Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The modernisation of publishing and the challenges it brings

This week it was announced that Borders is preparing to go into administration, which comes all too soon after the HMV group announced a number of Waterstones branches would be closing. The now familiar story of online competition and increased sales at supermarkets have squeezed the retail market and this time, the bookstore is the fall guy.

Not long before Borders' announcement, The Bookseller reported that the e-reader market doubled over Christmas 2010 and that quite astonishingly, 13% of British adults now own an eBook reading device.

The growth of the mainstream eBook market took off at the same time and shows no signs of stopping. Amazon sells more eBooks than print, as does our very own PacktPub.com, with our 2010 digital sales up 33% on the previous year. The launch of the iPad and Amazon's aggressive marketing and pricing strategy of its Kindle gave e-reader adoption the kind of kickstart few earlier adopters had the power to achieve.

It's relatively easy to re-read the above paragraph and for every mention of e-reader and eBook substitute iPod and and music download. For Amazon use iTunes. The two stories are very similar. Back in 2006, US music downloads had increased by 77% on the previous year, while Apple sold 88 iPods a minute.

What the publishing industry is going through currently, the music industry has already experienced and this shift to electronic and death of the bookstore is evidence of the modernisation of publishing.

Surely great news for publishers?

Unfortunately for the music industry the digital revolution hasn't all been great. CD sales continue to plummet and aren't being propped up by download sales. Writing in The Guardian, Dan Sabbagh notes that while music is thriving, the industry itself is dying and makes the following observation:

"It has been a decade since piracy and the arrival of iTunes – which destroyed the notion of an album in favour of single, downloadable tracks – but the music business has found nothing to repair lost CD sales." 

This one sentence neatly sums up a key problem in the industry and how the introduction of digital changed the way that we consumed music. Luckily for publishing, breaking up a book and selling it chapter-by-chapter isn't as viable. Despite this the move to electronic book delivery presents publishing with other challenges.

Universal eBook pricing
Amazon has set the price for the majority of its eBooks at $9.99, a move many publishers were unhappy with. Amazon relented, however this price point has stuck and Apple are now using it as a standard on its iBookstore. Whereas this may make sense for your top ten bestseller list it doesn't take into account the specialised books from the independent publishers, who price up the cost based on fewer sales expectations and the niche element of the market.

Self publishing cutting out the publisher
Not a week goes by without the story of an author making it as a self-publisher. In fact, I only read this morning on the always excellent Econsultancy.com of the threat to publishers that amateur authors pose. The article references Alice Hocking and her success with self-publishing. I felt compelled to comment and note that for every Amanda Hocking there's a million and one self-published authors with under 100 sales to their name. Self-publishing website Lulu.com would probably back this up.

In reality, the majority of these self-published success stories have had a profile and fan base before going it alone. Hocking may be an exception to this. When Radiohead self-released In Rainbows in 2007 people said it would open up amateurs bands and musicians to bypassing record labels and breaking the charts. As amateurs have no existing fan base and no means to reach the masses, this hasn't happened.

It's also easy to underestimate the other services that publishers provide; it's not just about getting a book to market and exploiting contacts. Whereas most authors can take on marketing, it's the professional editing, proofreading, layout and other production services that would be beyond most, especially those without prior publishing experience.

Delivering multi-platform content
First there was slate, then paper, then muuuuch later eBook, then browser, then app - what next? Wikipedia suggests that there are 18 different eBook formats! There are so many ways to consume content now that it's difficult for some publishers to stay relevant. Staying ahead of the adoption curve and delivering content to demand is a serious challenge for publishers. eBook formats will narrow with two or three becoming dominant, however the innovations with consuming content will continue.

The music industry knows all about this. So does Hollywood. As eBook adoption grows, so will piracy and this is something that all publishers are nervous about. It's actually affecting us now with torrents full and links regularly showing up in search results. There are companies developing software to combat the pirates who are serving the eBooks and seeding the links. Publishers need to work closer with these companies to help develop and refine the software; this is a common problem and should be tackled by the industry together.

Developing a direct sales model
Whether through subscription or consumers buying individual copies from their website, this is the holy grail for publishers. Bypassing bookstores and Amazon enables publishers to talk to the people who are buying their books and ultimately, get them to buy more. The problems is that this isn't something publishers have prioritised in the past.

However eBooks present a new opportunity.

There is no printing and shipping, which makes logistics and set up easier and cheaper. Through their website, fulfillment can be immediate with the publisher catching customer data. More importantly publishers aren't giving up a percentage of sales to a third party retailer. With bookstores closing and sales moving online, now is the perfect time for publishers to start doing it themselves.

Despite the demise of the bookstore this is an exciting time for publishing and the opportunities for publishers

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