Will book publishers be able to maintain primacy as ebook publishers?
Being on the road in London and on my way to Frankfurt, where we have two Publishers Launch Conferences coming up on Monday and Tuesday, I don’t have time for what my British friends would call a “proper” blogpost, with a bit of research (I admit I never do much) and some links. But I’ve been thinking about something over the past month which I ran by a marketing VP at a major house last week. It looks like one of the really big questions facing the major houses in the next couple of years, so it seemed worth airing in the run-up to publishing’s largest global gathering.
Here’s an assumption that is not documentable; it is my own speculation. I think we’re going to see a US market that is 80% digital for narrative text reading in the pretty near future: could be as soon as two years from now but almost certainly within five. We have talked about the cycle that leads to that on this blog before: more digital reading leads to a decline in print purchasing which further thins out the number of bookstores and drives more people to online book purchasing which further fuels digital reading. Repeat. Etcetera.
We’re already at the point where new narrative text units sold are well north of 25% digital (percent of publishers’ revenue is lower than that, of course) and we are still in a period that has lasted about five years (soon to end) where the penetration of digital has doubled or more annually. (I italicized that to emphasize that what I’m talking about doubling is the percentage of sales that are digital, not the absolute number of digital sales. Several people misinterpeted that when I made to it previously.)
Of course, penetration will slow down before it reaches 100%. I’d imagine we get to 80% in 2 to 5 years, then then to 90% in another couple of years, with the last 10% stretching out a long time. How long did it take after the invention of the car before the last person rode their horse to town?
Now here’s a fact which is documentable, and would be documented right here on a day when time wasn’t in such short supply: brands that are not publishing houses are directly publishing their own ebooks with increasing frequency. Magazines and television networks and web sites are recognizing the reality that self-publishing ebooks is something they can do themselves without the complications (or revenue-sharing) that working with a publisher would require.
This is not a surprise to me, but it does really raise a point that major publishers have to consider: can book publishers add enough value to the ebook publishing process to persuade another brand with content credibility, one that has direct contact with the vertical community that is the audience for their books, to do their ebooks through the publisher rather than directly?
This is an existential question for big trade publishers. They have forged partnerships with other brands, even media brands, for many years based on their unique ability to deliver printed books competently and to put them on bookstore shelves. Those are things that a magazine, a broadcast network, a movie studio, or a packaged goods company couldn’t do for themselves.
Which leads to the conversation I had this past week with the marketing VP. We were discussing marketing topics suitable for Digital Book World this January. This house is doing some very important things that wouldn’t have been on their radar a few years ago: SEO, of course, but also developing vertical communities and organizing a corporation-wide effort to gather names and data and direct contact with readers (handicapped by the fact that they almost never actually consummate the transaction). I raised the question: “will publishers be able to persuade these non-publisher brands that it is worth giving up margin and some control to work with publishers in the years to come?”
“That’s a very tall order,” he said.
Random House has apparently succeeded in doing this a couple of times recently. They have made deals with two political web sites (Politico and Real Clear Politics) to do ebooks related to the 2012 presidential election. This is a big deal. It wouldn’t be a big deal if the principal output were print; Politico and RCP can’t do print. But they could do ebooks without Random House; literary agents all over town (among others) are lining up to offer the tools to enable that.
And the profound danger to the big publishers is that if outfits like Politico and RCP start by doing their own ebooks, who is to say they’d stop there? It would be a natural extension to start publishing other people’s ebooks themselves once they had built up a network and infrastructure to sell these files successfully. The thing for trade publishers to fear is that they would lose their role in the value chain, vertical by vertical.
Developing skills and capabilities that make their ebook-publishing ability superior to vertical brands is going to be essential for publishers’ survival as the skills and capabilities to do print publishing become less important commercially over time, as they will. Even if you disagree with my aggessive expectations for ebook market penetration, I think you’ll be able to substitute your own and come up with pretty much the same conclusion.