Online Book Publishing: Issues And Problems Restraining Electronic Books Publishers Distribution Strategies
The buzz this week is about Google's plans to offer eBook downloads for PCs and mobile devices. Great news, but will this allow the book industry to wrestle out of the stranglehold of a mass of conflicting delivery technologies and DRM strategies?
Photo credit: Sony eBook reader
That's not likely any time soon - especially given the tentative relationship between Google and wary book publishers. Yet the future of book publishing is hanging on the willingness of publishers to move aggressively into an environment that will allow eBooks to move into the contexts in which users value them most.
Are book publishers ready to move past promises of eBook development to aggressive new strategies?
News outlets have been burbling with news of Google plans for downloadable eBooks that could be viewed on PCs and mobile devices. According to The Times of London features may include rentable content, content purchasable by the chapter - a fairly familiar list of features for premium eBooks these days as they become available from Amazon, O'Reilly and a growing list of outlets.
And there's the rub: why should the Google brand name change that same list of features into anything more revolutionary than all of these other "eBooks are coming" efforts? If eBooks were a marriage engagement, we'd be worrying if publishers were ever going to get to the altar, much less consummate it in full.
This is not to say that there haven't been some major strides in eBook sales. Firm numbers on total 2006 sales are still in the offing but indicative accounts seem to point to another year of robust growth for eBook titles.
Major publishers are beginning to work vigorously major content technology vendors and online outlets to get significant offerings online for sales and downloading.
Book publishers are gradually getting infrastructure into place that is moving electronic book offerings beyond digitization into digital-first book offerings. In many ways eBooks are beginning to come into their own as offerings from major publishers after many years of promise.
But look also at what happened in those years. While the book industry fiddled with eBook file formats, copyright issues and protecting the retailers and licensors that remain the backbone of their profits, competition for books has flourished in all manner of forms. Weblogs, wikis and social media portals have usurped books in many ways as page-turning content from both new and popular authors.
Independent eBook producers flourished and gained market share via inexpensive titles. And while trade book publishers presumed pre-eminent control over print production and distribution the self-publishing online portal Lulu.com has soared as a popular alternative for bringing content into print format for highly focused audiences.
In short, the book industry has stumbled as it has moved ever so reluctantly into the 21st century - and ignored the real opportunities to be had in both eBooks and print. The problems found in the book publishing industry are not so dissimilar from other transitions into the digital era being experienced by audio, video and newspaper vendors - and the answers to these problems are frighteningly similar.
The digital era has provided the opportunity for publishers of all stripes the opportunity to make their content useful in a myriad of contexts that may have nothing to do with their traditional production and distribution channels and which can be immensely profitable - but only if they are willing to learn how to make the monetization of context more important than the monetization of distribution.
How can book publishers significantly improve the attractiveness and demand for book content while "digital natives" are simultaneously beginning to define how they want book content to matter to them?
Here are a few thoughts to mull over:
- Time for open standard formats.
After years of wrestling with proprietary file formats, the music industry is only now beginning to recognize that its future lies with accepting popular open formats such as MP3 to underpin their distribution success. Book publishers can do even better - using open standards already in place and easy to implement that can allow books to live on any platform.
Publishers have been licensing their content through technology providers, but only out of habit - not because it makes any sense, as we live in an era in which the users are the most powerful content distribution agents on earth.
Google is likely to come up with a good proprietary solution for multi-platform book distribution - but it will be only Google's in all likelihood.
- Time to do what books do best.
The slicing and dicing of book content for academic and engineering audiences is a good step towards making book content useful, but an important aspect of books' strengths seem to have been missed.
Yes, books are important as standalone experiences, but they are also social media. They're handed on from generation to generation.
Given to loved ones with special messages. Marked up. Discussed. And yes, eventually trundled down to the local charity book sale. Long thought of as objects as fixed as the printing presses that create them, the book's real advantage through time has been to hold both the thoughts and sentiments of an original author and those of the people through whose hands a book has passed.
This fundamental aspect of books must become the fulcrum for their value in the era of eBooks to ensure robust new revenue streams.
- Time to rethink DRM.
Heavy DRM controls have been the supposed savior of premium publishing in an electronic era - except that there's not much substantial proof that they've eliminated large-scale piracy or encouraged online sales. Intellectual property needs to be respected and protected, but today's environment seems to favor publishers who help users to make doing the right thing with IP easier than ignoring its importance.
Book publishers are going to have to look carefully at systems provided by Adobe, Microsoft and other providers and decide whether the comfort gained from locking down content heavily is going to be worth the trouble when others are more adept at getting book content into the hands of online users without it.
The Google eBook system will probably be a good thing for helping people to think about electronic book consumption in more contexts than before.
Being able to get at book content easily through the world's dominant search engine has been probably the best thing to happen to the book industry in the last twenty years.
But this benefit will go largely unexploited unless publishers move more aggressively to enable book content to migrate away from Web sites into the contexts in which people value it most - without being tied down to proprietary technology constraints.
Look carefully at the Amazon traffic stats - online book sales are going nowhere fast.
It's time to stop promising a future of eBooks and to start delivering it.
Originally published by John Blossom as "Promises, Promises: eBooks Still Await Serious Commitments from Major Publishers" on January 27, 2007.
Find out more about John Blossom and the management consulting services of Shore Communications Inc., covering the business of enterprise, media and personal publishing at Shore.com.John Blossom -
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