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

In Feature Articles by Guest Contributor

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?

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.