Is the ebook and POD combo a viable publishing strategy yet?
There’s a new publishing model afoot, which is to lead with the ebook and just print what you need. That might be POD, and it might be press runs, if you can sell out whole press runs. If the ebook becomes a substantial chunk of sales and if ebooks maintain their prices, this looks like it could be a new way to do much lower-risk publishing.
Some very smart publishing people are moving in this direction. It had been the plan of the meteoric Quartet, which has already flamed out. It is part of the plan of Richard Nash, an experienced publisher (Soft Skull Press) and a budding entrepeneur. It is the model for a young and aspiring Irish publisher named Eoin Purcell. And last week, tor.com announced that it would be publishing books (this is distinct from its “parent”, St. Martin’s sci-fi imprint Tor) with an ebook first and POD methodology.
Can no pressrun publishing work? That’s a subject for discussion at Digital Book World in January, but, based on an interesting post by Kassia Kroszer, one of the four principals in Quartet, I have real doubts.
Kassia’s post makes it clear that direct sales at “full margin” (meaning no cut to anybody else in the supply chain) were an important part of Quartet’s budget and plan. They figured that by sticking to niches, and the first one was going to be romance, they’d be able to build up a direct audience and avoid sharing revenues with retailers and wholesalers. Kassia points out that savvy ebook readers (who apparently also hate DRM, high prices, lack of interoperability, etc.) are willing to support their “local” publisher, knowing that more money gets to the author that way.
This all makes me more skeptical about the model.
Savvy ebook readers are a large part of the current readership, but they won’t stay that way. If ebooks are going to become a business, than casual and uninformed ebook readers will have to join the party. Although I’ve been reading ebooks for 10 years, I’m one of those. I don’t shop around for my ebooks; I buy from what I deem to be the most convenient source. When I used to read on a Palm (in pre-Kindle days), there was no such animal, but Peanut Press followed by Palm Digital followed by ereader had to serve. Then Amazon and Kindle changed the game. And now B&N is providing me exactly what I need for my iPhone.
If a web site I was on anyway offered me an ebook I wanted that would work in my BN reader software, I wouldn’t be reluctant to buy it. But I will only be shopping at places that offer me a choice of things I want. It’s hard to imagine a single publisher doing that.
The web constantly reminds us of the value of monopoly. Amazon has a huge advantage in being the best place to shop for books because they’re the biggest. The size of the purchasing community adds value: more reviews, more data to make better suggestions or respond better to search queries, and it gives them the scale to add unique content through Kindle and BookSurge. In the same way, we’re likely to see a dominant horizontal ebook retailer emerge.
So no matter how good you are at selling your own stuff, if you want to sell to the public at large, you’ll almost always have to use intermediaries. And if you want to sell stuff to your own niche, you’re going to have to be an aggregator, not just a creator, to offer enough product to keep even a niche audience interested. And, if that’s true, then even within the niches, most of the small creators will have to share their revenue with an intermediary.
The loyal and informed crowd of romance readers may have learned that they can find the books they want at Harlequin.com or Ellora’s Cave, but there has to be a limit to the number of individual romance publisher sites the community will support. The right move for Harlequin would be to imitate tor.com and start selling their competitors’ books. (Tor hasn’t done this for ebooks, yet, but they have done it for print.)
The idea of building a niche presence for most subjects simply through publishing in it, rather than by building a real vortal or community site, seems futile. Another lesson from the web (so far; it could change) is that making your own content and selling what you make is not a viable model, except at the very highest price points. You have to figure out how to leverage other people’s content and community participation. That’s what Google does. That’s what PublishersMarketplace does. That’s what the future successful publishers I envision in the Shift speech will have done.
Cutting costs and cutting waste, which ebook-first publishing does, would certainly seem like a path to financial viability. But it takes revenue to pay the bills. If you don’t go out and reach customers where they are — at the big Internet retailers — you need to be selling ebooks to a very large community for sales to be substantial enough to run a business. And if you do use those retailers, they (quite reasonably) extract their share of revenue for delivering access to the customers.
It may be too soon for the ebook-first model to succeed, except in niches more tightly defined than “romance” (which, indeed, is a big part of Purcell’s initial approach) or when it is supported by another business (which is, if you think about it, tor.com’s approach.)