Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Publishing E-Books - Long Tail?

At a recent conference on digital publishing a number of the service providers ( predominant) offered some frustrating comments regarding publishers willingness to submit titles into their digitization programs. Publishers don’t see consumers buying e-Books. Amazon commented that they are stuck in a place where selection is limited; while millions of print titles sell at least one per year, the number of e-Books available ranges between 50 -100,000. Of course, a few issues are at play here.

Firstly, publishers have finally realized they need to have their own digitization strategy and not be driven to service providers. A number of high profile trade publishers (Simon & Schuster, Harpercollins, VHPS) have announced their own digitization projects. Secondly, despite some significant efforts there is no IPod product for books. It is increasingly likely books will not have their own reader (don’t tell SONY) but you will be able to access books on game consoles, PDA, and IPods. Apple will launch a new version of the IPod next year and books are likely to be part of the mix. Lastly, the fact that there is little actual choice means that consumers have a better than average chance they will be disappointed with selection. Which begets the apparent disinterest in e-Books.

Assuming publishers begin launching their titles – including backlist - in a big way over the next few years how will they change their pricing models and distribution? In publishing, a title is aggressively marketed well in advance of publication to get the big buyers to purchase. Then in immediate advance of publication, co-op advertising and author tours, public relations, etc. are rolled out. In most cases the promotion doesn’t last that long after publication. This is particularly true if the title doesn’t sell at retail as expected. With the introduction of e-book titles in significant numbers, the publishers will need to determine how, when and at what price they market these titles. For example, assuming there is an IPod application, Barnes & Noble will not be happy if the e-book titles are available when the print book is still on tables in their store. Will B&N get a piece of the revenue from the e-book sale, will there be cross promotion discounts, isn’t in-store placement advertising for the e-book? There are a multitude of questions but as I think about it the application of the principles of the long tail will be important.

I ran a direct mail business for a short time (no prior experience) and I was so proud of myself because I figured out that I could determine the total number of units sold for each promotion with as few as three data points. (This is basic direct mail – go figure). Some of these promotions could run six months but the experience from promotion to promotion was always consistent. Book titles sold on a title by title basis or aggregated as in the long tail analysis will act the same way. What this means is that publishers will be able to choose their spots and maximize revenue by bringing e-book titles out at logical times according to where units sold indicate they are on the curve. Additionally, they can – and should – manipulate (lower) prices the further out on the curve the title is.

When these titles are available it will be interesting to see how promotion and pricing are handled. Will they launch them all in one go, or will they ‘celebrate’ the release of selected titles periodically and try to get some buzz going? Will the whole effort full flat because users crave interaction and/or TV will also be available on IPod? We will find out, and regardless it will be a much more preferable situation when a reader can visit a web site and select any title they want no matter how obscure. Or have titles periodically pushed to them like NetFlix. Oh, a rental/lending model – now there’s another issue…..

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