Back in 1993 or so, my friend Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International and I went to a free half-day conference sponsored by Microsoft. At the time, Microsoft was really pushing the computer manufacturers to install CD-Rom drivers into new computers. They had a definite selfish interest, which was to reduce the cost of goods for their software, which was being delivered on multiple floppy disks. One CD-Rom could hold what a dozen or more floppies would hold and would cost Microsoft considerably less. Since the consumer was paying for what ended up in their computer, not the manufacturing cost of the shrink-wrapped product that got it there, Microsoft knew that making the delivery mechanism cheaper wouldn’t oblige them to cut the cost of their software; they’d just make more money.
So on this particular day, they were hosting the publishing community to tell them what CD-Roms could mean to them. This was the first time that I was aware (although perhaps it had happened before) that the mainstream tech community was talking to the consumer trade publishing community and saying “have we got something for you!”
What Microsoft tried to demonstrate was that many things could be done with all the data that could be packed on a CD-Rom. They were in the process of creating their own CD-Rom encyclopedia, Encarta, and they wanted all publishers to get on the CD-Rom bandwagon. The message essentially was: “you’re the creative people; you’re the content guys. Look at all this cool stuff that CD-Roms can do. Now we don’t know what the product should be exactly and we don’t have a business model for you, but, don’t be Luddites, get off your duffs and start making some CD-Roms!”
Lorraine and I walked out of that meeting thinking, “this isn’t very helpful” to the content publishers who were our client base. So our two companies joined forces with another consulting company owned by Dan McNamee, got PW as a sponsor, and staged a full-day conference called “Electronic Publishing and Rights” (which turned out to be the first of two.) We had a plenary session in the morning, and then the afternoon proceeded on three tracks: consumer, education, and professional. (When we did the second show, we made it five tracks: consumer, school, college, sci-tech, and legal/accounting.) Both shows were sellouts and what I learned putting them together really pushed me, before the Web, before Amazon, and before ebooks had anything more than a 4-line display on an early Sony device, into the business of thinking about what the impact of digital delivery of content would be on consumer trade publishing.
Before long, the conferences we did led to the “Publishing in the 21st Century” program I described last week and the regular reminders that book publishing is many businesses with quite different characteristics, not just one (which we had acknowledged at our EP&R shows with our afternoon tracks.)
And that leads us to Digital Book World, the new conference on digital change for consumer trade publishers that was announced yesterday. We’re now having conversations that go beyond our very illustrious Advisory Board about speakers and topics. What comes back to us over and over again is how important the trade book focus is.
For example, earlier this week we spent the day working with a client — a large aggregator — that wanted a little “ebook seminar” for their team to be part of our visit. In order to really focus the conversation, I asked for a list of questions and concerns. It became evident very quickly that this company needed information about sci-tech, college, and school ebooks and, of course, what I know best is trade. But I knew enough about the others to know that they are quite different, so I checked in with two smart industry colleagues (both of whom are members of our Advisory Board, as it happens) who know both the trade and non-trade spaces. We came up with a list of distinctions, but one really stood out to me.
In the trade space, one of the big ebook topics (which we plan to explore in depth at DBW) is “pricing.” What should ebooks cost the consumer? The convention among trade publishers has been to peg ebook retail prices to the least-expensive edition available in print. So if there is a cloth edition and a paperback edition, the publisher would be guided on ebook pricing by the paperback (usually setting at or slightly below the print book price.)
But in academic publishing, hardcover and paperback editions are often published simultaneously. The publisher figures that the paperbacks are for the students; the hardcovers are for the libraries. Since ebooks in the academic space are considered primarily library items, and because they have often become part of larger searchable databases, the academic publishers would set their ebook prices based on the hardcover, the more expensive print book available. He also said that sometimes they are even more expensive than the hardcover, because of the additional functionality they have, like links and embedded video.
This was important information for our client, who works across publishing segments. But if presented without a clear contextual frame, it could well be confusing information to a consumer trade publisher (or an academic publisher) trying to figure out a pricing strategy. Because we are tightly focused on consumer trade publishing, our panel(s) at DBW might not mention a tie-to-hardcover pricing, but if we did, we’d pose the model and talk about why it made sense in some other context, but not in ours. We’ll be talking about lots of other things that affect price: discounts, retailer strategies and control, the impact of the publisher selling direct to the consumer, and the extent to which there is enrichment or enhancement, for example. All of those things, as well, are somewhat different in the consumer space than in the others, where aggregation and value-added capabilities are critical components of ebook development.
Now that DBW has been announced, we’re engaged in conversations to refine the topics list and speaker suggestions we’ve gotten from our Advisory Board. We’ll be announcing speakers and panels as they are nailed down. We’re striving for a show that will scream “this is for me!” to consumer trade publishers. While we’re not doing a “call” for topics and panels (we did that ourselves, internally and with our Advisory Board, already), we certainly will happily entertain suggestions. If you have any you want us to consider, better to email my colleague Sophie Shepherd (at [email protected]) than to post them here (though you can also do both.)
This post and my last post last week and many you will see in the weeks to come will be making the distinction between “general trade publishing” and other book publishing. That distinction is a remarkably important one, but it is also going to be a disappearing one. In fact, the distinction between “book publishing” and “publishing” is going to be a disappearing one over the next couple of decades; we have talked before about the fact that format-agnosticism will increasingly characterize all media, not just publishing, as will verticality. While that means that there is a real need for Digital Book World, which emphasizes that distinction, it also means there is a place and need for the more tech-centric and publishing-type-agnostic program presented at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change. Personally, I’m planning to attend both.