The story in today’s New York Times about the new Daily Beast publishing imprint created by Perseus obviously didn’t hit everybody else the way it hit me. I think it is really important news. It is also a smart approach. And I think it is a harbinger of many things to come.
The two things that struck Michael Cader about this initiative were not the things that struck me. What he said in Lunch:
The Daily Beast is the latest entrant in the shouldn’t books be written shorter and issued faster sweepstakes, launching Beast Books and focusing on current events. They plan to publish ebook editions first, followed by traditional print editions. The site has partnered with Perseus for sales, distribution and other services, represented in the deal by Larry Kirshbaum and Ed Victor.
Aiming to publish just three to five titles a year, the line begins with John Avlon’s ATTACK OF THE WINGNUTS: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America, with a foreword by Tina Brown. The ebook will be available in December 2009; the trade paperback in January 2010.
“Written shorter” and “issued faster” are definitely part of the offer here, but I don’t think they’re the most significant news and, as Michael reminded me when I asked, people have been talking about shorter and faster for a long time. I share Michael’s interest in noting that the ebook will come out first and the print book will follow, which only follows the reality of what is available when! But even that isn’t the most noteworthy aspect of this announcement; as The Times’s story makes clear, publishers have issued ebooks ahead of print before.
What struck me about this initiative is that it shows the publishing power moving from the book publishers whose model is to own content to the website entrepreneurs whose model is to own eyeballs. It shows that online brands with regular around-the-clock followings can do books more efficiently and effectively than publishers with a big apparatus.
The reason that publishers have not shortened publishing schedules in general (they all know that it would be better to accelerate the recovery of the cash invested in author advances and title origination) is because of the marketing requirements that have become standard and part of the landscape. Publishers Weekly, perhaps still the single most powerful pre-publication review (but declining), wants to see galleys for a book four months before publication. Some major accounts want books presented to them as far as six months before publication. If you ask most experienced publishing marketers, I believe they would still tell you that anything less than six months’ lead time to market a book means marketing will both cost more and be less effective.
But The Daily Beast has announced that they will routinely go from a concept to an ebook in the marketplace in six months or less.
This kind of publishing is not primarily made possible by short books, or even ebooks, as much as it is because The Daily Beast has a big online audience and, in addition, serious chops at the practice of getting a story they publish going round and round on the Web. They can get the core audience aware of and talking about a book with their own proprietary engine, so if PW wants to skip reviewing the book they don’t care. And the retailers will know that there’s going to be demand for a book they’re hearing about less than six months in advance, so they’ll break their own rules and stock it on shorter notice.
Now, that is power. How much power? The Times reports (suggesting, but not explicitly saying, that this comes from Brown) that Daily Beast has 3 million unique users a month!
The financial model aspects of this are interesting. The report says that Perseus is financing the publication, signing the author and paying Daily Beast for editing and design. Then Perseus splits profits robustly enough so that their CEO, David Steinberger, can say that authors will get “meaningfully more” than traditional book contracts pay. Obviously, Perseus believes that the marketing that Daily Beast can provide is worth giving away margin for, and that surely seems sensible to me.
The takeaway from this for the industry is that owners of eyeballs are moving into the driver’s seat. The world isn’t completely upside down yet; the owner of the copyright is still paying the owner of the eyeballs for the content and, ostensibly, dictating the terms of the deal. But as more and more web brands develop this kind of audience, publishers are going to get some hard lessons about where the power really will lie as the shift continues to take hold. Remember that what Perseus is bringing to deal is a commodity: lots of other publishers can offer the same suite of capabilities. What the Daily Beast brings is unique. Dollars flow to scarcity.
The one comment worth making on the substance of this is a relatively minor one. Why not enable a print-0n-demand edition to be offered simultaneously with the ebook, at a higher price, of course, which is pulled off the market when the print book’s pressrun arrives? There’s no reason to make somebody wait to read timely information just because they haven’t switched over to ebooks yet. A bit complicated and messy for the retailers; probably have to go to a separate ISBN that isn’t returnable. I’ll bet they’ll get there; this whole idea reflects people who are making total sense and thinking about their community!