Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Traditional Trade Book Publishers are Scared"

It was interesting to read former CEO of Random House and now Harvard Business School professor Peter Olson take on the digital changes in publishing in the Harvard blog

He recognises that "Traditional trade book publishers are scared.” He explains, “The world that they have known, of print books and brick-and-mortar bookstores—the whole physical distribution system—is on the cusp of changing fundamentally." We agree that we are approaching a tipping point but not one that we often write about. The tipping point is that digital publishing is now publishing. This is a fundamental change and is a far more challenging to all than mere ebooks and digital devices.

Today we talk about ebook pricing and believe that a return to price fixing and control is the answer. Olson says, "Publishers are worried that more and more customers are going to get used to the sort of cheap prices that will undercut print books. As with other media products, there's the perception that all things digital should be less expensive, or free. So I think this most recent skirmish has resulted in a truce at most… I don't know of many successful examples of pricing a product based not on what it costs or what people want to pay for it, but based on another format that is completely different, just because you want to keep that format alive." The reality is that the genie is out of the bag and agency pricing may look attractive but in the long run it will hurt publishers and authors more than retailers and consumers. The result may be to also drive authors to digital self publishing. We must be careful for what we wish for.

Olson talks about focusing on the reader and less on ‘a disproportionate amount of publishers' resources … dedicated to the manufacturing and physical distribution of books,’ he continues by concluding that ,’their key function is editorial in nature." We think this publisher centric view is understandable and it’s a shame that not once does he use the word ‘author’. What is clearly happening is the redefining the roles and players right across the publishing life cycle and even the cycle itself. The challenge is being able to adapt to change quickly. Remember the juggernauts of the previous decades and how the missed today by relaxing in today – IBM, Xerox, Honeywell, Ollivetti, NCR, etc

Olson then brings up the question of the future and asks, ‘The fundamental question at the very bottom of this is, will people read books at all?" Yet within the same article when he looks at textbooks he sees, " the dead world of the textbook." He comments, “We're not generally attached to our textbooks. If they go, nobody but the textbook publishers will cry."

So is he thinking that the format merely flips from paper to screen, or does he see a change in the content itself? He is excited about digital “with additional features like a video interview with the author? An e-book can be a much richer and deeper experience than anything we've seen before." However is this contextual thinking about the content, or context? Some would say that what he says about textbooks could equally apply to all books. Who cries then?

Surely publishing is more than mere text? Mass reading is only some 150 years old but stories and information has been with us for ever. We need to understand that publishing is about content, promoting, packaging, selling and connecting creators with consumers. Publishing is fundamentally is a rights business that trades rights access to content and controls its usage. ‘Publishing’ has no divine right, it only survives as we know it today as long as it adds value between creator and consumer.

Some will read Peter Olson’s words and think he is a visionary others a lost soul, but what all have to respect is that he is right to think ‘scared.’

1 comment:

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