Sunday, August 31, 2008

Store Once, Render Many?

It’s interesting to look at the economics of publishing with respect to the digital opportunities we now face. Today a book is sold and the publisher and author are rewarded. Is that the end of the book’s life? No, it could be seen as the start of its journey which may see it shared with friends, sitting unread on a shelf, sold to a used book dealer and read more than once by the same person. Yet the publisher and the author get paid once at its birth.

The emergence of online services that can act as rare and second hand clearing houses that join millions of books from thousands of vendors to millions of buyers has revolutionised the used and rare book marketplace. They have given the consumer not only access and global reach but also price transparency. Many books which would have died now have a second, third, fourth life.

The digital environment now potentially changes the life of a book. We go to a library to borrow a book and we return it once read for another person to borrow. After a while the book starts to lose its looks – it happens to us all. After a while a book may not have the same attraction and demand – again it happens to us all. The book then ends up being disposed of and if still in a reasonable condition may end up starting another life listed on ABE books or another such service.

A book’s content and style may age, but a pure digital copy never loses its looks. So why not offer a rental or lease as a market option on all titles? The book is effectively always on the shelf available to be borrowed. The digital copy need never leave the publisher’s repository and is effectively created once and rendered many times but on demand. In the same way that drop ship logistics separated the transaction and customer facing activity from the pick, pack and dispatch, then digital drop ship can add the dimension of separating the digital marketing and bibliographic from the content.

The question of whether the consumer buys a downloadable copy or merely rents access to a copy is an interesting one and given the permanently connected world in which we live a question that can’t be answered today. However it makes more sense to consume online than offline as it immediately deals with the majority of the DRM issues, gives the consumer instant portability between devices and a single consumer interface can be fed transparently and consistently from literally thousands of sources.

Is this a dream? No. Leading digital exponents such as Taylor and Francis are already working with such a model today. It’s not new, just different.
So what could such a model offer authors and could the potential new business models offer reward across the life of a book as opposed to its birth? Could it offer publishers the control of their assets that they want? Could it offer the consumer interoperability? It may not suit all but there are no silver bullets in digital publishing.

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