Tag Archives: digital distribution

eBook Bundling & Supporting a Diverse Retailer Ecosystem

In a previous blog post about the action at BEA I remarked that, “The hall was alive with e-book and e-commerce solutions and propositions that are really beginning to make sense. The geeks now know enough about the actual business of books to go after some real problems and opportunities.”

It turns out that this was an understatement. The technology community is producing plausible solutions at a terrific rate. I covered Zola Books in a previous post. In this one, we have asked Peter Hudson of BitLit to write a guest blog on his company’s solution to the question of bundling print and eBooks. This turns out to be rather timely as Amazon has recently rolled out their Kindle MatchBook program.

I hope that this will be the first of a number of guest blogs that will bring innovative ideas and programs to the attention of independent presses.

—  Curt Matthews, CEO, Independent Publishers Group.

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Peter Hudson is the Founder and CEO of BitLit. As an entrepreneur he’s been told he sees the world differently, but as a physicist he’s not sure that’s optically possible:

Let me propose two things I feel are true: book publishing and selling benefit from a strong and diverse physical and digital retail landscape, and Amazon’s announcement of Kindle MatchBook has forever etched the expectation of print and digital bundling into readers’ minds.

There has been considerable discussion about Amazon’s reasons for launching MatchBook. A point made by Alastair Horne on FutureBook.net is that MatchBook may be mostly about bringing paper book reading holdouts into the Kindle (rather than, say, Kobo) digital reading ecosystem. It seems reasonable that, as the eReader device market saturates, growth must come from traditionalists rather than book mavens and the e-savvy.

MatchBook may also be a tactic to drive Amazon print sales. Print purchases on Amazon as far back as 1995 are eligible for MatchBook. Even if publisher participation is limited at launch, it’s not a stretch to think by buying a print book on Amazon today, the billing record will make me eligible for a bundled eBook sometime between now and 2041. That’s not an offer that a sales receipt from my local indie can match (pardon the pun).

So, while MatchBook is a wonderfully reader-friendly program, it may cause considerable collateral damage to the diversity of both the digital and physical retail landscape.

Enter BitLit.

BitLit is the solution for publishers who want to offer bundled eBooks to readers regardless of where books are sold or what platform they are destined for. It’s all done through a simple and free smartphone app. Readers register their hard copy by writing their name onto the copyright page and snapping a photo using the BitLit app. Once the reader’s print edition has been recognized and registered through BitLit, they can download a free or discounted eBook edition from BitLit’s secure servers to their reading device of choice such as Kobo, Kindle, iPad, etc.

Bundling is not a new idea. Indeed, many well-known publishers have experimented with bundling in recent years. In the UK, Osprey Publishing offered a free eBook edition with the purchase of a print edition through book retailer Mostly Books, for titles published under the Angry Robot imprint.  The result of Osprey’s bundling was a dramatic increase in print sales.  O’Reilly offers DRM free digital “upgrades” through its members.oreilly.com portal for both print books and eBooks purchased through other retailers. In Canada, publishers such as ECW Press and Coach House Books offer free eBook editions to readers who email in a print edition proof of purchase.

The 2012 Canadian Book Consumer Annual Report from BookNet Canada found that 20% of readers would choose one book over another if one came with a bundled eBook edition. Additionally, a further 12% would pay a slightly higher price for a book if it included a bundled digital edition. These figures may well explain the dramatic increase in print sales seen by Osprey when they offered a free eBook edition with the purchase of an Angry Robot print edition.

Bundling has arrived, and offers publishers a huge potential opportunity to drive sales and re-connect with readers. But it’s critical that bundling is used to strengthen the publishing and bookselling landscape.  BitLit aims to do exactly that.

BitLit has partnered with Independent Publishers Group to allow member publishers to opt in and offer free or discounted bundled eBooks through BitLit to readers, regardless of where they purchased their print edition.  There is no cost to participate.  For more information or to opt into the program, please email Peter Hudson or Lauren Klouda (IPG-distributed publishers).

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Should Books Be Discounted?

Should Books Be Discounted? Image from businessblog.winweb.com.

I had a call the other day from David Streitfeld, who often covers the publishing business for the New York Times. He wanted to know if Amazon was discounting the books that IPG distributes at a lesser rate than they used to. There has been widespread concern in the publishing community that Amazons’ game plan is to steeply discount everything until the competition is wiped out, at which point they could put prices way up and start coining money.

It is true that Amazon has discounted very aggressively, and has been content to accept a very low profit margin if this would mean a rapid increase in market share—which it has. If titles are now being discounted less, this might signal that Amazon is turning to Part Two of its strategy, the part where the prices start to go up. In the article that Streitfeld published in the NYT on the 4th of July, one of his sources expressed the view that the discounts were in fact decreasing, especially on independent press and scholarly titles, which would be disastrous for sales.

My take on this issue is quite different. I have no inside information whatsoever about Amazon’s game plan, but I know what I would be doing if I were in their position: I would be experimenting with discounts and mining the sales data to see what effect different levels of discounting would have on the sales of various kinds of books at each stage in their life cycles. Streitfeld quotes me as saying:

“‘They [Amazon] are wondering, “If we knock off only 10 percent as opposed to 35 percent, where do we come out ahead?”‘ Mr. Matthews said. ‘They don’t care how many books they sell. They want to know how many dollars they get.'”

My grammar is regrettable, but the idea is from Business 101: Find the place where the price and volume lines cross on the graph, the balance that yields the most dollars.

Many people are offended by the very idea of discounting books.  After all, books have a list price printed right on the jacket flap or back cover.  Almost no other products have the price printed on them during manufacture. Doesn’t this mean that, for books, the list price is somehow the right price? And aren’t discounted products usually cheap knockoffs of better things? Perhaps Amazon has done a disservice to the special stature of the book as a cultural icon; perhaps all this discounting has convinced many consumers that paying list price for a book means you are a bit of a chump, like the little old lady who pays full sticker price for a new car. Or, it may be that the book is not quite the cultural icon it used to be—for reasons that have little to do with discounting.

I will confess that I was a happier book buyer in the days before they were routinely discounted. The printed list price assured me that the title I wanted would cost the same in any bookstore, and that no one would get a better deal than I did. But perhaps a lower price justifies putting up with a little low-level anxiety of that kind.

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3 Big Takeaways from Book Expo America 2013 for Independent Publishers

At the big book convention in New York, we saw old friends and made new ones against the backdrop of one of publishing’s biggest powwows. I also observed some very exciting things happening for the indie publishing community.

There were many more indie presses in attendance than has been the case for the last four years or so. At the IPG booth we had conversations with dozens of very promising publishers who have quite extensive and impressive publication lists. It is clear that an improving economy has brought forward a surge of entrepreneurial energy in the book business. The future is going to be a lot of fun.

The hall was alive with e-book and e-commerce solutions and propositions that are really beginning to make sense. The geeks now know enough about the actual business of books to go after some real problems and opportunities. For instance, a startup called Zola Books has developed a user-friendly way to deal with the issue of “showrooming”—the term we use to describe what happens when a customer at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore looks over the titles on display and then orders a print or e-book copy from a web retailer, often for a lower price. Zola Books gives a bookseller a well-earned piece of the action for its part in making such sales.

It is now clear that the e-book market will not be dominated by just a few huge web retailers. We were approached by 15 new ventures at the show, all offering very favorable terms for publishers and proposing innovative marketing strategies that could really work. By the end of this month, IPG’s e-books will be available through about 75 web retailers, and it’s great to see that many of the smaller ones are growing quickly. This means there will be plenty of healthy competition, no matter what the Department of Justice thinks have been the sins of the past.

These developments add up to a lot of promising opportunities for independent publishers.

IPG at BEA 2013

IPG at BEA 2013

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Information Technology That Works

I have been drawing attention in this blog to new publishing-related software that over-promises and under-delivers: authoring platforms that are not actually going to make anybody into an author; self-publishing programs that will not turn an author into a publisher overnight; social media schemes that really just amount to fraud or deception rather than legitimate publicity.

Ones and Zeros Extending into DistanceThe fact remains that there are some aspects of information technology which are revolutionizing the book business. Not the flashy, public-facing “solutions” I have been complaining about, but rather a quiet back-office capability to receive, broadcast, and interpret data—lots of data—that is making all the difference.

As recently as four or five years ago, even a quite sizable publishing company could get along just fine with a two-person IT department: one person to keep the server going and another to reboot employees’ computers when the things won’t cooperate. That was the case with IPG for many years.

Now, however, IPG employs fourteen highly trained computer specialists who can program, construct databases, write SQL queries, design websites and dashboards, mine data, generate reports, construct interfaces, and oversee highly complex management systems. Most of the time they are working so hard they have smoke coming out of their ears. Here are some of the technological capabilities, becoming ever more vital to the indie publishing community, that these people make possible:

Point-of-Sale Information. We are able to get information from the largest booksellers and wholesalers about the number of copies of each of our titles they have on hand, the number on order, the number on backorder, the number that sold through this week and last week, both by units and by the percentage of copies sold versus the quantity on hand. It used to be that publishers had little idea what was going on in the marketplace in regard to their titles at the store level. We sent them out and just hoped they would not come back. With point-of-sale data, the timing and quantity of reprints can be handled infinitely better than in the past. Access to this data revolutionizes the way publishers run their companies.

Metadata Feeds. Sophisticated publishing operations now send metadata to their major customers. (Metadata is just a term for electronic title data.) We send our data to 350 customers, formatted in ONIX as well as proprietary formats, once a week. Why is this important? We now have about 85,000 available products on our list. We make hundreds of revisions to our title database every week because of price changes, new editions, new forewords, new reviews, and changed statuses which must all be communicated to our customers. Metadata feeds enable the seamless, automated transmission of these changes to our customers’ servers and databases or else we would all go crazy trying to keep the data straight. At this point in the book business, any friction in the system costs everyone dearly.

Data Mining. IPG has a “data warehouse” that has recorded every sale of every title to every customer for many years. This data can be sliced and diced by any combination of hundreds of parameters. A few simple examples: BISAC subject codes, customer type or location or size, book format, and of course quantities sold over any date range. To this information we can add sales histories of comparable titles from other publishers. The big-box retailers—Wal-Mart, Costco, Kmart, and so on—require that we “model” the titles we present to their buyers. That is, we must demonstrate with data that the title we are pitching to them has the right attributes to perform well in their stores for their customers. No data, no sale.

Ebook Conversion and Distribution. IPG now produces hundreds of ebook editions a week. This would not be possible without automated procedures and work flows. Most weeks we send about 200 new files to our thirty-five ebook retailers, which adds up to about 7,000 ebook files with their related metadata. This would be unthinkable without an automated batch-mode delivery system, another information technology innovation.

Years ago, when my wife and I ran a small bookstore next to the Drake Hotel in Chicago, we used to keep track of the inventory on 3” by 5” cards stored in a little metal box. It is hard not to be nostalgic about those simpler times, and perhaps that nostalgia can help us to keep clear in our minds the truth that book publishing is really about intellectual content rather than the latest whiz-bang technology. Books were books back in those days too. Still, the right sort of IT is now indispensable: it enables publishers to reach an ever broadening audience at an ever diminishing cost.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Can an Authoring Platform Make You an Author?

At the recent Tools of Change conference a new program called Inkling Habitat, an “authoring platform,” was introduced. This new “authoring platform” does serve a purpose, because it helps authors easily add digital bells and whistles to their texts. This help is welcome. However, a Google search now turns up over 300 “authoring platforms,” most of which claim to make authors out of amateurs. Can they do it?

Authoring Platforms

Let’s unpack that phrase, “authoring platform.” The term “authoring” is a very odd duck indeed. We used to think that writers authored, or wrote, books, a process that had an end and therefore required the past tense. Now we are to suppose that authoring is a sort of continuous daily activity, like eating, sleeping, or breathing. This is a sneaky way to suggest that a computer program can make being an author a straightforward, usual thing that almost anybody could do successfully.

The “platform” part implies two things. One is the familiar idea that computer programs can interact much better with one another if they sit on top of a common substrate, like Word, Excel, and so on perched on the Windows platform. This is fair enough. The other implication, however, is quite misleading: the idea that a speaker often stands on a platform when addressing a crowd, an image that appeals to the egos of some aspiring authors because it positions them at a level above their audience–gives them a bully pulpit.

Both of these connotations obscure the real issue—are intended to obscure the real issue—by suggesting that if an author just has the right support, the right place to stand, he or she will be freed from the organizational, structural, and inspirational problems that bedevil even the most gifted writers. Somehow software will eliminate such difficulties.

The truth, of course, is that good writing is very hard to do. The real problem most would-be authors have is a lack of training, or experience, or something to say, or talent. Will these issues be solved by using the right authoring platform? Microsoft Word is an early authoring platform that certainly makes many tricky editorial operations very easy to do. But Word has not led to an explosion of terrific prose. On the contrary, many people think word processing programs have made writers more verbose. There didn’t used to be so many 800-page books. Legal documents are certainly four times as long as they used to be. (Perhaps we now spell a little better.)

The authoring platform is just another example of the sort of “easy shortcut” that Americans fall for every time. When I was a kid, it was “get rich writing short paragraphs.” For years the internet has offered me advanced degrees with no need to study or attend a class. Now I can become a famous author by climbing up on an authoring platform and broadcasting my thoughts in all directions. Of course everyone has a book in them! It would be highly undemocratic to think otherwise. Too bad it is not true.

Self-publishing is just the latest bubble. Tens of thousands of people are being relieved of serious amounts of cash by charlatans offering quick publication fixes. It is entirely possible to publish your own book in a responsible way. There is, however, one tried, tested, and highly effective authoring platform: a publishing company.

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The Writing On The Wall: What Publishers Can Learn From The State Of The Music Industry

music industry can show the potential future of the book industry img source http://www.oneworld-publications.com/blog/music-to-publish-books-by

Book publishing professionals have been interested, to say the least, in the evolution of the music business over the last decade or so: its sudden conversion to a digital delivery system, the easy availability of music over the web, the free downloads that crushed traditional sales, the small labels put out of business and the big ones merging and contracting. The final result is a burnt-out industry, now only a shadow of its former power and prestige. Too much of this story seems to presage current trends in the book business.

Now there is another ominous chapter in their distressing story. In the January 28 edition of The New York Times, there is an article by Ben Sisario entitled “As Music Streaming Grows, Royalties Slow to a Trickle.” The article describes how the new methods that are used to distribute music by companies such as SpotifyPandora, and YouTube are a lousy deal for musicians. Even iTunes is being left behind by these new services, and musicians can now expect nickels when their recorded songs are bought instead of the dollars they used to earn.

Here is the story of one such musician, a Ms. Zoe Keating, as reported by the Times: “After her songs had been played more than 1.5 million times on Pandora over six months, she earned $1,652.74. On Spotify, 131,000 plays last year netted just $547.71, or an average of 0.42 cents a play.” By now the sale of recordings to consumers, aside from the work of the superstars, only has meaning as PR to promote live concerts.

Is there a strong parallel between the plight of the musician and the likely fate of the book author?  I surely hope not, because it is hard to imagine author readings going very far to make up for negligible book sales. But the siren song that has so badly damaged the financial prospects of record labels and musicians might soon be sung to publishers and authors. It could go something like this: forget about selling books for $14.95 each to readers; instead put your books into a big pot to which subscribers, paying a low fixed fee every month, can have access. It is true that you will be paid nickels rather than dollars, but there will be so many nickels!

If the book industry, like the music business, adopts this subscription model, there may be—for a little while—a lot of nickels. But the demand for books is limited—or “inelastic” as economists put it. So many books, so little time!  Over time, more and more titles will have to compete for the fixed amount of money collected by the subscription services. And authors really will need to polish up their dramatic reading skills.

And now this just in from Publishers Weekly:  Amazon intends to create a market for used eBooks. A print book can be sold by its buyers to someone else with no royalty going to the author. But one copy of an eBook could potentially be resold any number of times. Thousands of times.  What would the author receive each time his/her work was resold? Zip.

What can be done? If this worst case scenario happens, publishers may have to consider delaying the release of eBook editions until the print editions have had a chance to earn the publisher and the author a reasonable return, similar to how the film industry times the release of movies to theaters, then DVD, and then later, streaming subscription services. This is a version of the old rule of thumb that suggests delaying the release of the trade paperback edition until the cloth edition has sold through. In any event, publishers must not let any seller of their titles use its market power to drive prices down to the point where authors and publishers cannot do their jobs. And it is always important to remember that when the subject is books, it is not just money we are talking about. We are also talking about sustaining the vitality of our culture.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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The 20 Habits of Successful Independent Publishers

Over the years my work at IPG has given me experience with more than 500 different indie publishing companies ranging in size from very small to quite large. I am also the founder of a prosperous mid-sized house, Chicago Review Press, which now publishes 60-70 new titles a year.

In this post I make some observations about the way the most successful independent publishers tend to conduct their business. My list is no doubt idiosyncratic, biased, and incomplete. The point is to stimulate some new thinking and, more importantly, to suggest that indie publishing is unique from what big publishers do, and for that matter, quite unique from how standard business is practiced.

Business Strategy

Successful indie publishers spend very little time thinking about how the industry should function or talking to people who do. Instead, they thoroughly learn how the business actually works and how to prosper within it.
They focus on a niche, but they are always looking for new, or better yet, related ones, because they know that the half-life of a particular niche may only be about 2.5 years or less.
They attempt to sell their books into many markets, be the market trade, or library, or gift, or special sales, rather than relying on only one. They create electronic editions of every title they publish. They want a lot of baskets, even if they have only a few eggs.
They develop a business plan, a set of goals, even a mission statement; but they nimbly alter any of these (perhaps not the mission statement) when circumstances change.
They keep their fixed overhead as low as they possibly can. They make use of freelancers and outside services whenever the price and quality are reasonable. They hire additional staff only as a last, desperate, measure.
They use consultants only when they need solutions to very clearly identified business problems. They know Mother is cheaper for sympathetic hand-holding.
They never tell anyone that their author will be on a big national TV show or that their book is going to be a major motion picture until the show is in the can or the filming has commenced.
They never bet the company on any one book. They understand that the first requirement for success is to be able to stay in the game, and that staying in the game brings experience, contacts, and reputation—advantages that cannot be gained in any other way. They don’t imagine they are in the bestseller business.

The Books

Successful indie publishers only publish books that are rich in content. They know that the books with strong content are the ones that can perform as backlist, and that strong backlist is the sine qua non of successful independent publishing.
They have special access to the information needed to make their books content-rich—years of personal involvement in a subject area, a close relation to a special-interest publication, a means of identifying individuals especially qualified to write books for a particular niche—some special advantage or edge.
They work with their authors to deliver manuscripts shaped for very particular audiences, and they don’t hesitate to push their authors until they get what that target audience needs. They know that for every book that fails because the audience is too narrow, hundreds fail because the audience is too broad.
They always have their book covers and interiors designed by professional book designers, even if they have a niece who went to art school.
They understand how to wisely conduct market research. Instead of wasting funds on focus groups and other auxiliary market research, they focus their efforts on their consumer audience and conducting competitive research of similar titles to gain a firm grasp of how their book is unique to the marketplace.
Their books are very cleanly designed, copy-edited, and typeset, but they never ask their customers to pay extra for a level of quality that is not wanted: for instance, 80lb paper or a sewn binding in a book that will only be read once or just a few times.
They put an enormous amount of time into imagining the ideal realization of each book so the finished product is harmonious and (this is the really hard part), somehow, exactly right for the book’s subject and intended audience. They spend a lot of time in bookstores looking over the merchandise with a skeptical eye.
They don’t think for a second that publishing a title as an eBook somehow makes strong content and excellent design irrelevant.

Ethical Considerations

Successful indie publishers treat their employees with unusual care and consideration, because they know a productive employee at an independent press could earn a higher salary working in a different industry—almost any other industry.
They remember that the publishing community is small and that their reputation will precede them. They under-promise and over-deliver.
They understand the power of the printed word and that what they do as publishers can have a cultural influence, for good or ill, completely out of proportion to the dollars generated by their books or the number of copies sold.
They are serious people, well worth knowing.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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An Update on Amazon and a New Direction for Gone Publishing

IPG and Amazon have agreed on terms. As of Friday, May 25th, the 5,000 IPG Kindle titles that were taken down in late February have been put back up on the Amazon site, plus an additional 500 new Kindle titles prepared by IPG over the last three months have been added. To help make up for the lost eBook revenue suffered by its client publishers, IPG will distribute Kindle editions at no charge to publishers for the period from June 1st to August 31st, 2012. As for the overall health of IPG and its client publishers, year-to-date sales are up 26% over last year.

These are complicated times in the book business. While IPG certainly does not seek conflict with its customers, it may be that a certain amount of pushing and pulling is inevitable in our industry until settled terms of trade for the new electronic book formats can be agreed upon by all participants. We hope that our dispute and subsequent agreement with Amazon have helped to advance this difficult but necessary adjustment.

The recent news accounts of the way the “Big Six” publishers operate have made it perfectly clear that independent publishers inhabit an essentially different world. This blog will now return to its original purpose, which is to promote a well-informed discussion of that world. Knowledgeable guest bloggers will be invited to express opinions that challenge received wisdom, and IPG will not shy away from posting well-argued comments even if they rock a few boats.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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The Trouble with eBooks: A Recap

Most of the blog posts put up in this space over the last two months have circled around three very major issues in regard to eBooks. Here they are, together with an account of what if any progress has been made in resolving each of them.

eBook Distribution: What’s the Deal?:
No one who is really privy to hard information about what is going on is able or willing to speak out.

Non-disclosure and Confidentiality Agreements, Most Favored Nation Clauses in distribution contracts, and then out of nowhere, the Department of Justice restraint of trade litigation against most of the biggest houses—all these things conspire to silence any informed debate about the issues. And to be blunt about it, most independent publishers feel abject terror at even the thought of confronting Amazon’s enormous market power. This part of the problem has not improved at all.

Market Share: You’d Be Surprised What the Big 6 Controls:
“The Big Six publishers, who control about half of the entire market for trade books, have been able to drive a better bargain with Amazon than the independent publishers could.”

A structural difference of that magnitude (roughly 20 points of discount) would put the independents out of business in short order (See also At What Discount Should Publishers Sell Ebooks to Resellers). This part of the problem may have eased a bit. The Department of Justice’s litigation could have the effect of largely taking away the discount advantage briefly enjoyed by the Big Six which would level the playing field. We will see.

The Oxymoronic Notion of Digital Content: Part II:
“The 50% plus take that Amazon insists on for distributing eBooks from independent publishers bears no relation at all to the cost of delivering that service.”

A free market and real competition would squeeze out excessive margins wherever they might be found in the supply chain from author to book consumer. So far we have not had anything like a free and competitive market for eBooks. On this issue, however, there is some very good news on the horizon. Microsoft’s investment in Barnes & Noble’s eBook programs is very welcome. Two other eBook programs, which look to be robust and publisher friendly, are well in the works. Of course for the reasons explained in point one above, I can’t tell you a thing about them.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Should Any Ebook Reseller Be the Custodian of Our Literary Culture?

In the last post to this blog I pointed out that the Big Six publishers have about 51% of the overall market for print books, and that this percentage was just fine. The 49% left over for independent publishers is easily enough to support a vibrant literary culture.

But to what extent do the Big Six dominate the market for eBooks? At this point nobody is compiling reliable numbers, but since print bestsellers and eBook bestsellers are usually the same titles, a good guess is that the Big Six have about 50% of the eBook market too.

This degree of dominance in the eBook market is to my mind also just fine: in addition to the Big Six, there are thousands of independent presses keeping every conceivable cultural pot boiling. No, the real worry is that just two or three online resellers are going to be allowed to dominate the distribution of eBooks, and that they will be guided purely by the crassest sorts of commercial considerations: the desire to achieve overwhelming market share; the ability to set prices; the power to crush competition; and a financial interest in keeping inconvenient or unprofitable content from reaching the market at all.

Why should publishers cede all of this power to these new players in the book business? It is obviously true that producing good content is the hard part of making a good book, no matter how that content is captured. How much credit do we give a printer for manufacturing a book we enjoy? Some credit surely, but nowhere near as much credit as we give a book’s author and the editorial team that polished the text. Is the important thing about an eBook the fact that it turns up on the latest new device? The distributors of eBooks have gotten way ahead of themselves when they suggest that their systems or devices are more important than the content they deliver. This is the tail wagging the dog.

We should also keep in mind the danger of censorship. In the case of printed books we have been over this ground time and again. Do printers control what books are printed? Do booksellers decide what ought to be sold? No, they do not, although at various stages in our history they tried to. Should an electronic distributor be allowed to restrict what we read? As a society we have faced these censorship issues again and again, and in all instances we have said NO except for very extreme cases involving pornography or the protection of children.

The real danger may be even more prosaic. Those of us little guys who have had to deal with large corporate entities know that getting inadvertently stepped on is the serious problem. If you are a mouse sharing a stall with an elephant, at some point that elephant will need to scratch its rump against the rough boards of its stall and you may be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nothing personal about it, you’re just squashed.

The eBook distributors of this world may intend no evil, but then again they intend no particular good either—except perhaps to generate favorable profit margins for their stockholders and senior executives. But books are not widgets, and a purely commercial standard of corporate virtue is just not good enough when the viability and vitality of our literature and culture are at stake. No monopoly is ever a good thing, even in the case of widgets. A monopoly on book content, whatever the intentions of the monopolist, would be a cultural catastrophe.

Photo: Curt Matthews, CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated. Courtesy of The Chicago Tribune Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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