For your reading enjoyment, I have compiled a list of about a dozen things that will not save publishing. I have also created a brief list of things that will save publishing. As always, neither list is comprehensive, and I reserve the right to add items if I think of something while I’m in the shower.
For what it’s worth, publishing is alive, well, and bigger than ever! It’s obvious we’re seeing more creativity, more innovation, more ways of connecting people and reading. When we talk about “saving publishing”, we need to be very clear. We are talking about book publishing as we know it, and we are talking about a specific element within the traditional publishing business model.
Things That Will Not Save Publishing
The Mythical Apple Tablet, aka The Unicorn — So Apple will release a tablet in the coming year. Or not. If said tablet materializes and is priced at the current rumored $1,000, that turns it into a pricey ereader, so the number of hardcore readers who think, “Wow, this is the reading device I’ve been waiting for” will be limited. I’m not discounting the potential for visually beautiful books, but the Unicorn will not save publishing.
Apple is an aggressive company. Apple is a tech company. And publishing people don’t necessarily get Apple. Last week’s breathless rumor about a 70/30 split (70% to publishers) was the tip-off. 70/30 is the standard Apple split! What is missed in the fine print (what is it about fine print that makes us always overlook it?) is that this split is on sales price, cash receipts, whatever you want to call it. Apple will not (unless I seriously misjudge their business acumen) be less aggressive on pricing than Amazon and likely won’t subsidize prices. I suspect Apple will not get into bed with book publishers unless book publishers play along.
If anything, the Unicorn will be part of an interesting and diverse digital reading mix. Of course, we already have one of those — you’re using it right now — and very few publishers are exploiting the potential of what already exists. The Unicorn won’t be running an exotic new platform with magical capabilities.
Ebooks — Even if ebooks become 50% or more of the market, they’re not going to fix the fundamental problems of the publishing industry. If ebooks can somehow increase the number of new-to-books readers by 50%, then we’re talking. I thought there would be potential here, but am not convinced because most publishers seem to see ebooks as the same thing as print books and/or competition for the existing business model. Which they are, sure, but I guess it’s easier to do business as usual.
So ebook customers are pretty much regular book customers, transitioning to a new format. Some of us are buying more books because of a mix of price and ease-of-purchase. But as long as ebooks are treated the same as every other book out there, I’m not feeling the love.
Enhanced Ebooks — I’m not convinced the general reading world wants these as much as publishing people do. Some books can and should be enhanced. Others, not so much. I can assure publishers that there’s great potential for enhanced ebooks, but I worry my meaning is lost. Enhanced does no mean making a rough around the edges (and everywhere else) PDF scan of the print book and adding some extra and not really useful text.
Enhanced ebooks require thought, execution, and a plan. Right book, right audience, right approach. Win!
- Ebook Windows — Withholding ebook releases to protect, to preserve, to illuminate the hardcover window won’t do anything for hardcover sales and it won’t save publishing. It will, however, positively impact the bottom line of those books that are available when the consumer is at the point of sale and can’t get what she wants.
- Vooks — See “Enhanced Ebooks”, but add a twist. I admit, I’ve been hot and cold on Vooks over time, but I’m getting it. Vooks have a place in the publishing ecosystem. Pay attention to them.
Hardcovers — Unless they are written almost exclusively by Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown. Together. Wouldn’t that be awesome? I’ve recently concluded that most hardcover books are priced too high for their target readers. Yet because those customers have been purchasing at deepesque discounts, this has been largely invisible to publishers.
This is not say publishers don’t know this, but they haven’t felt it; I think this is at the core of the unstated-but-obvious desire to punish Amazon via ebook windows. It was like Amazon ripped off the band-aid covering the pricing lie without warning the patient. The truth is hard, it’s messy, and it’s easier to avoid. As a human, I understand this. As a person who loves books, I’m a bit frustrated.
Ebook Backlist — I originally had this in the “Save Publishing” group, but realized it belonged in the “Not Save” section. In the print world, backlist is bread-and-butter. In the digital world, it’s like magic: people rebuying their print libraries in digital format. Get this right, and you will achieve both your CD moment and your iPod moment. (Hence, the recent aggressive erights posture asserted by Random House.)
However, this is a one-time offer. Sales will skyrocket for a time, then settle back to dull roar. As with DVDs and CDs (and their precedents and antecedents), consumers are only willing to convert their libraries so often before they get cranky. And since they’ve done a few conversions over the years, they have a good idea of what works, what doesn’t, the positives, and the negatives. To make this work, publishing needs to proceed with street smarts.
Getting it right is the big stuff, like recognizing that these books cannot be priced like they’re brand new, first-time purchases (though some will be first-time purchases). You’re already profitable. It’s the little stuff, like not throwing a cheap scan conversion on the marketplace and calling it a day (hello, Simon & Schuster: at least update your corporate URL to the current, favored one, though kudos for mapping the abandoned brand!).
- Booksellers — There will be a steady stream of independent bookseller closures in the coming years. Not all of these closures will have to do with the actual profitability of the store. More consumers will rely upon big retailers to feed their book fixes. Big retailers will put the squeeze on publishers when it comes to pricing. I’m not going to say a word about title selection because I think it’s apparent that smarter ways to publish some books will need to be identified.
- Bundling — Bundling is one of those cool ideas that only works for some books. While I might want a digital copy of every print book I buy, I don’t think I want a print copy of every digital book I buy. In fact, I know I don’t.
- Chunking — Selling chunks of books is still a small idea waiting for good execution. It may create a lovely revenue stream related to certain books, but it won’t have huge impact in the long run.
- Sarah Palin — I think she shot the book wad in her first attempt. Unless she writes a kid’s book. Which, you know is possible.
Me (and People Like Me) — I buy every book I read. New. I don’t buy used books (unless they’re out of print, and even then, I agonize). I buy to the extent my budget allows. I talk about books. I write about books. I recommend books. I give books as gifts. I encourage reading. I support literacy programs. Honestly, as a consumer I’m giving it my all.
And I’ll keep doing it, but I’ve made my rules clear. I’m too old and lazy to make lists and check retailers like it’s my job. I seriously doubt I’m going to ever run out of stuff to read. If the book isn’t available for sale when I want to buy it, I will buy something else.
Things That Will Save Publishing
Publishers — Saving publishing is the job of publishers. No one thing will save publishing. Lots of little things will save publishing. I don’t doubt that every publisher great and small is trying to figure out how to run the business of now and the business of the future. Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks will be talking about this at the Tools of Change Conference to be held in New York in February. I cannot recommend this presentation enough. It may be the most clear-eyed yet optimistic view of the future of publishing I’ve encountered.
(Note: now is the time to register for Tools of Change. Click on the ad above to get a discount. You know you want to.)
The challenges facing the publishing industry are myriad. From corporate parents demanding year-over-year improvements to start-ups to the fact that the biggest publishing scheme ever invented — the web — is democratizing processes that formerly depended upon “gatekeepers”. As the reading public transforms and realigns, so must the traditional publishing industry to keep up.
Nobody knows what the future will bring, but we do know publishing is bigger than ever before. So it really isn’t about saving publishing as much as it is about transforming publishing as we know it.