely service companies I mentioned above, NetGalley) already exists and wants to make a system like this usable for everyone. I figure you all could buy everyone on your reviewer lists an ereader, drop the endless shipments of papers books, and still save money.

  • Research. Development.: Start it, do it, come up with something beautiful.

  • Throw It All Out, Start From Scratch: In some ways the institution that is the publishing business is too entrenched to change. You’re fighting history, and history is kicking it. I think everybody in the food chain is going to have to accept change. It will be painful. But I don’t see how you can position for an even rockier, more uncertain future if you remain locked into past practices.

    It is a given that what we know today — from the bestselling authors to how bookstores are run to devices like the Kindle — will be different a few years from now. And different again a few years from then. Predicting the next hundred years is near-impossible. Those best positioned to change and innovate will survive. Those who aren’t will likely find themselves cut up and sold or limping along the fringes.

    It won’t always be pretty and the things you try may not always work. But if you do the business of the future with the mindset of the past, well, we all know what happened to the dinosaurs.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

27 responses so far ↓

  • Elizabeth Burton // Mar 23, 2009 at 10:09 am

    NetGalley is nice, but it’s also expensive for a small press on a tight budget. I can spend $200 per title doing a lot of other marketing directly to readers.

    What about posting first chapters on Scribd with info on how to request a full copy?

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 23, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Good point, Elizabeth (and I’m hoping Fran Toolan sees this. I know he wants to make NetGalley the best possible services for publishers and reviewers).

  • Mike Cane // Mar 23, 2009 at 10:41 am

    @Elizabeth Or tweeting the availability of an eBook review copy. I’m sick of being offered only print — which I decline.

  • Brian O'Leary // Mar 23, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    The e-galley discussion is worth its own thread, as NetGalley is a tool whose features could make its “cost” in practice an investment in building community.

    On the post overall, I endorse Kassia’s call for new thinking in publishing, starting with the reader. A thought that might bolster the “competition” section: the tech firms certainly are among those on the radar, but publishers would also be well served if they looked broadly at how their reading audiences spend their time online.

    At last year’s BEA, I gave a presentation, “How much is that web site worth?”, part of which looked at web sites dedicated to scrapbooking tools and templates. These online sites did lots of things that publishers do, including product sales, downloadable designs, shared (community) designs, subscription sales and more.

    Publishers in this space may not see them as part of their universe, but I argued (and still argue) that they are part of the fabric (okay, one pun) of the competitive landscape.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Good point, Mike.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 23, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Yay, Brian (we allow two puns per comment, if said comment is insightful). Your argument is absolutely correct. In previous cranky post, I noted that the New Think panel was speaking to a room filled with publishers (also known, if I recall my business classes correctly, as competition). In my zeal to make the broader point about tech companies and their focus on the end user, I neglected other types of competition. Your scrapbooking example is particularly excellent as members of my extended friend pool have built a successful brand and community in this space. This, of course, leads to the idea that the published book can be an extension of an already successful brand (see: Jason Fried).

  • MikeShatzkin // Mar 23, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Kassia,
    Your last response understates the point and the opportunity for publishers.
    Not only “CAN the published book be an extension of an already successful brand”, it should be a part of the brand extension strategy for every successful brand. That’s the publisher’s leverage to be valued as a member of online communities. It should be employed more widely.

  • Yen Cheong // Mar 23, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks for your suggestions, Kassia. It certainly can be tricky balancing the needs of both the publishing house and the reader.

    We’re all up against some thorny issues when it comes to digital publishing — pricing, formats, DRM, etc. — that won’t quickly be resolved (although we can try and hope). For now, I’d be happy with baby steps like providing egalleys / ebooks to reviewers who request them.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 23, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Oh yes, Yen, it is tricky. Even at my crankiest, I’m looking at that delicate balance. But I’m also looking at the horizon (and, ahem, having been part of corporate culture for far too long…even when you’ve retired from the business, you get sucked back into the mind-set amazingly fast), and think there’s a limit to reader patience for the resolution of some of these issues (and mine are just mine, I’m sure there are others). This is why I think it’s critical to consider the competition. They’re not tied to legacy baggage…which is good and bad. What seem like simple solutions to old problems often have a way of backfiring!

    I’m kind of (after thinking about this today) wondering about the publishing equivalent of commando squads (sort of like HarperStudio). Test kitchens where innovation and new ideas are tried, refined, adopted, abandoned. Publishing houses still have to manage the weight of legacy and current business, and can’t be as nimble as my fantasy world would like. I don’t believe big publishing is going away (but it could change due to parent company obligations), but, when looking at the squeeze from various competitors, see that traditional approaches to solving thorny issues can prolong the problem. If there were in-house groups that could provide proof-of-concept, it might help cut through the red tape.

    If not less red tape, then maybe fewer meetings….

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 23, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Mike, I keep wanting to agree with you absolutely, but then get stuck on the idea that the book is not always the product. I think you know what I mean. Then I twist around and look at how a book can be rethought and come back to agreeing with you. So, you’re right (and no fair nit-picking language when I’m in the ugly underbelly of looking at scan-based trading documents…they throw me off my game!).

  • Remembering English // Mar 24, 2009 at 10:05 am

    [...] followed up with another post yesterday on the same topic — it’s great food for thought, not only for publishers but for [...]

  • Brian O'Leary // Mar 24, 2009 at 10:28 am

    I wouldn’t change any of your post, Kassia. I offered the scrapbooking example as an online example that might “feel” more accessible to a book publisher, but the tech firms do provide credible benchmarks for access, utility and end-user satisfaction.

  • Fran Toolan // Mar 24, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Kassia,

    first thanks for the callout. 2nd a response to the expense… NetGalley is free for up to 5 titles if a publisher wants to experiment.

    We know the $x/title model is terrible. It doesn’t matter whether x= $2, $200, or $2000. We’re open to any valid discussion about how to price this service – as long as its free to readers.

    There is a cost of doing business, especially when we live in such a turbulent world – which is underscored by the ‘delicate balance’ comment. Each publisher is in a different place vis-a-vis technology, DRM, and even how they want to approach readers.

    It’s our hope that reader demands for electronic communications about pre-publication titles will galvanize the publishing community into some defacto standards of operations.

    I think we all feel the pressure of those demands growing… at least I hope the publishers do.

  • KatG // Mar 24, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Alrighty, some good ideas here, but lets run some counters:

    Concentrate on the end customer — can’t always. One of the big problems the book business has is that physical non-bookstore markets have been reduced because the wholesale business collapsed in the 1990′s (also hurting newspapers and magazines,) and places like grocery stores won’t carry much in the way of books now. Rather than focusing just on book customers, publishers have to find a way to get non-bookstores to take their stock and increase the retail market number of vendors, making books more visible to customers. Online stores like Amazon that can sell tons of stuff as well as books have the advantage over bookstores until publishers can do this. And online retail is going to be a limited market as long as Amazon is practically the only game in town.

    While other publishers can be competition, bigger headaches occur for publishers by retail monopolies like Amazon and Google. Amazon wants to be an electronic publisher and make publishers dependent on selling only to them electronically, cutting into the publishers’ market there. They regularly twist publishers’ arms on price discounts and shipping charges. That doesn’t make Amazon evil; it makes them savvy, but publishers have to counter moves by companies like Amazon and Google that limit their online market, not help it.

    Another problem is that the tech industry tends to have a lot of money that they are used to throwing around and don’t understand why the book publishers don’t do it too. But book publishing hardly ever has any money. Apple doesn’t want to be heavily in book publishing because the profit margins are horrifically small, the returns system makes it worse, and advertising doesn’t bring enough returns. They come in enthusiastic, but when they discover that books are a tiny market that can’t operate like a gaming company, they turn around and leave.

    Book publishers pay their marketing people squat compared to other industries. Big bold online campaigns — can’t afford them. Research and development — can’t afford it and certainly can’t afford competent, trained people to staff it, plus there’s no system in the marketplace to do the demographic and other research specifically for books. (Bookscan is relatively new and incomplete.) They make marketing forays, but they’re cheap forays.

    Should they spend more? Yes, but the ways that they will have to spend and market their wares will be distinctive to books, not other industries, because it is an odd market with a low rate of profit by necessity, and so publishers are (too slowly perhaps) experimenting there. Should they try to get tech companies in partnership? Yes, but they’re going to have to come up with ways to entice tech companies since they can’t afford to pay them as much as other industries. And they are going to have to figure out how to get more books in more stores and either make the returns system work for them or get the booksellers to agree to get rid of it. (Again, having to deal with the booksellers, not the end customer.)

    A while back, author Paulo Coelho teamed up with Hewlett Packard to run ads all over the Internet for a contest that marketed Coelho’s novel The Witch of Portebello and HP’s film-making computers. HP had the money to do that kind of advertising, with benefits for both them and the author. I don’t know who set that up — Coelho or the publisher, though my money is on Coelho and his agent doing it — but we need a lot more of that sort of thing in book publishing. And that’s going to be a matter of talking cash rich behemoths like HP into doing it and paying for most of it for joint advertising of products, as well as trying to please electronic book customers.

  • L // Mar 25, 2009 at 9:45 am

    QUOTE: Embrace digital ARCs and make them portable enough that reviewers can actually read the things (one of those lovely service companies I mentioned above, NetGalley) already exists and wants to make a system like this usable for everyone. I figure you all could buy everyone on your reviewer lists an ereader, drop the endless shipments of papers books, and still save money. END QUOTE

    I run a literary web site that offers, among other things, book reviews. I used to get notices –lots of notices — from NetGalley, but found several problems. One was the constant influx of e-mails, several a day. The second was that most of those e-mails concerned books that were either self-published or vanity-published or were books in genres where I had indicated no interest when I registered. The lack of attenton to my preferences was sufficiently annoying that I asked to be removed from the list.

    As for digital review copies, we do not accept them. We work online, we answer mail online, we feel as if we are online much of the time. So we have specifically stated that we will not accept them.

    I realize this will be perceived as good by many, but not everyone will fall in line. We are at the edge of a major change, but things cannot simply be converted to digital this and digital that without accommodating some financial and editorial facts. Where will the money come from?

  • Venusian // Mar 25, 2009 at 11:23 am

    “So we have specifically stated that we will not accept them.” ( digital review copies ) I imagined you standing there stomping your foot as you said that. You ask about the money, but you want them to spend more to send you a copy.

    You need to listen to Lou Anders interview on “if you’re just joining us” at http://louanders.blogspot.com/ about books, publishing and technology. He’s getting things done.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 25, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    L — you don’t say what site you’re running, but if your policy is to not accept digital arcs, that’s your policy. We’re seeing increased interest on the part of publishers to offer digital galleys and catalogs, in response to cost concerns and reviewer requests (personally, I don’t want hard copy books). NetGalley is, under its new ownership, evolving, and they are open to feedback from reviewers. As someone who is constantly bombarded for reviews from people who clearly don’t understand this site or my preferences when I do review, I don’t think that you can control the lack of common sense in others. If a system is developed that can, sign me up!

    Books are, however, almost always in digital format when they’re received by publishers — either submitted that way or living that way on the author’s computer. It is the rare author who uses a typewriter or handwrites a manuscript.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 25, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    KatG — I’m afraid I’m not following your logic on the concentrating on the end user thought. It seems like the arguments you’re making are precisely why thinking about the reader is critical. Can you clarify? (it’s me, not you!). In a time of increased consumer fragmentation — we have so many demands on our time — it seems like devoting time and energy to R&D, smart marketing, consumer experience is the key to retaining current customers while expanding that base to new readers.

  • KatG // Mar 25, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    No, it’s probably me!

    The book market lost non-bookstore vendors, not because customers weren’t buying but because vendors cut their print wholesale orders and how they handled orders, and the number of wholesalers shrank to a tiny number. So before publishers can deal with customers, they have to deal with grocery stores. They’ve lost ground with vendors and this makes books less visible to customers. And online, there aren’t enough strong vendors yet either. They first have to work out terms and distribution with retailers and deal with the consignment system. Unlike, say, Levi jeans or Apple computers, publishers don’t own some stores of their own to sell products directly to consumers. Nor do they control much of distribution. They have to deal with the middlemen before even getting to the customers in order to reach the customers. Essentially they first have to convince businesses to sell books, rather than concentrating mainly on getting customers to buy them.

    While R&D, marketing campaigns and consumer focus groups are part of most industries, they aren’t part of book publishing. They can’t afford them, they can’t afford the people who do them, and many of the usual marketing efforts have proved not effective with fiction, which sells chiefly on word of mouth and can’t be packaged like non-fiction. And the profit margins on book publishing are so slim that other companies that could do these things as business partners end up getting out of book publishing. Book publishing just isn’t a very attractive investment, even with a willing publisher.

    So everything in book publishing is slow, conservative, with minimal expense and not very sophisticated technology. They mostly let the authors try things on their own dime to see what works. It helps if you realize that while authors type novels on computers, only a few years ago, they didn’t turn in the novels as computer files, but as paper ms., which was edited with pencils, not a computer program. Electronic ARC’s are a new thing. Websites are a new thing.

    For instance, just four years ago, Tor Books — an international publisher — had an utterly awful website, just some text lists put up without even cover art. Then they got a website update as part of Macmillan so that they were more functional. And then they also launched Tor.com, which is a SFF social site, with columnists, free short fiction, reviews, message boards, etc. This has been very successful and is now being copied by other publishers. But in tech terms, it’s pretty minimal.

    Which is why I just giggled when the tech folk expressed outrage that a panel of publishers had no glorious online marketing plans, but instead, were hoping that the tech audience would give them some help for free. Of course they hoped it would be for free — tech people are expensive.

    The tech world’s astonishment that a book publisher doesn’t operate like Sony doesn’t help usher book publishing into the future. Book publishing needs cash, which means advertising partnerships for joint products like the Coelho-HP hook-up, not just books alone. There’s stuff publishers could try, as you suggest. They could bundle e-book versions and print versions of titles together. But first, they’re going to have to deal with Amazon’s attempt to keep publishers dependent on Kindle for e-publishing and Kindle on DRM. And they have to do everything on a shoestring budget. Instead of think big, they have to think what’s the most cost effective return. This does not lead to much tech experimentation.

  • L // Mar 26, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Venusian, no, sorry to disappoint, but I did not stomp my foot. I wasn’t even annoyed let alone angry when I posted. I was simply adding my views.

    Kassia, the reviewers’ end, as we all know, is different from the publisher’s end. And I agree (with a smile) that you cannot control the lack of common sense in others. Like you, we have our preferences. I understand and sympathize with the need of publishers to control costs, but our reviewers whose ages range from early thirties to late fifties, all have a dislike of digital copies. And I agree.

    I am not opposed to digital in its myriad uses–certainly our site is part of the online revolution–but when it comes to reading, whether for personal pleasure or professional reviewing, it has to be print. Because I just need to get away from the virtual world regularly.

    Oh, and thank you for the news about NetGalley. I may give them another try.

  • Lemnisk // Mar 26, 2009 at 11:23 am

    KatG,

    Even if a publisher pays for a nifty website, certain aspects of the infrastructure of the publisher (its model for accepting, processing, and acquiring ms.-submissions, marketing and distribution tactics, and general working philosophy) urgently need updating. And I’m not speaking as a member of the “tech world,” nor am I even really addressing ebooks v. print: I spent the same amount of time in the Nineties and Twenty-First Century as the publishers in question, was educated by the same apparatus that educated the children of their editors and CEOs, and have difficulty understanding the mind behind such a statement as Kassia recorded, “This is all new to us.” Read Walter Mossberg’s column in the WSJ, for God’s sake, visit Yahoo! or any of the other AP/Reuters-disseminators. Sit on the Metro, the El, the T, any public transit system with or without a nickname. Where are they living, that they have no inkling? It’s true that generations tend to misunderstand or confuse each other, but this is the next phase of their own business, not glow-in-the-dark rollerblade wheels or slap bracelets.

    More than a small, highly-specialized subculture (“tech folk”) is concerned about this. This concern is not ill-measured or excessively impatient. Of course change takes time and requires thoughtful strategizing and education on new tools and methods. The issue is not that they aren’t immediately where some group wants them to be, it’s that many of them aren’t trying to move forward at all. I’m even encouraged when I see someone like HC trying out their new imprint, as odd as I think it is. At least they’re doing something.

    If it is indeed the case that publishers can’t afford to explore new technology, then those publishers will be replaced by or broken up into entities that can. The most distressing part of Amazon’s and Google’s increasing dominance over book digitization and bookselling is that they’re run, and many/most publishers are not, by people familiar with present/future technology, who have made their fortunes and business on a model that requires their remaining constantly on the cusp, and hardly ever in the actual moment of fruition. Like KatG has said, this isn’t evil, this is business savvy: I worry that the problem publishers have with mobilizing R&D divisions or reorienting their distribution networks, or whatever, will lead to the absorption of some of them into Amazon or Google before the changing of the guard at head-level. For some reason that makes me very nervous.

  • KatG // Mar 28, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I agree about websites and share your frustrations. Publishers need to do a lot of things they aren’t doing, although they’re doing more than a lot of people think they are. It’s just that a lot of the channels of their business are not electronic, and their industry is reactive, not pioneering. It won’t move at the same speed as other industries, no matter how much you shout at it.

    And a lot of people involved in technology don’t understand the situations book publishers are dealing with and the way the business is structured. I was reading a tech “guru’s” essya that lumped literary agents in with real estate agents and talent agents, and who suggested that literary agents should say no to more prospective clients (literary agents say no to 98% of the writers who contact them,) and specialize in niche areas (all literary agents specialize, but not always exclusively because there’s not enough money in doing so.) So this guy clearly knew nothing about the business and how it is different from movies or real estate, which is often the case. Kassia does know about book publishing, but others come roaring in outrage about book publishing without any understanding of things like the peculiar distribution system.

    Publishers can’t mobilize R&D divisions because they don’t have any R&D divisions. They can’t afford them and the type of one they’d need is very different from what R&D divisions are in other industries. Harper’s imprint is essentially sort of a small test R&D lab, and is the kind of thing publishers can do. If it works, other publishers will copy it. Eventually, they hope to get rid of the returns system altogether.

    But they can’t reorient their distribution system just because it isn’t working so well. They have to convince their vendors to agree to changes, with vendors who are often monopolies. And don’t want to get rid of the returns system. They borrowed just in time delivery from the music business in the 1990′s and that sort of worked and sort of didn’t.

    If they don’t get on the ball, other industries are not going to step in and take over the business because those industries don’t want the business. It’s too small, too difficult, too lacking in profit, too idiosyncratic, too resistant to advertising strategies, too little growth, etc. Publishers may be replaced by other publishers, but they won’t be replaced by Sony.

    Amazon and Google don’t want to own book publishers. They don’t want to make books, they want to profit off them. Amazon does want to be a premiere electronic publisher, but it doesn’t want to have to own Random House to do that. And it has no interest in sharing its tech expertise with Random House so that Random House will be more efficient. It wants Random House humbled and dependent and handing over product at a cheap price. And Google I think wants nothing to do with publishers at all.

    Either publishing shrinks or it goes forward. Right now, they’re working at going forward while shrinking. They have no tech staff, they can’t get tech staff, and being tech familiar is not enough. They probably won’t die off, but they’re behind other industries and they’ll stay behind. They will always be a small, low profit, low growth industry, even if print completely dies off, which won’t happen for quite awhile. They put too much of the PR responsibility on the shoulders of the authors. They need to be less dependent on retail booksellers. And they need to get their ass in the game, but they won’t stop being cautious.

  • KatG // Mar 29, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Sorry to doublepost, but I just got to read the blog entry from the Bloomsbury guy who was on the infamous panel (and is also a bookseller, which is a bit unusual,) and comments on that blog, including Kassia’s. And quite clearly, this was Penguin doing a half-assed attempt to further publicize their author at the conference, asking publishing people to be on the panel who had no clue what they were supposed to be doing on it, and certainly not about how the panel was marketed to attendees. The author being publicized was then put in charge of the panel, which was a huge mistake, not the least because the author doesn’t seem to know much about book publishing. In fact, it sounds like the whole thing turned into a self-publishing versus publishers debate, which was utterly unnecessary.

    I’d kind of like to change the conversation here by asking Kassia a question — you seem to be putting forward that publishers need to standardize electronic formats and get rid of DRM. I totally agree with that, and as far as I’m aware, most of the publishers agree with the standardization and go back and forth on DRM a bit because of pirating, but are mostly leaning toward dumping it because they want a wider number of electronic publishers and vendors to sell to. But right now, book publishers don’t control DRM — companies like Amazon do. And it’s difficult for them to standardize electronic formats because they don’t design the formats — the companies making e-readers and e-books do. It’s not like the dinosaur CD-ROM days when the publishers were trying to be the e-publishers too. So how should publishers work it, given that they seem to have little control over what’s happening except for selling the rights?

    If the answer is the sort of thing you get paid for in consulting, feel free to tell me you’re not answering here. I’m just curious and trying to learn more. Your blog is extremely helpful on the digital aspects of publishing.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 29, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    The good news is…I don’t consult for publishers, so I am perfectly happy to have this conversation (and if I were consulting for publishers, I’d still be happy to answer this question — especially since it allows me to avoid, for a few more minutes, the laundry!).

    There’s a bit of circularity when it comes to DRM. Vendors say it’s the publishers, the publishers say it’s the authors, the authors, well, they’ve been told for over a decade that the evil pirates are out there to steal their work. The truth is, everybody is complicit. Everyone hates DRM, but I’m not hearing that anyone, especially big publishing houses, is looking to eliminate it. Jeff Bezos has told me (and Kirk who wrote the article) that the Kindle is DRM-agnostic (meaning you can have or not, it’s the seller’s choice). Personally, I think this is careful phrasing, because format is a form of DRM. If you cannot read a Kindle book on your Sony Reader, it’s a way of managing (Amazon’s) digital rights.

    (The Kindle does support a variety of non-Kindle formats, so if standards were utilized to the point where digibook retailers sold books in an open enough manner that consumers could port their purchases to the Kindle — provided that said format was supported — that is one solution to the closed system problem. Going the other way is a bit trickier, especially since I do not have a comprehensive grasp of the technical mumbo jumbo; when it becomes necessary, I bribe Kirk with wine to explain the concepts in little words until I understand.)

    So we need to reverse the chain. But let’s start with this: I am not opposed to DRM, per se. I don’t believe it works, at least not as intended, but I can see positive aspects and uses. Most people do no know what DRM is, but they know there is something coming between them and their legal purchases. Make DRM better for consumers and consumers will love you. It’s not stopping piracy. Withholding rights is not stopping piracy. Think of a better way. So teach authors the truth about DRM so they can make informed decisions about how to license their work (author Naomi Novik has felt our pain and discussed on NPR). Publishers can then enforce standards — such as the EPUB standard — on device makers. The hardware will not limit anyone’s capability, and, just as other operating systems are regularly update, so can the operating systems for devices (there are technical things here I’ll let smarter minds explain).

    This is oversimplifying the process because Amazon will still sell books in the proprietary Kindle format, because it has a vested interest in tying the consumer to the Amazon store. But Amazon is not the only game in town (nor the world) and if other devices and other retail outlets are perceived as more reader-friendly, readers will adopt them (there is a reason people are talking up the Sony Reader); this could exert the right kind of pressure on Amazon. We’re seeing a huge uptick in ereader technology, and it’s going to turn into a mad mess if such issues as interoperability and portability are not addressed right now. There is nothing like market competition to create necessary pressure on closed systems. The worst thing the publishing industry can do is create the same kind of confusion the music industry did — it was like the music folks had meetings with the goal of making it impossible for people to buy and listen to music. You want to increase piracy? Come between a dedicated reader and her book.

    For my money, the smart thing for publishers to do is to utilize the standards in place (not perfect, not by a long-shot, but standards evolve. Slowly.) and focus on selling the book, not the format. They can also pressure device makers and retailers to make consumer-friendly choices (number one on the list!). Publishers aren’t letting just anybody sell their books because they want to make sure DRM is “protecting” (and the quotes are deliberately sarcastic) digital books. If I came in with an awesome, price conscious, magic ereader to go with my store that sold only DRM-free products, I wouldn’t get through the front door. Publishers (rightly) want to protect their products.

    Long-winded answer with lots of thoughts flying in and out. I’m sure I’ve missed pieces and concepts and notions, but think I’ve made a start on answering your question. Or I hope I have. I truly believe that the successful (digital) publisher of the future will maintain a reader-centric focus, meaning the focus is on user experience, not locking doors after the animals have escaped. Book, not format. Ease-of-use, not proprietary. This also goes for device makers.

  • KatG // Mar 30, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    Okay, that’s very helpful, thanks. The claim that authors are a big problem in it is largely bunk, I’d guess. Unless the authors retained electronic rights and sold them directly to Amazon — which is happening but only in a small percentage — then the authors usually have no contractual say on how the publisher licenses the electronic rights. So it’s the publishers chosing the DRM option most of the time.

    I agree with you totally about ease of use, but I’m not sure what the answer is. With iTunes, we are able to play files on our computer, and burn CD’s, not just the iPod. (I don’t even listen to an iPod.) We bought the song, we own the recording. The iPod is also quite useful as a portable hard drive device, and stores other things like video, books, etc. It may have initially made its big push on DRM, but now it dominates the market on the basis of ease of use. And new devices — it’s the multi-service — games, music, books, newspapers, video, Internet/e-mail, camera/photos, and the ability to transfer such files from the handheld to the laptop to the desktop to someone else through the Net. That’s where we’re going, right? And that’s when I’ll buy one.

    Book publishers will go along with it. Most authors I know are eager to do it. They get maybe six weeks to six months in a bookstore to make a splash. Electronic format offers them a whole new way to go. But book publishing is definitely not going to be making the multi-tasking e-readers, and probably not the POD either. They aren’t filters and gatekeepers.

    And print books need to be bundled with electronic format editions. People want both. That’s what I’d like to see publishers working on. It would help them with the piracy concerns a bit too.

  • Peter Jurmu // Mar 31, 2009 at 9:00 am

    There are already applications that pull files from portable media players (they’re not really just ‘mp3 players’ anymore, are they?) and convert them into any format you wish, but nothing ‘legitimate.’ I suspect that Apple’s banishment of DRM from iTunes is contingent on their agreement to avoid implementing such features. That old argument that ‘burning/ripping is like recording to cassette’ is already haggard, and I can imagine labels (and Apple, and everyone else production-side, really) balking at the prospect of 2,000+ songs or movies books or whatever else, but no money, exchanging hands via iTunes. Put it this way: if they wanted you to do it, you’d already be doing it.

    Amazon would love to have the same sort of success with the Kindle that Apple has had with the iPod, and by the same means (DRM famously made it impossible for iTunes purchases to be played on any other device, etc.). And in a way that sort of confinement does build brand loyalty if your brand is the best around (at the moment) and people would be buying your product anyway. But with Sony’s eReader stealing attention (and readers), and the uncertainty in a considerable fraction of the market about ebooks in general, competition renders DRM as much a prison for the retailer that wants to prevent piracy as the consumer considering piracy.

    What Kassia says is in line with leveler heads: ‘Books, not format.’ Forest, not trees.

  • Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - Links for 2009-04-03 // Apr 3, 2009 at 5:17 am

    [...] If I Were A Gatekeeper "These technology companies understand something basic: it’s all about the end user. They do crazy little things like open up their APIs to allow other businesses to add their own innovations, create better ways to use data, combine efforts rather than zealously guarding doors that would be better left wide open." Talking publishing, but could be talking racing. (tags: media publishing technology) [...]