This is how it will be in the long run. And no commercial force on earth can change it.
Every “work” (books and more) will be made available in virtually any form somebody could want: printed and bound in a book, printed but not bound, suitable for reading on the computer screen or in any hand-held reader or personal digital assistant or, when appropriate, telephone screen.
The ultimate purchaser of any particular “instance” of the work being used will pay for what she gets and how she gets it. She will almost certainly pay more for taking the “work” in a printed and bound form than as a file, simply because somebody has to pay for the incremental cost and she’s the logical candidate. She’ll have to pay the author and perhaps each “aggregator” along the way. Since aggregation is a tool used by intermediaries as well as consumers (think of publishers or wholesalers or bookstores or libraries as aggregators, as well as indices and directories and other collections of any kind which give you a logical place to look or browse), the same things will be sold at different prices depending upon the path they took to the person who, in the end, wanted to pay to possess the “work”or have it available to her on a timely basis.
The bookstore function is already breaking down into at least two parts, and this process will accelerate. Web sites and other expressions of interest group community will introduce the readers to what they want to read. There are perhaps more than one million “affiliated” sites already feeding business to Amazon.com and BN.com. The process of integrating what we now call bookselling seamlessly into every human exchange of information has just begun.
Here’s the counterintuitive thing about the Web that throws a lot people off. There is the seductive appearance of an ability to disintermediate many of the brick-and-mortar components of the publishing value chain. After all, as has been pointed ad nauseum long before Stephen King actually DID it, with the Internet and electronic books an author CAN go straight to the public without a publisher.
But the Internet also breeds intermediaries by making their involvement easier and cheaper and by making it possible to pay them for their role. Everybody who has the opportunity to introduce other people to reading material also has the possibility of getting paid to do it. Contentville is building a business around capabilities that are actually widely available. In another way, so did Amazon at the beginning.
Over time, the tendency of the Web to form communities around topics of interest will involve the conscious concerns of most people. It is in the nature of subject-specific communities to review everything written in their field that anybody would want to read. That is what they talk about. How long can it take before a large portion of that conversation is monetized by referral fees?
These communities — Web sites, listservs, etc. — constitute the specialized TV shows, the off-the-book-page PR opportunities, the special interest clubs that hire speakers and buy books of tomorrow. So there is actually going to be more for a publisher to do in the world to come, not less. True, they won’t be doing as much to print and hold and ship inventory around. But there will be more to do in terms of intermediaries to stay in touch with who can sell any particular “work”.
And what will need to be done will require the level of knowledge of the content that the publisher has today, not what the bookseller has. The bookseller’s clerking and merchandising functions will be dispersed among Web sites and listservs and various digital communities in forms yet to come, connected to a more centralized bill, ship, and fulfill function (think of the “affiliate” model) for the commoditized heavy lifting.
Being the source of content to those widely dispersed interest groups will be the job of aggregators with a firm intellectual grip on the content and the community and a knowledge of each nugget of content’s overall context in the market. That role will still be called “publisher”.
There are perhaps a number of conclusions worth drawing from this analysis. But here’s the most important one for now: the ebook rights and pbook rights are indivisible. It doesn’t make sense for an author to divide them any more than it makes sense for an author to publish with any publisher who doesn’t know to exploit both of them.
The scramble of the next six months is for publishers to demonstrate the capability to do it all: publish books the traditional way, milk the sales garnered only by print-on-demand, and move content through every digital distribution opportunity that arises. But they have to do it with a publisher’s broad-yet-narrow perspective of how each offering fits into its own world.