“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”
― Douglas Adams
All books are ebooks and they have been since the 80s as Paul St John Mackintosh pointed out recently on Teleread. He is right, every manuscript is edited and laid out at some point and exists in some form of digital file and then “sent to the printer” and bound. The only difference in the last five years is that people have increasingly been able to choose not to read from the printed file. We now live online, we read the news online, we correspond online, we watch TV online. We are having the same epiphany we had with Fax machines and copiers - why am I printing this on paper when it is on my desktop already. The real change publishers and authors are facing is that a large amount of books like the interoffice memo don’t need to be printed anymore.
We used to send letters but now we send emails. Letters were often long and eloquent because you had to say everything at once and wait days for a response. Now we IM instantly, text constantly, and communicate in truncated words. Def fstr but betr? Eloquence and length moved to blogs and many of us set up Family blogs and as a result our private letters and thoughts began to get an audience outside the family. We began to personally brand ourselves and then Facebook gave us tools to make that easier. Family and friends could respond to our posts faster again like email and IMing. Our daily interactions got shorter again.
Today every one of us can write a novel and make it available to sell as easy as we could set up a family blog. Authors can build their audience as easily as we can build our family and friends on Facebook. Kickstarter asks us for money just like our kids emailing us from college. Private letters and literature are now being poured into the same bucket and along with our news we piggyback the photos from our family vacation. We mix our playlists with Homeland and Real Housewives. And like the letter - once digital we are filtering and distilling it into smaller chunks and consuming it faster. We buy songs not albums, webisodes are 3 - 15 minutes long. We read news as a headline and magazines as an article.
It is only logical to think Books too will increasingly become shorter and episodic, subscribed to like a blog or TV show. We are “liking” authors like Neil Gaiman on Facebook the same as our family, sharing Instagram photos of what we ate with him, even knowing what his friends and neighbors ate. And occasionally - for about the price of a beer - Neil Gaiman will tell us a story just like our Uncle Ed would on Thanksgiving.
We are constantly filtering as a society an immense stream of data daily and only choosing to print what we find indispensable and important. This is significantly shifting demand in an economic model based on printing. Like documents once sent printed on fax machines, we have a significantly diminished demand to print a lot of the books that drive the profits of big publishers. 50 Shades of Gray, Harlequin Romances, business books, content that is consumed and discarded for the next new thing quickly we are finding are tailor made for digital. The real important stuff, the stuff of lasting value, the art, the philosophy, the hard work of research and fact checking and editorial back and forth - this we want to keep as artifact and manifest in an icon on our shelves. The fast and ephemeral, the lowest common denominator with the largest audience, “the latest thing” is what drives the profits and like all our personal communication we no longer have a need to print it. We filter, distill, and share it ourselves while it burns bright but know that once consumed we no longer need to see or own it.
It’s the very stuff we want to “print out to keep” that publishers tend to make the least profit on. Return on investment on Joyce or Salinger takes some time to build, cure, and reach maturity.It tends to have smaller audiences to start but it’s impact is important and its influence on us as a culture and society is immense and important. The problem we are facing now is that the economic model that this content was created in is moving from one where there was a careful and delicate balance of editorial control and power that a publisher had and a need for a retailer to support works of value by attracting an audience in order to facilitate the discovery them. What we are seeing in digital publishing now are the struggles of publishers and retailers trying to compete for a role in an environment that does not naturally want them in that role anymore. Authors attract their own audience. Fellow readers attract their own audience. Communities, Groups, and Forums act as sentient audiences roving the web in search of content to share and consume on their own (and whose byproduct is even more fan generated content).
The digital world is about finding and audience and sharing information instantly from point A to point B. Publishers, Retailers and Distributors are currently just middlemen getting in the way of discovery - and the internet abhors middleman.
The challenge for Publishers, Distributors and Retailers is to find their role in this environment where content and family and news and entertainment all live as one. Form used to tell us what was a book, magazine, newspaper, family photo, email, or Tweet. Now it is all text on the same screen. The words are left to speak for themselves. Where they started doesn’t matter the moment we boot up our device and see their glow.
The current business model of book retail is not designed for the digital world on the web. It is being stretched to the breaking point and the centuries old bookshop model does not look like it will hold. Social and community pressures are increasing exponentially and a great change is needed.
The very idea of intellectual property is being forced to evolve. It is generally a capitalist concept which content creators are granted the right to control and profit from their work for a specified period of time. This profit and control is based on a retail distribution model for physical goods - print books not digital content living in the cloud.
What if a society decided that for the greater good of the state free access to all ideas and stories should be an inalienable right of the people? What is to stop a country from nationalizing all digital books and making them available in a “People’s Library” to all it’s citizens? What do we do if another small, poor nation wants to provide better access to information, knowledge and education for all its people to allow it to better participate and compete with the world? Would we go to war to prevent someone from reading a book? As the very concept of content changes there is no question retail of that content will have to change as well.
A recent Digital Book World article explained “how business scholar C.K. Prahalad explored this topic from various perspectives over the past decade or so, with the culmination of his research being the book, The New Age of Innovation. This book proposes two basic tenets: “value is based on unique, personalized experiences of consumers” and “no firm is big enough in scope and scale to satisfy the experiences of one consumer at a time.” Prahalad then identifies three transformations happening in business today:
Before the printing press the young learned by listening, watching, doing. In medieval times it was impossible for students to have copies of the same book. Manuscripts and commentaries where dictated. Students memorized. Instruction was almost entirely oral, done in groups. With the invention of mass produced books it was possible for entire societies to have the exact same book. Yet though it was one of the first products of mass production it is an individualistic form - it isolated the reader and helped create the Western “I.”
Commercially the auditory was able to be commodified by technology allowing it it to be recorded in print and bound into books, exact copies of which could be sold. If we look at other content that originated as auditory performance - industries like music (records) and theater (film) we see a common path. Both were performance based industries where commerce was individuals “buying” a performance. New devices (TV and radio) made access to the content easier and to the consumer made the cost free. The producers maintained some semblance of control as the broadcast of this content was supported by allowing advertisers access to viewers. This was possible because the publishers had clear customers in the radio and TV stations to target. With the advent of “digital” however replication of individual performances are no longer fully in control of the producers. Individuals can copy and share nearly anything in digital form. Retailers no longer held enough power to control the physical retail of the product. The pricing spiraled down. Entire libraries of content devalued almost overnight.
With books the value of a publishers library of content is also greatly diminished due to the fact that there is not a clear dominant distribution customer like a network TV station that controls the consumer access to content. Publishers are struggling to maintain margins that cover the cost of overhead. The cost of creating a completely digital book is only improved marginally by eliminating print production costs and this savings is offset by the devalued acceptable retail of an e-book. Yes it costs less to make and e-book but publishers have to charge less too. The commodity business model publishers have relied on for centuries is rapidly breaking down. They are moving from sell 10,000 copies of a book to a chain buyer to selling 1 book to 10,000 individuals. Instead of relying on retailers to provide dedicated traffic and cover marketing expense, publishers are having to increase consumer marketing and allocate monies for ad campaigns. On top of this publishers used to be able to guarantee a minimum sale of a title based on just placing it on shelves of a bookstore whether it ever sold to a consumer or not. They relied on a certain amount of guaranteed cash flow even with 100% returnability. Now in a digital only world they have no transactions - no cash changing hands - until the actual consumer decides to buy the book. Sales that were made to chains to stock their stores that were paid within 90 days are now spread out over as far as 18 months or more as consumers discover and purchase books at their own pace. Millions of cash flow dollars that pay operational expenses of office buildings and editorial department salaries evaporate. The internet eliminates the middle man. The internet gives the consumer direct access to content. This is forcing publishers to become retailers for which they are neither equipped nor have experience.
All these changes are happening rapidly and at the same time. A new model is needed that marries the libraries mission to provide access and the publishers need to make consistent revenue. What if every household is charged a standard fee for content access. Would you pay $9 a month to have access to all the books in the world? The average American reads 6.5 books a year. The average price of an e-book on most retail sites is $9. That is around $50 a year per reader at retail. Of that publishers will get around $28. By removing the retail from the book and making it free - instead charging $9 a month for access to all digital books the average money spent by consumers will go up. This revenue would be shared based on prorated percentage volume of the amount of “rentals” for each title. The additional revenue generated by converting to a monthly access fee replaces the loss of sales once relied on to fill retail shelf space and creates a stable, projectable revenue stream for publishers to continue to profitably foster the creation of commercial content.
Minimum free access levels could be set by individual communities using libraries as a model and funded by local taxes. People could pay for premium access from competing providers just like cable or phone companies. When the perceived cost is removed from a book and placed instead on the delivery vehicle like cable or mobile phone then the book itself is essentially free in the consumer eyes. This could likely result in an increase of reading on a national level. Ask yourself, would you DVR as many shows as you do now if you had to pay per recording? You already pay for the ability to DVR monthly in your cable bill but when you push record the perception is it is free.
Like it or not the concept of intellectual property as individual commodity is changing. The ubiquitous screen of a convergent web is our future. When we can ask the screen in our hand to access any text, image or sound and have it called up on our living room, car, or office we stop thinking of each piece of information as an individual unit of commerce and instead it becomes simply part of the universal content-soup behind the device in our hand, no different than the electricity that powers it.