A book publisher's manifesto - Part III

Continuing the serialised version of my article for Library Trends: And whilst the edges of the book become more porous, the concept of a ‘book as unit’ slowly disappears further into history, new business models are already emerging. The value in the chain moves from a model which intertwines content with distribution to a model which simply values the content. Tim O’Reilly spotted this years ago and his company built Safari books online as a subscription service accessed with a browser, which now has revenues in excess of those widely cited for the entire downloadable eBook industry. As he points out in his recent blog post Bad Math among eBook enthusiasts on O’Reilly Radar (5th December 2007) “… as for the kind of books that you don’t read from beginning to end, but just use to do a job like looking up information, or learning something new, the “all you can eat” subscription model may be more appropriate [than unitary pricing]. With Safari, we’ve increasingly moved from a “bookshelf” model (in which you put books on a bookshelf and can only swap at month end) to an all you can eat model, because we’ve discovered that people consume about the same amount of content regardless of how much you make available. All you can eat pricing lets people take what they need from more books, but it doesn’t increase the total amount of content they consume. It merely changes the distribution, and in particular, favors the long tail over the head.”

As Scott Karp observes on O’Reilly’s comments in his blog post on The Future of Print Publishing and Paid Content (6th December 2007) on Publishing 2.0, “Instant full access to a searchable digital library is a radically different form of distribution from buying reference books one at a time and putting them on your bookshelf. But here’s the fascinating part — “it doesn’t increase the total amount of content they consume.” People still value and use the content in much the same way, despite the radically different distribution model. By unbundling these books into a digital library, consumers essentially repackage them by searching for and selecting specific content items. So even when consumers value content enough to pay for it, they intuitively understand that it doesn’t cost the publisher nearly as much to make the content available digitally as it did to put all of those books physically on a shelf. That’s why consumers aren’t willing to pay for the equivalent of buying ALL the books in print. You can’t price a bus ticket the same as a plane ticket simply because they both get you from point A to point B — it costs a lot less to drive a bus than fly a plane.” Online science fiction publisher Baen Books’ webscriptions offering puts a value on material pre-publication and demonstrates a successful, early move from unitary distribution and pricing to a flexible, subscription offering. This web based re-creation of the serialized novel using Science Fiction published by Baen Books offers novels published in three segments, one month apart, beginning three months before the actual publication date. Each month four books are made available for $15 per month. About two weeks after the last quarter is delivered, print versions of the books become available in bookshops. Publishers are also slowly waking up to the idea that, whilst the book online can no longer always afford to be an island, neither can the publisher. Consumers of books care very little, if at all, about publisher brands. Some authors are brands, but publishers have largely remained invisible to consumers in terms of branding. In the online space, publishers need to recognise that readers simply want the content they require – and fast, simply, without barriers or walls ring-fencing random selections of content purely because one content set belongs to one publisher and another set to a second, different publisher. A useful network of books will almost always, inevitably, cross the boundaries between a number of publishers. In the journals world this has been recognised and resolved by cross-publisher platforms and linking systems such as CrossRef and IngentaConnect. As books move online, similar developments will be necessary to connect the multiple references between books published by many different publishers, but book publishers have been far slower to develop cross-publisher platforms than journals publishers were, perhaps because the critical nature of citations in journals publishing offered a clearer strategic and commercial driver in the journals world. In the education market at least, the requirements for custom publishing in which institutions, their academics and students are able to construct bespoke textbooks and course materials drawn from content published by multiple publishers will also no doubt only increase, and publishers will need to get a whole lot better at finding ways to come down from their ivory towers and work together.