Friday, November 09, 2007

A Future of Publishing

There is an interesting series of posts on MJ Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype site about the (a) future of publishing. The series of three guest posts are written by Barry Eisler who is an author but despite that has some very interesting ideas about how the business will change and evolve. I suspect he will have something to say about my comments as well.

Here is a taste from Barry's first post:
I don't think the abandonment of record labels by two of pop's biggest stars is an aberration. And I don't think the implications of this development will be confined to the music biz. Look a little more closely, and you'll see a common element among media companies -- that is, record labels, movie studios, the newspaper business, and book publishers -- and a common dynamic.

My retort on post one:

With respect to the movie industry you haven't taken the example far enough. About ten years ago all movie distribution companies were gung ho about satellite distribution to movie houses. It would avoid shipping film reels, errors and delays and importantly enabled better accounting so houses could no longer cheat on showings. It failed because the houses saw nothing in it for them against the significant capital improvements they would have to make. Move ahead 10 years and we are again talking about digital distribution but the landscape is significantly different. As consumers we can all get new 50in flat screen TVs in our homes and we don't need a movie house any longer. (And there aren't enough of them any way). It is only a matter of time before first run movies are distributed direct to consumers together with consumer (behavioral) ad placement. Ergo: very flat distribution.

With respect to books/publishing, in my view we won't even remember the espresso machine in three years. Led by the iPhone, consumers will consume more and more books on these handheld platforms and 'vending' locations will be ubiquitous (including B&N etc.) E-books will not replace hardcopy books in total. They may replace trade paper in dramatic fashion over the next five years. (I will make another point on your next post about retail). The Espresso machine is impressive technology and will retain a place in libraries and academia but I see us the typical high street consumer skipping over the on-demand opportunity of printed works to simply e-content on a handheld.

And all this from someone who only buys hardcover titles and collects first editions!

Barry from post two:
B&N and Borders both publish their own books. True, the titles in question are mostly self-help, public domain, and other perennially-selling categories. But in June, Borders published Slip and Fall, a hardback novel by Nick Santora that's available nowhere else. Slip and Fall is a classic case of middleman elimination. I don't know the financial details, but I know the dynamic that drove the deal: Santora gets to keep more than the 15% of the price of each book he would have received from a traditional publisher, and Borders keeps more than the 40% it would have kept after paying a traditional publisher 60% of the retail price.

My retort:

The 'success of Slip and Fall' has more to do with consumers entering Border's with no clue what they are going to purchase (and research bares this out) than it does with a new found business model. In fact, as seller of anything I want to be in as any appropriate retail outlets as possible and while it may be seductive to have an exclusive with B&N or Walmart ultimately I believe revenues will be lower than if the product is distributed to the largest umber of outlets. Border's also sold that book by 'A-listing' its merchandising with in-store events, front of store displays, discounts, etc. In the process they not only for-go publisher paid merchandising revenues but that type of activity can only be done sparingly otherwise it creates too much noise for consumers. In other words if they extend their publishing program for first run titles to say 10/quarter (which isn't a lot) how will they find the space to merchandise them in the stores? And remember they have a much bigger financial stake in these titles - author advance, printing, can't return them, warehousing, etc. than if they bought them from the publisher.

Ultimately, you will see some major name authors experiment with direct to consumer but it will not represent a big trend.

Lastly, admittedly we haven't seen a huge amount of dynamism from mainstream publishers but I do think you treat them as too static relative to the change going on around them. I do believe publishers will react faster and in (perhaps) revolutionary ways but I can understand your skepticism

Barry in post three:
What about booksellers? Pretty interchangeable, too, I'd argue. The big box stores, if they stand for anything, are only about prices (not a coincidence that Wal-Mart's slogan is "Everyday Low Prices"). Amazon does have a brand, mostly about the customer experience -- the links to related products, the comments, the recommendations, the ease of use, the immediate gratification. Independents don't really have a collective brand (or if they do, it's not terribly relevant to their success). But they do, or at least should have a brand in their community, a reflection of their individuality, you could say, related to expertise, enthusiasm, and personal knowledge of customer tastes, that should continue to offer them certain advantages in a flat distribution world.

(He also speaks about publisher's brand which I will address next week).

To find my retort go to Barry's post.

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