Thursday, January 14, 2010

Is Digital Collaboration In Publishing Feasible?

We have long argued that those best suited to leverage and promote the digital opportunities, are those with the most interest in the physical ones.Others will argue that in a free market economy such a collaboration is restrictive and freedom of choice and the power of the dollar should dictate.

Whichever side of the fence you sit one has to admire the collaborative realism that many countries as diverse as Germany, Australia and France are staring to grapple with. Publishing is by its very nature a diverse marketplace with thousands of publishers and thousands of resellers everywhere you look. Without effective collaboration they are sitting ducks, just waiting to be picked off by those digital omnivores with the deepest pockets. Importantly these often have different agendas, models and drivers. For example what do Sony, Google, Apple have to do with books?

Yesterday five of France's biggest book sellers declared their unity and requested that French publishing houses and their government supported them to create a collaborative digital retail structure to support, encourage and nurture the French market.

Is the idea of collaboration on a common technology platform madness? We would say no and that it is after all what we wrote about three years ago our 'Brave New World' report. Would it dilute or overly restrict individual publishers and resellers from competing on titles, offer and service – no, its just a common marketplace. Some would suggest that its like Google Editions or Amazon Marketplace but without Google and Amazon. We would also suggest that it would offer collective responsibility and ownership which may be bad news for some but welcome news for many.

Just think about the cost saving in developing a single platform as opposed to hundreds of individual ones. Remember that any cost incurred within the supply chain is a cost to all within it and finding common areas to minimise waste is key to basic supply chain management.

"If we don't manage to do this, what's going to happen? We will find ourselves in front of a platform, or hub, already made by a private company ... whether Amazon, Google or Apple," said Guillaume Decitre, head of bookseller Decitre.

Having done what many would say is impossible and get the resellers to agree, the trick now is to convert the publishers who don’t always see the same threats and naturally want to maximise their channels, not minimise them. Here they face a stiff challenge, which already has drawn a negative reaction from Francis Lang, Sale Director of Hachette Livre, ‘Creating a governance structure where everyone is around the table but their interests are opposed is the best way for this not to go anywhere.’ It should be remembered that Publishers like Hachette Livre have also often invested and built their own platforms.

The other aspect of the proposal announced yesterday was a call for the French fixed book price law to be extended to digital books and for VAT to be cut from 19.6% to align it to that of physical books at 5.5%. These aspects of the proposal are understandable but start to muddy the waters and should be viewed separately. Nicolas Sarkozy has also already called for the extension of the country’s 1981 fixed print book price law to cover digital books and for the EU countries to cut VAT on all cultural products.

If we step back and look at what the Netherlands did years ago in creating Centraal Boekhuis, one sees that collaboration can be very healthy for both resellers and publishers. In addition we start to see cultural divergence as healthy and reflective of the global world in which we live. Digitisation isn’t about building global databases and owning the largest repository that sort of thinking disappears in the clouds. It is about enabling all to participate within a common eco system.

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