By Kwanghui Lim
Traditional book publishers have been increasingly challenged by e-books and other digital technologies. We decided to organize a public seminar with industry participants to learn about new opportunities in this area.
A common theme among our speakers was of the growing fault lines between those who create content and those who distribute it. From the point of view of content creators, digital technology is not a bad thing. It presents new ways to reach customers. To a firm like Lonely Planet, printed books, e-books and apps are alternative and useful delivery mechanisms. The heterogeneity is a good thing since each delivery mechanism has its strengths and weaknesses. For example a map-based application on your mobile phone may be useful for navigating the streets of Melbourne, while a printed travel book might be preferred if you are travelling the Australian outback (books are more durable than electronic devices; they also require no electrical power).
Authors are beginning to explore new pricing schemes. For example several authors are trying to sell a larger volume of e-books at lower prices (around $2.99 – $3.99) instead of a small number of regular books at higher prices (say, $10). Other authors are trying “pay what you want” schemes. Our guest speaker Max Barry will be selling his next book as a real time electronic serial, distributing it directly from his website in small chunks and for an attractive price ($6.95). It is too early to know which of these will work well and for whom because the book industry has many different segments of customers with different needs. Furthermore, there are concerns with e-books around the issue of digital piracy. However, we were reminded by one of the speakers that for many authors, obscurity is worse than piracy.
Besides, piracy has long been a threat even with printed books: you will of course remember the photocopy machine which has existed for quite awhile, as well as those suspiciously inexpensive textbooks printed on poor quality paper brought in from various developing countries. It seems to me at least that in the digital world, selling a large volume of e-books at a low price makes a lot of sense. In this context, the serialized e-book has an added advantage because it builds a repeated interaction between the reader the author. Over time this may help create loyalty towards the author.
I see three areas of opportunity and these arise along the fault lines described above.
The first opportunity is with “apps”. It crossed my mind earlier this month that simply repackaging a book as an app gives the author tremendous freedom. With books, the author is stuck with publishing delays, parallel import laws and other legal impediments, not just the need to physically deliver products. With apps, all that is gone. Re-purpose a book as an app and it morphs into a software program, so different rules apply. If you go one step further and make the app exciting to use, you can counteract the myth that printed books are superior. Those who have tried The Elements on an iPad will find it hard to go back to a printed Periodic Table. Similarly, having compared both this app and the book version, I much prefer learning about photography using the app version which is more interactive and has built-in videos.
A second opportunity lies in offering new skills combinations. In order to serialize his next novel, Max Barry combined his computer programming expertise with a passion for writing: he is essentially selling each subscriber a private RSS feed as a separate product. Most people do not have this combination of skills, especially the generation of authors that went to journalism school and did not acquire a technical background. An opportunity exists for people who can bridge this divide and provide new tools and services to help content authors to craft their products and reach customers easily. For example, Graeme Connelly spoke to us about the new “expresso printer” at Melbourne University Bookstore which produces small print runs that were uneconomical in the past. I believe this is only a starting point, e.g., we don’t yet have the equivalent of WordPress for creating books with existing tools being either too complex or too amateurish.
The third opportunity lies in further disaggregating the value chain. I learned from the session that one of the benefits to authors of going with traditional book publishers is their expertise in editing. Publishers convert the messy raw material that is a manuscript into a curated experience that is proof-read, edited and checked. I suspect that the editing activity will split apart into a distinct industry segment, just as has happened in other industries such as semiconductors, which used to be vertically integrated but which now has some firms focusing exclusively on system development and others on chip design or manufacturing. This is pure speculation on my part, but I don’t see why the editing process, while valuable, needs to be tied much longer to the manufacture and distribution of physical products.
It is hard to predict how things will work out and I don’t think the traditional book will completely disappear. This industry is definitely going to be interesting to watch over the next few years.
Kwanghui Lim is an Associate Professor at the Melbourne Business School