The Publisher in the value chain

Eoin Purcell

The Snowblog vision

A few days ago, Rob Jones over at Snowblog wrote an intriguing post on the future of publishers in a changing world.

One of the best parts is when he isolates the key function of the publisher:

Of course publishers do one more thing: they absorb risk. That’s to say, they take a chance on their titles. They put their money, effort and reputation behind a book and hope that their gamble pays off. In that sense they do make books, thus ensuring that a few horribly formatted files on a computer (or god forbid, a sheaf of typewritten pages) become an actual, professional-looking, shop-bought book.

But the real meat of the post is in his conclusions:

So I think we’re left with publishers being the backers and risk-takers behind books. And what I see is that every year technology makes it easier to turn a Word file into a pallet full of paperbacks – or just a single copy, if you prefer. And every year devices for reading books electronically get more desirable, more practical and more affordable. I’m wondering if there’ll come a day when the only reason that publishers can put forward to justify their cut of the book industry’s profits is that they tell readers what to read. Then all it would take is for readers to band together into online communities and share their collected opinions of new writing and we wouldn’t need publishing companies’ biased views on what was good; we could be guided by our fellow readers. And on that day publishers will go the way of the dodo and the clanger, and Em and I will have suddenly have a lot more time on our hands to work on our blog entries.

The funny thing about all this is that while I agree with almost all the points expressed I cannot agree with the conclusion. So let’s break it down:

Easier, cheaper, design:
There is no doubt that this is a trend already well underway. One only has to look at the Booksmart software that blurb.com distribute as part of their publishing package to see how close a usable, author friendly and cheap design alternative is. What is more if you actually work with Indesign or Quark Express you will know that these programs can be relatively easy to use (though harder to master all their complexities). There can be little quibble with this from any perspective.

Electronic Books:
There is no doubt that reading books electronically will happen more and more (though not to the exclusion of print for some time to come). But how do you deliver them? Do you use iTunes and hand Apple the control of your content? Do you use your own site? If you do how do you get traffic and sales? Here arises the first major problem with the Snowblog vision.

Distribution and promotion will remain a major issue for any newly published title. Yes you can build a site and blog about your books, yes you can hope that book clubs take the title to heart and spread positive news about it but what you cannot ensure positive blog coverage or news coverage just as even now publishers cannot ensure that a title can get placement in stores or newspaper reviews (although sometimes they can pay for it).

Online communities
While I can see the concern here the first question is how the online communities actually discover the books in the first place? As with the last query we have run into the issue of publicity pretty quickly. Oh and distribution!

Where does that leave us?

So what emerges from the points is that they are all valid but that they raise questions. The questions point to areas that require expenditure. Distribution means paying to distribute, publicity means paying to publicize. All of which reminds me of a post some time ago now by Mark Cuban over on his blog:

There should be. The potential customer base consists of 90mm broadband users in the USA. 100s of millions across the world. Any programmer with a high speed data line can reach any of them. Yet no one chooses to invest an amount equal to even the least expensive broadcast network show. Why?

Because in an ala carte world, the cost of reaching an audience is outrageous. And consumers arent ready to pay the freight to receive that programming.

As i have said before, the movie market is ala carte. Look at which content rises to the top in terms of revenues from consumers and visibility. The content from the biggest companies who have spent the most money to market .

Our movie from HDNet Films, Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room cost a relatively small $770k to make, but we needed to spend millions to create visibility for the film. When we tried to get creative and offer the film day and date with its release on HDNet Films, the big theatrical chains got together and decided they wouldnt carry it. Despite our unique offer to share in the revenues from the sale of the DVD. The point being that if video distribution goes ala carte, the response from the powers that be wont be to embrace the change. It will be to find ways to circumvent the change to their advantage. The movie industry is the perfect example. Despite the fact that anyone with a videocamera and PC can produce a movie, the cost to get it to consumer in an ala carte movie world, precludes all but the biggest and/or very, very fortunate from reaching an audience large enough to break even on a movie release.

There it is. In publishing the price of writing a book was always low, but now the price of making a book is to all intents and purposes free too. Publishing it costs nothing now if you use a trick like lulu.com and very little if you use self-publishing services like Xlibris, Trafford.com or even Blurb.com. The Publisher will still be needed to absorb the risk because the risk has not going away, it is just changing, shifting and moving along the value chain from printing and design to marketing and distribution.

At least those are my thoughts!

Eoin

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6 comments

  1. I agree with you, Eoin. I think that marketing and publicity are key functions that publishers can do well, while individuals and even small communities would find themselves with a real struggle on their hands. I hope the market will diversify and become richer and more open to risk, particularly after all the risk-averse years of late, but the triumph of the lone voice is a long way off, I think. (Nice to see you back, by the way!)

  2. Litlove,
    It is nice to be back writing this blog! As for diversification I think it is already happening but more on that soon.

    Lee,
    Editors to follow in an upcoming post! But in short watch wikipedia! The book (should I say encyclopedia) edited by everyone!

    Eoin

  3. But the movie/book comparison doesn’t really work. Because of their very large budget comparatively few movies are made and most are well-marketed. The book publishing industry puts out a huge range of product each year with only the books with the largest expected audience getting anything but a token amount of marketing. Much marketing is left to the author instead. For midlist titles, your argument that publishers will shift their risk to marketing budgets doesn’t make sens.

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