« Growth Markets, Resources

E-books are a Cul-de-sac: Why Publishing Needs to Rethink Its Digital Strategy

By Eoin Purcell

DUBLIN: It is a mark of the publishing industry’s poor strategic abilities that e-books have become an all consuming obsession. I believe that, ultimately, e-books are merely a cul-de-sac. Given that sales of e-books tripled in 2009 — and continue to boom — this may seem ever so slightly irrational, but hear me out.

Much as we love our physical books (and let’s face it, the majority of those working in publishing NOW, are there because of a love of paper books) we cannot let that love blind us to the realities of change and the shift that digital is imposing upon us. But the industry, despite notable and impressive exceptions, is still avoiding the inevitable accommodation and embrace of the Internet AS THE PLATFORM. As a body, we are ignoring the implications of digital change and seeking short and medium-term patches at the expense of long-term success. We need to prepare for a smaller print industry (in terms of titles, publishers and staff) and a bigger digital industry — one that will exist in a multiplicity of forms beyond the e-book.

Eoin Purcell

Eoin Purcell

We all know that the e-book market as it is currently structured is not designed in the best interests of book publishers. “Why should it be?” is a common response. And they’d be right: publishers have no special right to exist. Nevertheless, publishers remain powerful forces and should at least make an effort to change the game in their favor. To do so requires deeper thinking and  better, more strategic, long-term action than they are currently exhibiting.

Right now the greatest beneficiaries of the shift towards e-books are device sellers, public domain hawkers and self-publishing authors. While I foresee authors gaining more value as the Internet facilitates easier self publishing and cheaper direct marketing, there is no reason why anyone should necessarily benefit to a greater extent than publishers.

The skirmishes that have been fought over price demonstrate the lack of reasoned, long-term maneuvering by publishers. Ultimately the sales price of one form of content monetization (i.e. e-books) is not the critical concern (although on this front it seems to me that encouraging readers with lower pricing is hardly a terrible idea).

THE critical concern should be developing an expertise in how to sell content in many different forms and at many different prices to different audiences. Publishers should be platform agnostic, selling wherever readers are willing to buy and not focusing if it is an e-book, an app, online access, segments, chapters, quotes, mash-ups, readings, conferences, or anything else (a point made Friday on Publishing Perspectives by Clive Rich).

Rather than expend their energy focusing on one format that may be fleeting, publishers need to focus on two long-term objectives: audience development and content curation. Neither of these are specific to digital activities, meaning that they will only serve to bolster the print side of the business as well, whether it declines rapidly or gradually.

For audience development, “engagement” and “community” are where resources need to be expended. The ambitious promises made by Richard Nash with regards to his new project Cursor, are one such example. But some more modest efforts of a company like Osprey, which caters to military history buffs and offers subscriptions, online forums and the like, demonstrates how a deeply traditional niche publisher can develop their community online while enhancing the value of their print customer base.

Some of the resources that publishers spend on press and media placement of their books could easily be redirected towards gathering tribes of readers based on niches and authors. Done sensibly and with foresight, this would assist the promotion of titles in whatever format they might be sold.

Curation, too, is an old value, and one that is being revived. In the context of publishing, it means developing a body of quality titles that an imprint or house (or a niche driven community) can be proud of, written by authors that the publisher and readers are happy to claim as their own. Within the large trade publishers, the content already exists to create valuable online offerings. Many have deep reserves of nonfiction titles that can cater to various niches. For fiction it may seem more difficult. Certainly it has already been done in sci-fi, romance, and the aforementioned military history, but there’s no reason these can’t be done with literary fiction and other sub-genres, and have all fiction promoted cross-genre.

I know there is a danger of ascribing a one future fits all model, but the values I’m urging publishers to adhere to don’t exclude anyone. And there is no reason to think that publishers lack the ability to develop deep niches: in fact, the history of publishers suggest that they are ideally placed to do so. Imprints themselves have developed specifically to organize books or a certain type or genre for marketing and selling to the trade show. Publishers instinctively think of books and content in niche terms, they relate one to to another and see them as belonging to loose groups.

The relentless focus on e-books and devices is unhelpful. If it continues, it will cripple our strategic thinking and that inevitably WILL drive our industry into a cul-de-sac.

Eoin Purcell lives and works in Dublin, Ireland where he runs Green Lamp Media, a publishing services and content company. He was formerly commissioning editor with one of Ireland’s oldest independent publishers Mercier Press. Prior to that he worked at Nonsuch Ireland as commissioning editor and publishing manager. He is a board member of Publishing Ireland, the Irish Publishers association.

FURTHER READING: Brian O’Leary’s thoughts on Revenue Maximisation

ALSO: Dominique Raccah’s offers some intriguing ideas about “Content or Publishing Contiuum

AND: Seth Godin offers even more idea this episode of The Reading Edge Podcast

DISCUSS: When is a digitized, enhanced, video-enabled book no longer a book?

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  1. Rochelle
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    I see the conflict between publishers focusing on the devices/platforms and the content itself as essentially being an intellectual versus intuitive issue. As Eoin writes, publishers already understand how to curate for the “tribe”. Grouping our titles into themed lists or categories, using market feedback to steer their lists — we have been operating for generations. Knowing our niches or tribes is the best way to get our products out there. Now that the word “product” encompasses much more than just the printed book, why get caught up in the device war and stray from our roots?

  2. Posted March 30, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Ditto (obviously, I guess, given I’m the ambitious promiser referred to above). I think part of hte infatuation with the eBook qua download is that it allows legacy publishers to maintain their focus on the supply chain, the process of selling units via some aggregating platform (other than the Internet!) to individual customers. It’s stunning how a publisher who can, as you note, do the “tribal” thing, doesn’t in fact grasp that that’s what they’re doing—they’re so captured by the edit-design-print-ship-shelve model. It’s a framing problem, I guess: legacy pblishers can’t describe themselves outside the supply china framework. Anyhow, I think that that’s partly why they’re so focused on the individually downloadable eBook—it’s the aspect of the whole process that looks most like the print supply chain…

  3. Beth
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Paraphrasing James Carvile ” it’s the content stupid”…….

  4. Posted March 30, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    One thing publishers need to do is to consider content management. Writers don’t like to think of their work as data, but it is. Publishers need to embrace the idea that their content should be stored as secure, valid data that can be output in whatever format is desired using standard tools. XML and SGML provide ways to do this. Reading devices and publishing platforms will change, but once the content is valid data, it can be manipulated to do what is needed.

  5. Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Thinking of books as just another presentation medium, as Karen suggests, seems to be very difficult for traditional publishers to understand. As Richard points out, they are held captive by their supply chain mentality. We were talking with an exec from a big publisher recently, and were somewhat startled by the realization that these folks don’t even see readers as their customers. Contrast that attitude with Osprey’s. All you have to do is look at their site to see that they are tightly focused on giving customers what they want.

  6. widdershins
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    As an author I’ve recently celebrated coming out of the dark ages and embracing the technology of the 21st century. I am guilty of that narrow thinking about e-books being the only way of the future … this article is certainly food for thought … the irony being that it was all there in front of me in the first place … unfortunately traditional publishers have been in a flat out tizz since the advent of e-books, and unless someone kicks them where it hurts (in the wallet) they will go the way of the dinosaur, which is a shame because they will take a valuable resource with them, namely experience. Thankfully there is a rise of new smaller publishers who can see past the dinosaur and authors like me who will now kick her e-publlisher in the fundamental and get them thinking outside the box too

  7. Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been publishing e-books since 2004 and have to agree with the “cul de sac” description. They have not been the bonanza that everyone anticipated and there seems to be no ‘there” there. Demand is manifest only by it’s absence. Name me an e-book edition that has sold a million copies. A hundred thousand? 10,000? a thousand, a hundred?

    Until demand picks up this will be a niche market. Distributors only make money in this market because they have hundreds of thousands of titles to sell.

  8. Posted March 31, 2010 at 3:52 am | Permalink

    Ultimately there won’t be any particular platform at all. Content will be sent to and sourced from the “cloud”. The pub biz needs to get its head around this now, and you can be sure Apple, Amazon, et al already have.

  9. Dean
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    The internet is not a platform, it’s a distribution network. I think I agree with your central point–that publishers can’t get wedded to particular devices–but there is no “platform” inherent in the internet. There is no there there. (That quote from Gertrude Stein has never been so applicable . . .)

  10. Posted April 4, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Interesting take. I agree about the niche. Finding readers is critical and very hard for traditional publishers to grasp as they have been so focused on physical distribution to consignment bookstores, they have no quite grasped they need to leap over that barrier and go for readers directly.
    As far as the niche, publishers need to look at Harlequin and it’s various romance lines or Ellora Cave’s niche in erotica. With Who Dares Wins Publishing, we’re carving out our niche in military fiction and non-fiction and our goal is to connect directly with our readers.

  11. Posted May 29, 2010 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Dear Eoin,
    I had my first e-book come out in both print and e-book in 2006. It was called patrick’s Gift published by an Irish publisher. It was the firt Irish book published in that format,and I haven’t looked back. My new anthology of short stories will be out in September- an amalgamation of two e-books- The First Communion and Golden Weddin’. I have been approached by two e-book publishers to bring my old Wolfhound Press novels out.
    Check out the Ipad. They are asking authors for their unpublished books to dogitally produce them for their Ipad.
    All the best.

  12. Posted July 10, 2010 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    Ebooks a cul de sac?

    Sales of ebooks increased by over 250% from last year.

    The impact of the iPad on sales will be very significant indeed.

    The paradigm shift has already taken place yet there is a general reluctance in the publishing fraternity to accept the change. It matters not because they are becoming superfluous to the writer in the quest to bring work to readers.

13 Trackbacks

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