A simple and perfectly sensible suggestion emerged on the Brantley email list yesterday but the conversation around it showed that some stark realities about the book world have not yet been taken on board, even in very sophisticated circles (which this list is.)
The list discussed a suggestion from librarian Josh Greenberg that publishers take note of the “rental” model built into the iTunes store as an alternative way to collect money from readers for ebooks.
Greenberg’s piece calls out a fact that many people in publishing have a great deal of difficulty with: that all ebook sales must be licensing deals. They can’t be anything else. Greenberg says:
“When we think about iTunes, we think about a basic fee-for-purchase model. We’ll just leave aside the fact that you never truly “own” a digital file, you’re just buying a particularly-structured license to use it…”
He’s right. When you deal in printed books, you have a tangible object. When you deal in ebooks, you only have “code”. The first sale doctrine says you can re-sell the book or lend it or share it. But copyright law says you can’t re-sell, lend, or share copyrighted “code.” Many digerati (and many librarians not named Josh Greenberg) refuse to acknowledge this distinction.
But that’s a legal point, one that can be debated until a court or a Congress makes a ruling (and then beyond, actually, since we continue to fight battles even after courts or Congress have rendered their conclusion.) The challenge to Greenberg’s idea of switching to a rental model is not so debatable. It’s practical.
Implementing new models for book sales requires herding cats. It can never be done fast and many business ideas relating to content have foundered because it couldn’t be done at all.
What should be clear to anybody who has been following developments since the days a decade or more ago whenRocketbook and Softbook and Sprout were trying to get publishers to give them rights for their content propositions is that it takes a very persuasive sales pitch to get publishers to do so. That sales pitch must be delivered publisher by publisher, and then the impressive ability of publishers to discuss a problem to death takes over, and the new proposition might itself die before its owner gets an answer. Or certainly before its owner gets enough answers to get the new idea off the ground.
What was further made clear by the participation of agents at Digital Book World, and particularly by the opinions expressed by superagent Robert Gottlieb on the ebook “timing” panel, is that the publishers don’t make this decision without consulting with their upstream gatekeepers. Gottlieb made clear that a) it takes a very small number of lost hardcover sales to make an author’s book slip notches on the New York Times Bestseller list, b) he and his authors believe that a much cheaper ebook, or perhaps any ebook at all not reported as a hardcover sale, can make that critical difference between being Number 1 or being much further down the list, and c) the difference in several places on that list is worth losing some sales over.
So just imagine how Gottlieb and his star clients (and all the other agents and star clients) would react to a rental model!
Let’s add one more point before the next great suggestion is made. The same thing will be true of an even better model than rental (which also has plenty of precedent in media even closer to publishers, audio books): subscription sales.
The switch that Apple has made to the “agency model” is not of equivalent complexity from a business perspective. There we’re still “selling the book” (although we’re really licensing access to a file) and the amount of money flowing to the publisher is comparable. But, even there, the switch will not be simple. Publishers have signed contracts governing almost all their ebook sales (which is a further demonstration that this is different from selling physical books, for which signed contracts between publishers and vendors is by far the exception, not the hard and fast rule) which one could imagine the purchasing party (Amazon, Ingram, Content Reserve, Barnes & Noble, Kobo) believes prevents the publisher from changing the rules in the middle of the game.
What Michael Cader reported last week which we expanded on in a blog post and a CNN interview is that publishers can use the new agency model to hold back books from channels where they can’t control the pricing. This very much underreported exchange between Steve Jobs and Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal makes it very clear that Apple expects vendors who would undercut the pricing publishers set for them will be denied access to the content.
We can look forward to continued battles over pricing and over the terms of sale between publishers and the downstream players in the ebook supply chain. But I think it will be a while before real alternative distribution schemes to the public make any appearances. In fact, they’re likely to occur in vertical niches first, where the big agents are less involved and the number of publishers one needs to get on board is something less than “just about all of them.”
A quick thanks to everybody who attended Digital Book World (and there were a lot of you.) I am hoping that the fact that all I’ve heard is praise and enthusiasm for the two day event is not just a result of people being kind to the guy who put the program together. I think we really did generate discussion on some issues that had previously been neglected. But most of all I’m proud of the job we did selecting panelists; everyone I saw presenting was smart, well-prepared and entertaining. Some we had seen in front of audiences before; some we only knew through our interviews in person or on the phone. But picking them carefully and one by one certainly seemed to work and it is the same formula we’ll use putting together Digital Book World 2011. I hope we’ll see everybody again there next year.