Yep, it’s time to predict the future! I’ve pulled the BS crystal ball out of storage, buffed it to a shine, and gazed deep and long. Through the glass — which has no mystical ability, as far as I can tell — I saw the future splayed in a haphazard pile: a beautiful cookbook, my Kindle, a Sony Reader, my laptop, several magazines, and at least one iPhone. Reading. Choices. Formats. Choices.
This future of words is good, the future of publishing as we know it, hmm, there are justifiable concerns. Right now, the only thing standing in the way of the future of publishing is…yep…the business of publishing. It’s hard to focus on the entire system, so let’s look at my favorite subsection: ebooks. So, what is the future for digital books?
International Rights Will Be Hot, Hot, Hot: I’ve been writing about territorial rights, particularly as they apply to ebooks, for years (last year’s A World Without Borders may have had a bit too prophetic a title). Right now, the Kindle and other devices are being rolled out internationally, or, ahem, being acquired by international readers despite lack of official infrastructure in their countries. Right now, readers are complaining about the lack of books to support the technology.
Publishing, the monolith, is dangerously close to losing control of the international ebook market. The readers are educated, sophisticated, and in possession of technology. They don’t get why it’s so hard to buy the books they hear about, print or digital. They are already bypassing the publishing infrastructure. While I’m not a piracy alarmist, I do think the lack of legal marketplaces creates opportunity for black markets.
In today’s marketplace, the piecemeal acquisition of territorial rights harms the bottom line. Readers don’t care about the publishing business model, and the speed of today’s communication means publishers need to be better positioned for connecting books and readers while the buzz is buzzing. I personally advocate for acquiring worldwide language rights versus specific territories.
Think about it this way: deals are being made today that withhold English-language (for example) ebooks from the world because someone along the way thought it was a good idea to continue parsing out rights on a territorial basis. This means a year or two from now, in a (hopefully for publishers) burgeoning international ebook market, release patterns will be spotty and confusing. Missed opportunity to the left of me, missed opportunity to the right.
As smart people realize this, international language-based digital rights are going to be the hot topic (though, I predict, not a lucrative one for authors and agents who are seeking to get larger advances for this market; it’s just not there.)
Consumers Flex Power, Publishers Pay Attention: As noted above (and below), readers don’t care about the publishing business model. It increasingly makes little sense to them. It’s puzzling for consumers when they want to give a business their business, only to be told their money’s no good. The reaction will never again be “Fine, I’ll just sit quietly in the corner until you decide to sell to me”; it will likely forever be “Okay, I’ll just take my business somewhere else”.
As I noted above, because the infrastructure for selling ebooks internationally is lagging behind the technology, consumers are developing their own markets and systems. They’re setting the terms. They’re breaking DRM to read, not to pirate. They’re asking for flexibility and choice. Consumers are speaking all over the book business. Smart publishers will thrive by listening.
$9.99 Will Become The (Sorta )Standard: The Kindle continues to sell very well (how well? Nobody knows for sure, but units are moving briskly). Barnes and Noble was forced to ramp up Nook production because demand greatly exceeded supply. We know this for sure: many people will receive dedicated ereaders this holiday season. Many more will receive iPhones, Touches, or other gadgets that facilitate reading. And, of course, the most popular digital reader of all time — the computer (lap, desk, notebook, mythical Apple unicorn tablet) — is widespread and being used every day to read books.
At Digital Book World, I’m going to do a brief presentation called “The Case for the $75 eBook”, because there is a marketplace for high-priced ebooks. In fact, I think there’s a robust marketplace for higher priced digital books, and I believe I can make a strong case for these price points.
That being said (ha!), I don’t believe the publishing industry can make a valid, solid, logical case for pricing most narrative fiction (and some non-fiction) ebooks above $9.99. Not only is this price point being cemented in the minds of readers by retailers, but, let’s be blunt, publishers have done a lousy job of making the value argument. The near-cynical approach of publishers to producing and selling ebooks has backfired. The process, the pricing, the product has been weighed by consumers and they are not amused. They like the $9.99 and below price point. It makes sense to them.
So, yep, I’m predicting publishers will have no choice but to swallow this one and figure out how to make their business work with ebooks priced below $10. It’s better to initiate this change rather than scramble when the retailers start demanding better terms. You can do it, publishing industry, you can do it!
Independents Will Rule: Up and down the publishing food chain, now is the time for independents to stake a claim. I’m thinking booksellers, authors, agents, publishers, distributors. At the moment, I’m putting my chips on booksellers, with smart digital publishers as back-up (this is subject to change every five minutes, but these two are my favorites). Naysayers might cite the dominance of the Kindle as a barrier for booksellers, but two things convince me otherwise: a) the fact that you don’t have to buy content from Amazon to load it on your Kindle, and b) the relative openness of the Nook.
Oh, and the fact that dedicated readers will only appeal to a certain segment of the ereading population. Many others will choose other options. Because only a subset of readers is tied to one retailer (and those ties can be broken!), there is wide open possibility for others to enter the game. And, ahem, if new retailers can offer more attractive terms to authors and publishers, those authors and publishers will be more inclined to advocate on behalf of those retailers.
A word about new publishers: many barriers to publishing have been reduced, if not eliminated. Lower costs to market will encourage new publishers and publishing approaches. Large houses don’t have the flexibility to move quickly.
Business Decisions Will Be Made Without Fear: Okay, I admit this is a long shot. Super long. Near-impossible. But it can happen. The possibility of increased sales will trump the fear of piracy (or, ahem, we’ll get serious about definitions, including those of “lost sales”). Shrinking print opportunities will encourage authors and agents to try new things (not all of which will be successful). The lure of reaching new readers, expanding audiences, and even increasing backlist sales (want to convince people to buy the ebook of a beloved print book? Smart pricing, that’s the ticket!) will triumph over fear.
Digital First/Print Maybe Deals Will Give Authors Leverage: Not only will traditional publishers enter into more ebook-first deals, but more digital publishing houses will emerge, across all genres. Because the latter will naturally start from a position of higher royalties, traditional publishers will have to up the ante as well. Right now, the trend is to decrease digital royalties, but when publishers ask authors to take new kinds of risks, publishers have to be willing to make it worthwhile for the author.
Especially in a world where playing field is increasingly level.
Ebooks Will Be Huge: Yeah, this is a no-brainer (or, it’s sorta cheating to put it on the list). The numbers on the IDPF chart will continue to rise, as will number of people indulging in celebratory drinks when they see the chart at a conference.
Those are mine. What do you predict for digital books in 2010?