A lot happened in publishing this week — so much that just as I wrapped my head around one thing, something new popped up to either make me re-evaluate my previous thinking…or to send me down a different rabbit hole. Let’s just put it out there: once you’ve gone subterranean, things start to make a lot of sense.
Which probably accounts for my mood today. Here in the dark and dangerous world of the publishing underground, spirits are sapped and minds are bent. Sometimes you travel toward the bright light, only to find a seemingly insurmountable pile of “that’s how we’ve always done it” in your way. The intrepid, of course, find new routes and discover magical beings; they’re here, too. Follow the intrepid, I say, follow the intrepid!
An Old Twist on the Price Wars Becomes New Again: Remember Crown Books? They were going to Destroy Publishing as We Know It (this is not the same thing as merely Destroying Publishing). Luckily, family tensions destroyed Crown Books first. Sometimes you catch a break. Now we have Amazon, Target, Wal-Mart, and Sears battling each other for dominance; their weapons of choice are front-list, high profile hardcover books.
In any other situation, publishing would be thrilled to get so much free publicity (woe to those whose titles are not mentioned in every breathless news story!). However, this battle has bigger implications. Naturally, the industry fallback position is that these deep, deep price cuts will destroy the industry. No, but if the trend sticks, it’s going to add to the increased retailer pressure on book prices. Retailers will not subsidize the difference between wholesale and retail forever — as they’re doing here with print (and as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others have been doing with ebooks).
Prices for a few books have dropped below nine dollars (yet, the new Stephen King ebook, discussed further below, remains priced at $35.00. For an ebook.). That hurts independent publishers, though the smart ones are also seeing opportunity. Why buy from traditional distributors when a trip to Wal-Mart will offer more margin. Poke ’em in the eye! (Contrary analysis here, worth reading and deep thought)
Where is the consumer outrage? Hint: there isn’t any. Or at least there’s not enough to note. That should probably give the industry pause. Luckily, the American Booksellers Association is on the case: they’re asking the Justice Department to investigate.
Stephen King Repeats The Stupid Meme: I am opposed to the current trend of delaying ebook releases until after the initial hardcover window. Especially when the stated reason is to protect someone or something (like, oh, hardcover sales). It’s false logic. You are not going to help independent booksellers by delaying the ebook release. That’s like saying eggs and lemons are interchangeable.
No seriously, Stephen King, delaying the ebook to “help” independent booksellers (an irony you acknowledge, given the recent price wars) is about the silliest notion I’ve ever heard. How about this instead: if the ABA had a serious and robust ebook sales system, then the customer (reader, buyer) could purchase the format s/he wants from local booksellers. Delaying the ebook doesn’t “help” anyone (Scribner? that digital list price, even if these discounts weren’t happening, can you justify this?). People who prefer ebooks will not shrug and say, “Well, that’s okay, I’ll just buy print.”
(Yeah, this means that publishers will have to get smarter about pricing ebooks. The current approach remains unsustainable and, let’s say it again, silly.)
When publishers justify this behavior by noting staggered releases have long been the norm (“that’s how we’ve always done it”), they discount the reader, especially the rabid, money-paying, willing to buy books reader. Yeah, I should be treated with deference. I should get preferential treatment. I want to pay for these books right now, not borrow them from a library or a friend, not buy them used. Protecting the old business model only works if…oh, the market will remain frozen in time forever. It won’t.
Barnes & Noble Puts Up Its Nooks: When the Barnes & Noble ebook store was launched, I was underwhelmed. The store was slick, the prices were right, it had an iPhone app. It was…okay. Nothing made the store stand out from the others. Honestly, it felt rushed. Like maybe the competition was getting to them and they wanted to grab some of the land. Rumors ran rampant — like rumors often do — and facts sometime emerged. I was soon convinced that B&N was working very hard to Get It Right.
The nook (apparently lowercase is correct) show much promise: wireless, wifi (in-store only, right now), EPUB support, other format flexibility, limited sharing, even expanding the ecosystem beyond Barnes & Noble stores. B&N understands that eInk can only do so much, but, ahem publishers who are not taking cover art seriously, also leverages other technology to make some of the experience visually interesting. Oh sure, it’s not perfect, it’s not magic, and it’s not going to kill the Kindle.
But B&N has shown a willingness to push the envelope, if only a little. Amazon, following the iPod/iPhone development and release pattern, will likely debut new Kindle family members that compete with the nook, but I’m not seeing Amazon opening up to new ecosystems. Right now, they don’t need to. Who suffers most? Yeah, Sony. Develop faster, little Sony, develop faster!
Readers Have (Copy)Rights: I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, but the basic premise behind copyright protections included the idea that the public had rights and, in exchange for protecting the copyright of an artist, would be granted a sort of quid pro quo. In the early days, this came in the form of things like, oh, limited copyright terms, which encouraged further artistic expression. I call the change in attitude about copyright “The Mickey Mouse Syndrome” as laws have certainly changed due to the influence of the Walt Disney Company.
In all the talk about about piracy and file sharing and just plain exchanging books among family members, the rights of readers have been lost. We, the consumer have deal with this attitude about basic (and limited) sharing of books, which, you know, actually encourages reading and future sales (from Publishers Lunch, probably behind paywall):
One executive, speaking not for direct attribution [BS: Why not? Make your case to us.], told us “We will work it out with them. We need the competition.” But another articulated the concern about setting a precedent. While agreeing that they “will keep talking to B&N and haven’t ruled anything out because details are still coming and I want a strong offer” from them to promote competition, this person expressed concern that “if publishers agree to lending then every ebook offer now and in the future will come with this consumer feature. Over time, I’m concerned that lending won’t grow the market and in fact could hurt it. I’d be more open if I thought ebook lending created a sustainable competitive advantage for BN over the Kindle – but I don’t think it does.”
A few authors and readers are fighting back because sharing is not pirating. The industry perception that sharing is stealing and that readers are engaged in evil will lead to serious backlash. It’s never good to treat your best customers as thieves (no really, it’s just not!). Authors realize there is benefit to them when books are shared.
Territorial Rights Is Good For Whom?: When Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize, digiliterati noted that the book was not yet available in the United States (nor, I believe, were any of the other finalists). Neat. Book gets a boatload of publicity, is on the mind of readers, and the ability to purchase is, uh, not there? Ditto, as Ryan Chapman notes, for the new title from Stieg Larsson.
Think about the publishing people: you have books people want to buy and read. And they can’t. Not in print, not in ebook form. Give me five paragraphs on why this is a smart business plan.
Minds Were Blown: Remember the intrepid? They never engage in hand-wringing: they are too busy doing for such nonsense. At last week’s Tools of Change Frankfurt, Peter Brantley and Keith Fahlgren debuted BookServer. Afterward, Kirk Biglione noted to me that it might have been the biggest, most important session of the conference. A week later, during the “Make Books Apparent” conference, Fran Toolan of Firebrand Technologies agreed: “What I saw, was many of the dreams and visions of e-book aficionados everywhere becoming a demonstrable reality tonight.”
I am incapable of explaining the entire project, so I am going to recommend that each and every one of you find a conference where BookServer is being introduced and — this is important — attend the demonstration. Don’t get sucked into hallway conversation. The takeaway, the important message, the critical thinking is that BookServer creates a framework that allows people to access freely available books, purchase them, borrow them, and all of the above and more. Let me say that again: the system supports all models from free to pay.
This is why I believe in the future of publishing, libraries, and booksellers.
(And I’m not even getting into the incredible implications this has on accessibility.)
I’m sure I’ll more thoughts on these topics because, well, I always do. The common thread, for those who skimmed, is that removing barriers between books and readers is the new publishing imperative. It’s time for change. We’ll give the final word to Richard Nash:
Publishing will never be stable again.