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Digital Distribution Means Global, Not Local

By Andrew Savikas, vice-president, O’Reilly Media


Within a few years (or sooner) more people will read the books we publish at O’Reilly Media in digital form than in print. While it won’t happen that quickly for other publishers, it will happen. That doesn’t mean that print books will go away — it just means that publishing will be about digital products that you might happen to sell in print, not print products that you might sell digitally.

One of the key characteristics of digital publishing is that it means publishing content that’s usually consumed while also connected to the Web. It means that content can be connected to the rich tapestry of hyperlinks and community that thrive on the Web. And, perhaps the biggest implication of publishing content that’s connected to the Web is that the Web is, of course,  a World Wide one. Publishing is quickly becoming a truly global business, brimming with opportunity for companies willing to adapt their thinking and their businesses.

Like many publishers, one of the reasons we attend fairs like Frankfurt and London is to sell the translation rights for our printed books. And I don’t expect that business to go away for anyone involved: Selling a translated print book successfully requires money to invest in the actual translation, it requires knowledge of the local market, and it requires the ability to fill the local retail supply chain. But for digital products, we are already in a world where a publisher can put their products for sale directly into the pockets of tens of millions of people in dozens of countries instantly. Digital books sold on the Web and through mobile devices have extended our reach into markets that are nearly impossible to serve efficiently in print.

As an example, we’ve recently begun selling many of our books directly on the iPhone through the “App Store.” And nearly 2/3 of the people buying those apps are from outside the US. Nearly half of the digital sales from our website are to customers outside the US. For many of our books in Google Book Search, the traffic from India is several times higher than from the US. Though we’re primarily an English-language publisher, digital distribution has given us the ability to expand the market for that English-language content worldwide.

Worldwide digital distribution channels also means the opportunity to reconsider those rights relationships forged in Frankfurt. There are real opportunities to collaborate with licensees on digital products that can be efficiently sold wherever there are native speakers, not just within the geographic boundaries of the existing print markets for those translations.

Looking even farther ahead, in 10 or 20 years there will be large opportunities in areas that lack a robust print retail and distribution infrastructure. In the same way that many parts of the world never bothered building out the infrastructure for landline telephones, many emerging markets will fast forward to digital as the primary distribution and consumption method for content, likely complemented with print on demand.

Opportunities and challenges like these mean it’s more important than ever to connect and collaborate with potential partners from around the world to understand how the changing digital and mobile landscape looks from their eyes, and to learn about the behavior and interests of consumers in places you can now reach profitably.

BROWSE: O’Reilly Media’s Web site

CONTACT: Andrew Savikas directly

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  1. Posted August 10, 2009 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    Sounds easy, Andrew, but digital publishers need to apply strong marketing to make consumers aware of their titles.

  2. Jonathan
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I agree with above, the strength of a title’s success lies in the strength of the marketing. But surely there must be a better way? I enjoy discovering books on my own, or through word-of-mouth (from friends, not marketers!) Seeing a book over-hyped usually means I’ll walk away, where’s the balance?

  3. Posted August 10, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Global opportunities open of new venues that have been difficult to reach with print. Europeans complain all the time, for example, that Americans are too isolated when it comes to reading fiction and see a relatively small percentage of continental authors in their stores. This is just one of the areas that will, I hope, get better as the digital age flourishes.

    On the flip side, news and stories are at their inception local. As metropolitan papers go digital and try to compete nationally and internationally, we’re losing some of our local news coverage. Local and regional authors of fiction and nonfiction don’t need to see their publications disappear simply because a story from Peoria just doesn’t play well in Tokyo–and falls by the wayside as too small to publish.

  4. Posted August 11, 2009 at 6:40 am | Permalink


    You’re right that digital distribution can mean global distribution and presents some great opportunities. But there are two ways to do Global — Sweeping aside national boundaries to serve a “single”, global market from one source; or building your global business a country at a time and doing business in a way that respects each territory’s specific dynamics and maybe puts something back instead of just sucking dollars out.

    I’m in New Zealand where our perspective is a little different from yours. We’re not defined by a local language that needs translating. We’re a small English language market of 4 million people whose industries could have the life sucked out of them, no matter how clever we are, by much bigger and better resourced global players. And the internet, as we’re seeing, can concentrate a lot of power in a small number of places.

    We need to be open to new opportunities and ways to do business but when you’re the little guy facing the onslaught of big, sophisticated competitors with global reach and low marginal costs, it can be hard to get established, let alone big enough to be a serious competitor. And global internet businesses with no attachment to your market, don’t tend to put much back or be very helpful to its development.

    This is not an easy problem but we need to start thinking about how the kind of world you describe can be built in a way that’s more respectful of diversity and less destructive of smaller communities.

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